Tag Archives: Criticism

The Fallacy of the Showrunner Fallacy (And Why It’s Still Productive)

ShowrunnersLetters

In The New Republic’s “The Showrunner Fallacy,” Craig Fehrman responds to what he considers a troubling development within television criticism. Citing Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s forthcoming Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, Fehrman focuses on what he terms the “veneration” of the television showrunner, which he argues “does not explain TV’s greatness.”

“But this obsession with showrunners—what we might call the showrunner fallacy—has obscured what makes television so great[,] … prevent[ing] [critics] from exploring the people and pressures that are unique to television—exactly what the medium’s reporters and critics should be working to understand. Instead, they praise or blame the showrunner, succumbing to a kind of narrative simplicity that we would never accept in an Emmy-winning drama.”

It’s an article that touches on two of my interests: the evolution and function of television criticism, and the rise of the showrunner as a primary figure in television production culture. It’s also an article where I sympathize with Fehrman’s argument while ultimately disagreeing with his conclusions: without adding some key qualifiers, the suggestion critics’ focus on showrunners is a fallacy pushes too far to devalue—rather than simply reevaluate—a mode of analysis that holds incredible value within broader conversations of television culture.

The—I presume editorial—“dek” attached to Fehrman’s article online reads “Veneration of TV Auteurs does not explain TV’s greatness.” When I went to post about the article on Tumblr (before realizing I had more to say than would fit in a Tumblr post), this sentence came up to represent Fehrman’s argument, and it helped me work through my primary issue with the piece: in an effort to push us past the importance of the showrunner, Fehrman develops his own logical fallacy where he elides the centrality of showrunners within his view of television production culture to make a point.

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That was (writing about) Arrested Development: TV Criticism in a Binge-Viewing Era

Arrested-Development-Season-4-PosterThere have been suggestions floating around in comment sections that the Netflix model—the decision to release every episode all at once—eliminates the function of traditional episodic television criticism. With viewers now able to choose the pace at which they watch episodes, potentially watching an entire season of Arrested Development in one session if they’re so inclined, the need for critics to evaluate individual episodes is no longer present. This is doubly the case, some would argue, with the puzzle-like structure of Arrested Development’s fourth season, which further confounds episodic analysis through its choice to emphasize each episode’s connection to a larger story arc one can’t truly appreciate until you’ve seen all fifteen episodes.

We’ve been talking about the former ever since Netflix released all of House of Cards at once in February, and there has been further conversation in the buildup to Arrested Development’s this weekend (including the ridiculous theory that critics are biased against Netflix for destroying their cultural purpose, a claim I responded to here). However, I have to admit that I’m not sure Netflix’s paradigm shift is actually anything close to a paradigm shift. Putting aside the fact that Netflix’s claim we will in the future move to a completely mass-release system of television distribution—which I talked about in a CBC Web Chat last week—ignores a lot of functional realities of the television industry which have permeated even webseries distribution patterns, I still feel like episodic and other forms of television criticism are useful and productive within the space of binge viewing habits.

Any suggestion to the contrary seems to be operating with a very limited conception of how and why episodic criticism is written, which functions in opposition to the ways in which binge viewing can allow us to expand—rather than contract—forms of television criticism in the wake of the binge viewing moment.

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2011: The Year That Wasn’t – Kurt Sutter vs. Critics, Round Infinity

Trench Warfare: Kurt Sutter vs. Critics, Round Infinity

January 4th, 2012

As a vocal critic of the third season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, I was apprehensive going into its fourth season, and found myself more or less pleased with how the season went down. By dialing down the number of storylines, and focusing more exclusively on the inner-workings of SAMCRO (with additional storylines intersecting with the club dynamic quite successfully), the strong performances rose to the surface and the “plot mechanics” largely proved quite effective even if I would agree that the finale was a major step back in that department, ending up too cute for a show that purports to being so dark. Ultimately, while it didn’t make my “Top 20″ at The A.V. Club, it probably would have made a Top 25, which is more than it would have managed last year.

