Tag Archives: Criticism

The Critic in (Online) Society: An Alternate History of 21st Century Television Criticism

Yesterday was honestly excruciating.

After waking up to a rare instance of mainstream discussion of television criticism as a discourse, as Josh Levin tackled Alan Sepinwall’s influence in the field in a piece for Slate, I unfortunately had a busy morning/afternoon without any opportunity to sit down and really respond to the piece. It connects, after all, with work I have previously done both critically (in my reflection on Alan’s contribution upon his move to HitFix) and academically (in a conference presentation in June where I confronted the form of weekly television criticism), and many of you know that I’m ready to get into these conversations at the drop of a hat (and often prompt them within comment sections and the like).

In the interim, both James Poniewozik and Sepinwall himself have commented on the piece, offering their own take on the questions at hand, and I think both offer a more nuanced reading than Levin’s piece really had space to offer. The fact is that Levin’s piece, while an interesting conversation starter, is old news for critics, as we’ve been considering these issues for a few years and have moved onto new questions which will be explored in the years to come. Now, this is not to say that the issues Levin raises (like the impact of a shift from broader analysis to narrow weekly reviews, and the question of being a fan versus being a critic) have been solved, or that there is no value in raising them in a more mainstream venue – the piece serves a function, and I’m glad that the story of television criticism’s recent shift is getting more attention.

That being said, I feel as though there is a central fallacy in Levin’s piece, one which stems from the ultimate specificity of each critic’s experience. While there is no question that Alan has been the most influential of the post-air analysis critics, the one most responsible for merging the traditional function of a television critic with the episodic coverage previously associated with sites like Television Without Pity, most critics don’t have a large and dedicated comment base who are – as made clear in the comments on Alan’s response to Levin’s piece – largely “fans” of his or her work. While the piece raises questions about Alan’s objectivity, which I’ll contend below are silly questions to begin with, the fact is that Alan is “living the dream”: able to write the kind of criticism he wants to write, in a venue well-suited to that criticism, with the kind of audience-response and industry-access which allows him to continue doing that job for years to come (although not without its hiccups, which oddly go unmentioned in the article).

The vast majority of people who are writing criticism online do not share this relative (and earned) Critical Narnia, and even if they have job security they still face distinct challenges relating to comment culture and expectations from both editors and readers which make the Sepinwallian model, if we choose to call it such a thing, an aspiration more than a reality for most working critics.

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Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee

Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee

February 6th, 2011

For a show which has yet to air an episode in 2011, Glee has been awfully ubiquitous.

No, this isn’t surprising: people can’t get enough of Glee, so it is inevitable that a brief hiatus with a much-hyped post-Super Bowl episode on the other end would result in an infinite number of stories relating to the series. However, what struck me as particularly interesting is the degree to which the series’ absence created a vacuum for something approaching controversy. Ryan Murphy announced that he was breaking up one of the show’s couples because he was bored. Ryan Murphy started a flame war with Kings of Leon. Ryan Murphy claimed that Glee is at least partially aimed at seven-year-olds (in the same sentence, no less).

There were a few moments when people wondered why I, as someone who “deigns” to cover this series from a more critical perspective, wasn’t commenting on these numerous stories. In truth, I just didn’t have time to respond to every piece of new surrounding the show, but I also never felt any sort of impulse to do so. Yes, I could comment on what it means for a showrunner to admit to a show’s fans that he makes decisions based on things which bore him, and there’s certainly analysis to be done of the impact of public flame wars; there is also most certainly a lot to be said about Murphy’s perception of the demographic makeup of his audience, an audience which I would presume is more for the show’s music (a sort of pop culturally-driven Kidz Bop) than for the show itself.

However, maybe because of my scholarly approach, I didn’t feel particularly moved by any of these stories. I wasn’t angry that Murphy was bored because I’d rather showrunners be honest than not. I wasn’t aghast at Murphy’s battle with Kings of Leon because I don’t have the time to care about celebrities sniping at one another over a misunderstanding. And while I raised an eyebrow at Murphy’s comments regarding demographics, that seems like a more detailed, long-term study than it does an instant reaction.

