And now, a few words about TV critics

(Updated September 29, 2014)

I’ve been writing about television for 20 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 landline phones and actually kept a thick paper directory near that phone (“the phone book”).

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 Dick Van Dyke Show 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 extremely talented, perceptive people who write about television that I read regularly. 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 love TV. Some of the best writing about TV is being done by people who aren’t pro 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.)

But I’m also getting sick of reading “think pieces” on the history of television too. You read them and you scratch your head. Did they watch the same show I did? Are they looking back on a show and reading way too much into it (or not enough)? I’m finding that age has a lot to do with it too. Someone in their 20s who is looking back on a show they’ve never really seen before (say, Friends) will have a completely different opinion/perspective on the show than someone in their 40s who experienced it when it was new. And not to sound like a jerk but the opinion of the twentysomething will probably be wrong. (Sorry!)

What Alessandra Stanley said recently didn’t surprise me, because she has always struck me as someone who doesn’t even know much about television (all of her columns contain at least one mistake), and she doesn’t even seem like she particularly enjoys television as a fan.

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 – when I was on it regularly, that is – 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 while Twitter can be great, it also brings out the worst in us, and that includes TV critics. I think a lot of them tweet just so show oh-how-friggin-clever they are, and will tweet quick reviews of a show or spoilers for a show that just aired, just so they can get things up quick and seem “in the know.” As if it’s fair to judge a TV show after one episode, three minutes after it airs. (Side note: the worst trend I’ve seen lately is when networks/studios use tweets as blurbs for TV shows and movies.)

Binge-watching and hate-watching

Some will say that binge-watching is just another word for watching a marathon, something we’ve done for decades. But it’s not. There’s something else going on with binge-watching: the need to watch all of the episodes quickly so you can say that you watched them (and get your opinions out on the web). When Arrested Development unleashed all of season four at once, it was painful to see top critics trying to binge on all of the episodes in one or two days (even if it was for work). As if one must binge-watch just because one can binge-watch. Of course, all of these critics were in competition with other critics who were binge-watching and were going to get their opinions up ASAP, and they didn’t want to fall behind! And if they didn’t watch all of the episodes quickly, they wouldn’t be taken seriously by their TV critic peers!

How can anyone enjoy a TV show that way or judge it fairly?

As for hate-watching: I first noticed this, at least in a widespread way, when The Newsroom debuted. I remember having some problems with it but I thought it was entertaining (and as a side note, I recently watched the first two seasons again in prep for the third season and the show is fantastic). But if you read the reviews of the show when it launched you’d think that Aaron Sorkin was committing crimes against humanity. People came into it with their own pre-conceived notions of not only what a TV show should be but what viewers deserved, what it should say politically, what it should say morally. Not just reviewing it as a TV critic but bringing along an agenda that clearly influenced what they were reviewing. And their live-tweeting of a show they clearly hated…how crazy. Picking apart a show line by line, scene by scene, while it’s airing. I wonder how many great shows in TV history would have withstood such a petty, inaccurate dissection. (And yes, I’m fully aware that loving The Newsroom automatically disqualifies me as a TV critic in the eyes of other TV critics – oh well.)

Look, if you want watch a show because you enjoy it, fine. If you don’t want to watch it because you don’t like it, fine. Pick one. Life’s too short to hate-watch.

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. I want to approach it as a writer who enjoys television and has something to say, not someone who grinds out “content.” 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, 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 winter!) 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 at the same time truly enjoy 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’ve also gotten to a point in my life where I don’t want to just sit here and criticize the art of others, I want to concentrate on my own. I don’t want to be snarky and cynical as the default position, as too much of TV criticism is these days.

Some will say that TV criticism has never been healthier because we have so many outlets for it now. As if quantity automatically equals quality.

You might disagree with what I wrote above but I think it’s worth talking about.

5 thoughts on “And now, a few words about TV critics

  1. And get off my lawn!

    But seriously, Bob, I agree with a lot of what you said (although must refute the World Famous TV Critic part because I’d never even heard of her before she stole our jobs at TVS and soon forgot about her after I left TVS).

    And to continue that thought, I don’t follow her or most of the other World Famous TV Critics on Twitter because it seems like they’re mostly just there to hear themselves talk (or tweet) about stuff that’s really not that important. The only ones I follow are friends of mine. The others I don’t care about.

    When I left TVS and started building my own empire, I thought I’d write regularly about TV, but you’re right. It’s just not that interesting. I do write a monthly family TV column for my syndicators, but I’m hopefully helping their readers choose good stuff for their kids to watch, which is different than picking apart each episode quote.by.quote, which just isn’t fun.

    I still write a list now and then, but they’re generally short (who has time for 10 things when you can hammer out 3 or 5?) and the SEO gods love them. But I can’t say I do anything resembling a “Best Dads on TV” list anymore. They tend towards stuff like this that I happen to be thinking about on any given day: http://bit.ly/OOmoGY

  2. Well, it’s good to see to see that I’m not the only critic who’ll never get into the TCA. Granted, writing pieces arguing the TCA had outlived its usefulness probably didn’t help my cause.

    Twenty years is a long time to cover anything and I’m sure you would fill as exhausted if you had spent two decades writing about medicine or farm animals. But it’s true that tv criticism is generally in a fallow period. Part of it is that many critics have lost the distinction between being friendly with the people you’re reporting about and being a gushing fan. TV critics in general would be better served by having some distance from their idols. But social media has made that less and less likely.

    As for top ten lists and other clickbait, it’s a problem in all sorts of news coverage. I spent a couple of years cranking out snazzy photo galleries and snarky lists back in the late 00s for a network of tv station web sites. It’s not just numbing for the readers, it drains the souls of the people who have to create them.

  3. WOW!!!! Where did this come from? It brought to mind James Endrst who wrote the TV column for the Hartford Courant. He wrote from the perspective that you want to see. He would dissect the episodes of continuing series and ask questions about where you take characters from that point. He made the columns interesting by adding a little humor because this was only television. And you are correct. We do not need a breakdown of every single episode of every show out there.

    So when are you doing your next list for this blog?

  4. I’m heartened by the fact that I’m already not doing most of the stuff you have written here. I rarely do lists, only analyze every episode of Mad Men, have an intense dislike of most reality TV and could care less what most of these people think about me. I am slighlty bummed I didn’t make your list of smart critics, but that’s life. I think you’re right that TV critics need to find new ways to talk about TV. But what you’re experiencing is both the evolution of the craft and the evolution of your relationship to the craft. You can’t do anything that same way for a number of years and not feel the need to change up what you’re doing. And as the shows that you’re evaluating change, you have to change. Far as tweeting at TCA goes, it’s hard to believe, but many of us have followers who don’t necessarily follow other TV critics at the TCA. I have 6,700 followers, and I try to tweet things I believe my audience of followers might find interesting — sometimes its a quote everyone else sends, sometimes it’s an observation no one does. I seem to have picked up a number of followers since I started tweeting from TCA this year, so I think that’s a sign my audience is finding the messages interesting. I do think the key is to avoid absolutes — just when you think there are no series worth recapping, a Breaking Bad arises — and try to stay focused on serving your audience while saying something unique and impactful.

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