Television 2015: Some Writing About Writing About TV

 (iStockphoto)
(iStockphoto)

It was years ago that TV critic Alan Sepinwall said something to me that I've remembered ever since and that he doesn't remember saying: that writing about television was shifting its focus from what is said before shows are on to what is said after shows are on. It made sense to me, since my career writing about TV started with writing recaps of shows I used an actual VCR to record. With tapes. I didn't get screeners, I didn't get advances — I just taped things, and then I wrote about them. I think now, that shift is so obvious that it's taken for granted.

This came up again recently when Quentin Tarantino sat down for a long and searching interview with New York Magazine. After he expressed, among many other things, his affection for the departed HBO drama The Newsroom, interviewer Lane Brown mentioned the show's mixed reviews. Tarantino's response, in addition to wondering whether anyone reads TV criticism, included: "TV critics review the pilot. Pilots of shows suck."

There's plenty of room to debate whether anyone reads TV criticism anymore (or any other criticism, for that matter), but the other part of the response suggests it's maybe been a while since Tarantino did. (In fairness, he's busy.) While looking at pilots is certainly part of what lots of critics do and a bad enough pilot, or particularly an actively off-putting or offensive pilot, can get your show written off if it's bad enough, criticism of television has long since become — particularly in the case of anything with any ambition — much more about the visit and revisit and re-revisit. There are shows that don't get that treatment, but The Newsroom did. Whether you think its reviews were fair or unfair, they were not, in the main, the result of nobody reviewing anything after the pilot.

Writing about TV is in a weird place, for some of the same reasons TV itself is. "Here's a new show; they sent it to me in advance; here are some thoughts including whether it's good or not" is still part of the picture, just like the traditional fall rollout of broadcast network shows is still part of the cycle of TV. But just like delivery has changed and content has changed, writing has changed, too. And that traditional vision, in which your task is to generate a single review of a new show based on a pilot and then perhaps to do a remembrance when it ends, is entirely incomplete.

As shows have gotten more serialized and more complicated, and as online writing has provided a lot more space, the practice of writing about every single episode of a show has gotten more common. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have been proving grounds for people who built audiences by breaking down metaphors, commenting on form, dissecting story directions, and generally working alongside viewers who want a more thoughtful experience out of watching television.

Of course, even that has gotten trickier to do. Early in this series, we talked about how the full-drop model, in which seasons of shows are released all at once, complicates public conversation. It complicates criticism, too (in a way that, were it true that TV critics just review pilots, it wouldn't). Just now, The New York Times is posting two-a-day reviews of the episodes of the new Netflix show Narcos, because ... it's as good a method as any.

Well, wait. Technically, those aren't reviews; they're recaps, and if you want to get a weird and surprisingly boisterous argument going that's of interest to a tiny number of people, get the TV critics of your acquaintance to reach agreement on how different those things are and how you tell them apart. (Spoiler alert: they won't.) For me, recaps are a little more driven by the structure of the episode and the commentary follows that structure, while reviews are structured more like traditional cultural criticism. But there are countless gray areas and countless writers where "recap" and "review" both seem like reasonable labels to attach to their work. Of course, I came up writing 15-page scene-by-scene epics about episodes of Survivor that didn't publish for four days, which is the kind of thing that simply wouldn't/couldn't happen now. At the time, people sort of went with it. You will now typically be asked at least once why a piece is so long if it runs past about 500 words, and the actual answer I would have given then – which was "...For pleasure?" – would not suffice.

Covering a TV show can still mean running down what happens in each episode for people who didn't see it, but that alone is not criticism. It can mean traditional formal analysis of each episode, or of a whole season, or of a show over several seasons, that might not look all that different from film criticism. It can mean weekly podcasts, or weekly GIF round-ups, or video supercuts, or weekly content baubles of many other kinds, not all of which constitute criticism. It can mean occasional essays when something particularly important happens, or when a parallel appears between one show and another. Coverage varies in tone from serious to comedic, proudly reverent to overtly incendiary. Sometimes it touches on sociopolitical matters; sometimes it's limited to who should have been voted off; sometimes it's all about camera angles. TV writing has playfulness and seriousness and analysis, often within the same work or at least the work of the same writer.

In fact, one of the things that's fun about TV criticism is that it retains a strong populist and generalist streak. A lot of critics will still try to look at a new premium cable drama and a new broadcast comedy and a new reality series (sometimes) and a weird cable sketch comedy and late-night and streaming specials. If we apply a book metaphor, while there are certainly shows assumed to be more akin to literary fiction than others, the lines aren't quite as bright between what's highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, and serious critics don't limit themselves to the television that seems designed to appeal to them. Critics will go to bat for shows with, at the very least, strong genre/pop influences, as many have this year for things like Daredevil and Empire.

One of the effects of the sheer quantity of writing it produces when outlets decide to cover each individual episode of 100 shows that might be on 1500 times a year is that you do create entry points for new writers, who can slide into episode recapping reasonably easily – sometimes alongside day jobs (which is, back then, how I did it, certainly) – and potentially make their way into writing more easily than they could if there were only large outlets hiring only single staff critics. That's potentially beneficial in a field that, like television itself, as a way to go with respect to the variety of voices being heard and amplified. So just as the multiplying of scripted shows themselves can help provide spaces for new talent, so can the multiplying of shows to write about.

But the problem is the same one that TV has – how do you get people to pay attention? We are – and here, I mean "we" in the sense of "people who write about TV" – are throwing a lot of content out there, some of which is great writers at the peak of their powers and some of which is people who are pressed to try to write a meaningful piece about an episode of a complex drama that can be published two hours after they first see it. Because if they don't do it that way, they can count on nothing they write being read at all.

It's a busy time, and it's an active time, but it's also an unsettled time. The sheer speed and volume of writing about TV is impressive, expansive and unnerving, at least for me. Which, again, is also a pretty good description of TV itself.

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