I didn’t have time to write about the show this fall, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly disappointed by this at the time: while the show was better than last season, it was better in ways that were not particularly surprising, and which other critics reviewing the show week-to-week were capturing well in their own reviews. Similarly, while I did have my issues with some of the plot developments, people like Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan, and Zack Handlen were effectively covering the ground I would have covered, nicely capturing what proved to be a solid (if flawed) season of television that cemented the show’s future as a solid (if flawed) staple of the basic cable landscape.

However, when the season ended amidst a flurry of dismissive comments from creator Kurt Sutter regarding the critical reception of the season, I changed my mind. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to pick a fight with Sutter, who rang in 2011 by insulting me over Twitter, but rather that it felt wrong to be sitting on the sidelines while Sutter waged trench warfare on hardworking critics who were being criticized for doing their jobs (and doing them well). While I remain convinced that Sutter has a point regarding the limitations of weekly criticism with a serialized show, to suggest (despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise) that these limitations are a function of individual critics as opposed to the form made me wish that I had reviewed the series if only so I could stand alongside my fellow critics in support of critical analysis that reflects a personal, subjective approach to television.

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2011: The Year That Wasn’t – Glee

The End of Covering Glee

January 3rd, 2012

This was the year that the “3 Glees” theory died, in more ways than one.

More practically, the show hired a writing staff in addition to its three creators (Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk). While this hasn’t eradicated the problems with consistency that have plagued the show since its first season, it has made the simplicity of the “3 Glees” no longer adequate as a strategy for understanding the show’s creative formation.

However, simultaneously, a Tuesday night class meant that there was really no way I could continue to cover Glee in the way I had in previous seasons, outside of a few weeks where screeners were made available in advance. This meant that updating the “3 Glees” page even in order to reflect the writing staff’s contribution was simply not going to happen, which means it quietly went on an indefinite hiatus this fall.

Allow me to make the hiatus permanent as we begin 2012. Although I no longer have a night class on Tuesdays, and thus could continue to review Glee if I so desired, I think I’m taking this as a natural breaking point. While I intend to keep watching Glee, and I remain open to writing about the show when a particularly strong/weak episode emerges, this seems like as good a time as ever to say that I might be running out of ways to describe Glee’s failings.

I know – I didn’t think it was possible, either.

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2011: The Year That Wasn’t – Louie

FX’s Louie

Aired: June to September

When, as a critic, you stop writing about a number of shows, there is always the risk that your opinion will begin to lean towards the critical consensus, especially if that critical consensus is as effusive as the praise surrounding Louis C.K.’s second season of Louie on FX. Similarly, in circumstances where you fall behind on a particular show and begin to soak in all of this praise, it’s tough to view the episodes piling up on your DVR with fresh eyes.

Louie had a very strong second season, but something about the way I watched it kept me from considering it the best television of the year – this isn’t to say that The A.V. Club (and various other sites/critics) placing it as the #1 show of the year was “wrong” by any measure, but I will say that I did not come close to putting it in that position (and, if we’re being honest, probably placed it higher than my initial instinct due to the indirect influence of other critics). Perhaps it was that I felt my experience with the show was unduly influenced by the critical culture surrounding the series, or that my DVR catchup method somehow changed the series’ impact (with its episodic segments mashed together as opposed to being parceled out), but Louie didn’t jump out to me as the best show of the year (nor did it necessarily jump out at me as a comedy, but we’ll save that genre conversation for another day).

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Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies, Part 2

The following is the second part of an ongoing, cross-blog conversation between myself and my A.V. Club colleague Ryan McGee. The first part of the conversation is posted at his blog, Boob Tube Dude, and can be found here (and should really be read before this, as certain references won’t make sense otherwise).

