I’ve been writing about television for almost 19 years. That’s before anyone knew about the Internet, before Justin Bieber was born, when everyone still listened to music on CDs, when everyone still had land line phones and actually kept a thick paper phone book near that phone.
How long ago was it? ER and Friends hadn’t even debuted yet.
Two decades. Maybe that why I’m so sick of it now.
Oh, I’m not sick of the actual watching of television. And I’m not even sick of writing about television as a fan. But my God, writing about it every single day? Not only can I not do it anymore, I’m not sure it even has to be done anymore.
Here are some thoughts on the state of TV criticism in the age of the Internet. Some things I’ve learned the past two decades.
Episode Reviews. When I first started at TV Squad – the late, great web site started by Weblogs, Inc and eventually gobbled up by AOL – I thought episode reviews were the greatest thing since blue jeans and remote controls. It was great to watch an episode of a show and then write a review of it and get it up quickly. And it was really fun to engage the community of TV fans and read their comments and thoughts about the episode.
That didn’t last.
I’m not even sure most TV episodes have to be reviewed. I mean, every episode? One could make a case that a show like Lost or Mad Men should be dissected – and there are some great TV critics who can dissect them beautifully – because they have ongoing plots and tons of characters and themes and mysteries that have to be explored. But I see sites that review every single episode of The Big Bang Theory or White Collar (a show I love and used to review every week) or Franklin & Bash (!) Really? Why? It’s as if we’re all in a conspiracy to destroy any enjoyment we get from simply watching a TV show.
Even good shows shouldn’t be reviewed every single week. Bad shows shouldn’t be reviewed beyond the pilot or a general overview of that show.
Wouldn’t it be better for the future of TV criticism if most shows were reviewed like they used to be? Maybe have a review of the pilot, then do either a mid-season report on the show or a wrapup/big review at the end of the season. But that can’t be done anymore. That’s not the business model or goal of most sites. The web is a giant monster that constantly needs to be fed. And even if something doesn’t have to be said, it will be said on the web, and it will be so quick and bountiful! After all, all those TV fans need some place to leave their 476 comments! (Side note: if you saw that there were 475 comments on a post, why would you bother adding number 476 to the list?)
Can you imagine someone reviewing every single episode of The Honeymooners or The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or St. Elsewhere? Sure, there are sites that review every single episode of an older show as a retrospective, but that’s just it, it’s a retrospective, a look back at a show or various episodes, and it’s useful and interesting and fun. They’re not listing every funny line that Buddy Sorrell said 12 minutes after the episode airs, trying to figure out what he really meant by what he said to Mel.
AOL once had a feature that listed the “100 Top Sitcoms of All-Time” (actually, they had about a dozen similar lists over the years – 100 Best, 50 Best, 10 Best of the 80s, etc. ) and I actually had to stop and think, have there even been 100 sitcoms? Of course there has, but when you pick a number that high you’re not really picking the best, you’re just listing all the sitcoms that have aired and putting them in some order. As if #66 is really any better than #59 (and besides, is there any doubt that Seinfeld and The Simpsons will be in the top 10?).
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t some great TV criticism being done. I can point you to some talented people who write about television, people like Matt Zoller Seitz and James Poniewozik and Todd VanDerWerff and Nancy Franklin and Jamie Weinman and Emily Nussbaum and Bill Carter. But these are people who are good writers and could write about anything, they just happen to have some great insight about TV shows. And let’s not forget the many, many bloggers who write about TV shows on their own sites. They aren’t critics (most of them anyway), they just happen to write about television. Some of the best writing about TV is being done by people who aren’t TV critics, because they’re fans first and foremost. (There’s too many to list here and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out – send me an e-mail and I’ll point you in the right direction.)
Reality Shows. I’m not immune to “dumb TV.” I love I Dream of Jeannie and I love seeing people get whacked in the face and fall into water on Wipeout. But there’s a difference between dumb TV and shitty TV. Reality shows are the latter. My heart aches a little when I see smart people I follow on Twitter tweeting about the latest episode of The Bachelor or Big Brother. I mean, Jesus.
A lot of people will say that they watch these shows because the shows are so stupid and they’re above them. No, if you watch these shows you’re not above them at all. You’re on the same level, only you’re giving them attention and ratings.
I can’t even watch reality shows “ironically” anymore. And there’s no “this is so bad it’s good” vibe that you might get with, say, an Ed Wood film. This is just terrible, depressing television that no one with any smarts – especially TV critics, who I would think would want to turn people on to the best of television – should watch. Not for a summer diversion, not for a laugh. You’re just making the situation worse. Don’t we have enough reality shows on TV already? The Bachelor ends, and then the very next night a new season of Bachelor Pad begins. We have, what, two or three seasons of Survivor in one year?