These posts stem from conversations we’ve had regarding how we approach comedies from a critical perspective within our own criticism and within criticism as a whole. We welcome any and all contributions to this discussion, and I apologize in advance for the lack of photos to break things up (which Ryan so helpfully deployed on Part One) – I have a strict “Big Blocks of Text = A-Okay” policy around these parts. – MM

Myles McNutt: Since your last missive, I spent an entire weekend sitting in a room of academics discussing television comedy, which dealt with many of the issues you discuss in terms of expanded potential of journalistic criticism. As scholars, we’re the ones who are expected to delve into these areas, and as someone who probably best identifies as a scholar-critic (provided I’m allowed to make up my own hyphenated terms) I like to think I bring at least some of this to bear.

However, I don’t do it particularly often, in part because my academic interests have less to do with the issues discussed in part one [feminism, ideology in general] and more to do with television as a form and as an industry. That’s not to say that this work is not valuable (it is, in fact, invaluable), but rather that it is very much work that you need to feel comfortable doing. Alyssa [Rosenberg, discussed in Part One] does, and I appreciate her work for it, but it isn’t more prominent because there is a perception that “people” (speaking here of a general perception of people reading television criticism) aren’t interested in reading that form of criticism.

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The Office – “Goodbye, Michael”

“Goodbye, Michael”

April 28th, 2011

As many of you know, for reasons I discussed last fall I’ve spent this season writing about The Office at The A.V. Club. It was a position I took in part because I was extremely excited to work with a great group of people, but also because I thought the seventh season of The Office would be a particularly interesting one. Knowing that Steve Carell was exiting, and knowing that they would need to transition into a new lead given that NBC is in no position to cancel their highest rated comedy, it seemed like a nice critical challenge that would be especially compelling given the A.V. Club’s engaged comment base.

The experience is not over, with the remainder of the season (and, unless something changes, subsequent seasons) still to come, but tonight may well prove to be the climax. Over at The A.V. Club, I have my extensive analysis of “Goodbye, Michael,” Steve Carell’s final episode of the series and one of the sharpest episodes the show has produced.

“Goodbye, Michael” | The Office | The A.V. Club

If you have any specific comments about the episode that you’d rather make here than there, please feel free to do so below – and, if you’ve been following me over to The A.V. Club these twenty-two weeks, thanks!

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On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter to the Game of Thrones Fandom

On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter

April 16th, 2011

One of the features I often try to do for highly serialized and widely covered shows is “____ the Morning After,” in which I create a conversation between various reviews of a single episode of a series the morning after it airs.

Given my interest in the response to HBO’s Game of Thrones, I had thought of doing a “Game of Thrones the Day Before” post to try to capture the pre-air response. However, this was a week ago, well before the internet has quite honestly exploded with reviews of this program (and reviews of those reviews). And with fan sites like Winter is Coming collecting those reviews, and with Matt Zoller Seitz doing yeoman’s work in breaking down the problems with Slate and the New York Times’ problematic reviews (the latter of which has already inspired a wide-ranging discussion of women and fantasy that has galvanized a larger fantasy community), the conversation has more or less already happened.

To be entirely honest with you, it’s a conversation that has surprised me in its voraciousness, although I shouldn’t really be surprised. In general, pre-air reviews are growing passe within this industry, replaced with post-air analysis which more readily allows for reader participation – while a pre-air review will draw conversation from those who have predetermined opinions regarding a project, the real discussion can’t really begin until the reader has actually seen the project in question, and things seem to be moving in that direction as a whole.

Of course, Game of Thrones is a unique example given that the most voracious participants in the pre-air conversation clearly have predetermined opinions about the project. This is understandable: Martin’s books have created dedicated fandoms, fostering a deep connection tested by reviews which actively challenge the legitimacy of the source material. As someone who has also read the books, and considers myself a fan of Martin’s writing style, I completely understand where these readers are coming from, and had similar reactions to those reviews.

However, as evidenced by my post last weekend and some of the Twitter conversations I have been having this week, I have found myself interrogating the fandom and their approach to these reviews. I’ve come to realize that this perhaps seems unfairly critical: the worst behavior has been isolated within a small minority, and it is equally important to call attention to those reviewers who have shown contempt for fantasy as a genre or fans in general.