My suggestion? Don’t watch reality shows. They’re not real, they’re hurting television, and there’s a lot of other things you should turn your readers on to.
Celebrities, Gossip, and the Culture of Stupidity and Fame. Gossip used to be something that we read in certain magazines at the checkout counter, along with stories about UFOs and Bigfoot. Now it’s everywhere. My local news carries news about Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber and the latest fashion trend and where to get plastic surgery and/or tattoos on every single broadcast. It’s actually a little stunning.
Tonight in ‘The Buzz:’ is Britney Spears dating someone new? TMZ reports that she was seen coming out of a Starbucks with an unidentified man with black hair! Spears recently signed on to be a judge on The X Factor along with Demi Lovato!
Female Anchor: Wow, looks like Spears could have a new love interest!
Male Anchor: I’m sure we’ll learn more in the coming weeks about this latest plot twist!
Female Anchor: You bet! We’ll have the latest forecast coming up after this, stay with us!
And I still don’t understand why my local news – my local news, mind you, not a national news show or an entertainment show – carries the weekend box office report on Sunday nights. Why do this? Who cares? Why continue this “horse race” way of looking at entertainment, and then complain that great movies don’t do well at the box office anymore and there are too many sequels? Who cares if The Avengers was #1 at the box office? You think that film was going to tank (now that would be a story)?
Twitter. I love all of the critics and writers I follow on Twitter – I do! – but getting an onslaught of tweets about what an actor or producer is saying at the Television Critics Association tour just makes me want to hit every single one of them in the back of the head a la Mark Harmon on NCIS.
Sure, you could say that I shouldn’t follow these TV critics if I don’t want to read TCA news, or follow just a few of them, or temporarily unfollow these people. That’s a legitimate point (though my not following these critics wouldn’t mean the problem goes away, and I don’t want to stop following them), but I also dispute the effectiveness of someone at TCA tweeting everything an actor/writer/producer says. If I went to the TCA tour – which will never happen because the TCA has some very arcane membership rules and THEY HATE ME – I would assume that everyone else in the room is going to tweet what I’m about to tweet, and I wouldn’t tweet it (or I’d just tweet something more original). Yes, you want to inform your readers, but remember, your readers also follow all the other TV critics, and they already heard the wacky/odd/controversial/stupid thing that someone from NBC just said four seconds ago from those critics.
And lists! Oh mother of God, the lists! I plead to my fellow TV critics, stop it with the lists.
Lists are the go-to angle for people who don’t have any other ideas, SEO bait, easy to do, and every single list has already been done, probably by the writers we had at TV Squad around 2005-2008. “10 Best TV Shows Set In An Office? Done. “10 Worst TV Fathers?” Done. “10 Most Underrated Game Shows?” Done. “10 Best Sci-Fi Shows?” Done by every single web site that talks about television because sci-fi is guaranteed to get the geeks all hard.
Remember when we used to read TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly and look forward to the lists they would do, because no one else was doing them and because they were so rare they held a certain gravitas and had a certain permanence about them? Well, those days are dead and gone. There are so many lists now that the whole concept is meaningless.
I’ve seen some great TV critics – people whose work I really admire – throw up something like a “10 Best Characters on TV Right Now” list, in 2012, and at the end of the piece ask their readers, “Who do you think is a great TV character right now? Let us know in the comments!” And I let out a heavy sigh and click away before I start crying.
If you’ve read down this far you probably think that I’m giving up writing about television. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I’m giving up the amount I write about television, the frequency and the places I write about it and the angle I take. It’s great to watch television without having to think about it critically and rush to my computer and get a review up. When I was at TV Squad I had to not only review 30 Rock and Mad Men – before we had a WORLD FAMOUS TV CRITIC (TM) come in and take those Mad Men reviews away from me – but I also had to get the reviews up that night. It was a Race To Midnight (a direct to video action thriller coming this fall!) And that pretty much meant I couldn’t really enjoy them in the purest sense. I don’t care what people say, you can’t multi-task, you can’t watch TV and type notes about what you’re watching and surf Twitter and also truly enjoy/understand what you’re watching. There are episodes of TV shows that I experienced both as a reviewer and as just a guy watching the episode, and I experienced the shows in completely different ways.
This isn’t a rant “against” TV critics per se or a rant about having an opinion about TV in general (or film or books or music). I just wanted to get down a few ideas about the good and the bad of TV criticism, the things we need, the things we should embrace, and the things we should abandon. Most of this is very personal – after doing something for so many years you have some definite thoughts about it and you want a change – and they’re things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I also happen to think that a profession isn’t just something for people who have no criticisms of that profession.
You might disagree with what I wrote above but I think it’s worth talking about.