Though this is true, I want to make clear that my criticism comes out of concern, not out of distaste. While the response to pre-air reviews may be understandable, I think the intensity of that response has brushed up against one of the biggest problems with pre-air reviews. Essentially, the reviewer and the commenters are coming from two completely different places: the reviewer has seen the show, and the commenter has not. While this does not mean that commenters are unable to take issue with the nature of the review, one can’t escape the fact that the situation is predicated on a dichotomy between a critic with access and fans following (comparatively) blind devotion to the source material.

I want to take a moment ahead of tomorrow night’s premiere to contextualize my concern, and to emphasize the value of this fan passion in the week ahead – we sit at an important turning point, one that will empower the fans who have been anticipating the show for a very long time, and I do not want my concern to prohibit the kind of discussion that I feel this fandom and this show should inspire.

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Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews of HBO’s Game of Thrones

Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews

April 9th, 2011

We are entering the period in which HBO’s Game of Thrones will be placed under the critical microscope – while a few early reviews (my own included, I guess) were overwhelmingly positive, it was inevitable that some less-than-positive reviews would filter in.

And thus begins the dance of deconstruction, as the reviewers interrogate the text and the fans interrogate the reviewers. It’s common practice in online criticism, although normally centered around films from beloved directors/studios or with considerable fan hype; by the time most television shows build up a substantial fanbase in later seasons, pre-air reviews are not particularly common, and are not nearly as contentious. At that point, the show has already been established, so a negative review is unlikely to make any real impact on a show’s success.

However, Game of Thrones‘ built-in fanbase has created a scenario not unlike the Rottenwatch trend within film, as each review is dissected and analyzed in order to explain – or, rather, explain away – the writer’s disappointment. Now, I have to be honest when I say that I generally find this practice problematic, especially since many of the people who are leading the charge have not actually seen the episodes in question (although I take their point that some of the reviewers make it seem as though they haven’t seen them either). While I think there is value in analyzing reviews of a particular program, and would certainly agree with some of the criticisms that fans have had for the reviewers in question, I find myself uncomfortable with some of the dismissal strategies being used in the process.

And, admittedly, I’m also uncomfortable that it’s only happening with the negative reviews.

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Mildred vs. The Miniseries: Structure and Scheduling in HBO’s Mildred Pierce

Structure and Scheduling in HBO’s Mildred Pierce

March 27th, 2011

The front cover of the press kit sent to critics for HBO’s Mildred Pierce suggests that Kate Winslet is Mildred Pierce in a five-part Miniseries.

The inside cover, meanwhile, touts Academy Award winner Kate Winslet starring in a film by Todd Haynes.

None of this is ostensibly untrue. Kate Winslet is both an Academy Award winner and unquestionably the centerpiece of this project – if there’s a single scene in which she does not appear, I have no recollection of it. And this is indeed a project directed by Todd Haynes, and it will air in five parts over the course of three weeks starting this evening at 9/8c.

However, I’m admittedly quite intrigued by the notion of “miniseries” and “film” being used as synonyms. To be clear, I know it isn’t ostensibly wrong: considering that Todd Haynes directed all five parts of the miniseries, and that they were all scripted by Haynes and Jon Raymond, this is a single cohesive project which has simply been split into five parts (oddly enough airing over three weeks). And yet there’s something strange about considering this as a single project given the way it will be seen by the majority of its audience, and the way it will be covered in certain locations which cover shows on a weekly basis.

I was actually going to write about the reception of the miniseries independent of having seen it, but I felt that I should withhold that commentary until actually sitting down with all five and a half hours. And yet, watching it has created only more questions: did I watch it in the “correct” fashion by seeing it all over the course of a single evening with a brief intermission, or was it actually meant to be consumed in the episodic fashion being utilized by HBO?

And, perhaps more importantly, is it worth your time at all?

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