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The Imaginary Forest: Cultural Learnings in 2010

The Imaginary Forest: A Cultural New Year

January 1st, 2011

Starting a blog is a lot like playing pretend. Just as you have to pretend that you’re in the middle of an imaginary, magical forest fighting some unknown evil, your plastic sword a piece of forged steel, you sort of have to imagine that there’s someone out there reading. Before you ever receive your first comment, you need to imagine someone out there who might write that comment. Before you ever recognize that first regular reader who keeps coming back, you need to imagine that someone will come in the first place.

Cultural Learnings, for quite some time, felt like a form of pretend: I was a pretend television critic, a blogger who spent his free time doing what critics do. While we sometimes associate pretend with our childhood, and our obsession with the imaginary and the escape from reality it offers, it can easily extend into adulthood. We are still capable of aspiring to things, and sometimes we need to stretch “reality” in order to keep our goals even vaguely within reach. For me, this blog was an opportunity to feel connected to the medium of television in ways which went beyond forcing my English professors to allow me to write about it, a chance to at least pretend to be part of a broader community of like-minded people when I was instead surrounded by people who thought I was obsessive (which, while not untrue, was still somewhat marginalizing).

And just like when we play pretend, there are moments in blogging where a brief brush with reality invades the imaginary: there’s something visceral about swinging a plastic sword and colliding with a nearby tree, just as there’s something visceral about finding your post on the front page of Digg – back when, you know, Digg was relevant – or receiving a particularly intriguing comment. They’re the moments that keep you playing along, the moments which start to make you think that maybe pretend could become reality with time.

For a few years, Cultural Learnings sat in this liminal – I imagine this is a cheap pop among regular readers at this point – state. There have been readers, regular readers even, for a few years, and 2008 and 2009 each brought their own brushes with respectability. I’ve been incredibly grateful for all of this, and have never felt as if the blog necessarily needed to be more popular (it’s not as if it’s making me any money) or more “real.” The truth is that the blog has always been a sort of personal exercise, an opportunity to feel connected to the medium of television in a way which went beyond the living room (or, in some cases, the classroom), and so the occasional comment and the stimulating conversation which followed were more a bonus than anything else.

And yet in 2010 things really did change. I don’t feel as if I did anything different: there’s nothing I can really point to that led to any sort of shift in the blog’s status, no stroke of genius or groundbreaking discovery to be found. However, as I went on fighting my way through the magical forest, the world did become real: it became a group of dedicated and intelligent Whedonites, it became generous and supportive colleagues within both academic and critical realms, and it became an “audience” of informed viewers of television who wanted to join in on the conversation. Over the past year, it felt as if everything fell into place: while this has always been something I enjoyed immensely, perhaps explaining why I was so willing to keep doing it for free, there was something immensely gratifying about receiving the kind of feedback that I had imagined there might one day be, and to get the opportunities that I always imagined might come.

As the year comes to a close, and a new year begins, I want to thank everyone who has been a part of this new reality – this includes those who gave me those opportunities, those who promoted the blog to their own readers, those who sent me kind emails, those who commented, those who follow me on Twitter, those who simply read the blog, or those who got to this post by Googling “forged steel + magical forest.” It is my plan to keep fighting my way through the forest in the year ahead, and I hope that you’ll continue to join me on this adventure…which, when I think about it, almost feels more like fantasy when grounded in reality than when simply a figment of my imagination.

Happy New Year to you and yours,

Myles

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“It’s Not Fantasy, it’s @HBO”: Going Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones

“It’s Not Fantasy, it’s @HBO”: Game of Thrones

December 5th, 2010

Tonight is the night that most people will be writing about Boardwalk Empire, which ends its first season on HBO, and The Walking Dead, which ends its first season on AMC.

In the former case, I’m actually incapable of writing about it: after watching the premiere, I have fallen entirely behind – my Mondays have been busy from the time the school year started, and as a result my Sunday evenings have been spent with an easy-going hour of The Amazing Race and work for the following morning. This also meant skipping Dexter, for what it’s worth – Sundays just haven’t been a space where I was able to focus on television.

And yet I find myself with some time this evening, which presents a choice: I could catch up on last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, since I am only an episode behind on the zombie series, but to be honest with you I don’t particularly care. This is not to say that I won’t watch tonight’s finale eventually, but with the show not returning for ten months, and with only six episodes, the accumulated interest is just woefully unsubstantial.

However, the night’s real event television took place before Boardwalk Empire, when HBO revealed a 10-minute glimpse into the production of Game of Thrones, their new fantasy series which is now officially debuting in April. Perhaps it is just that I’ve spent my weekend researching and writing about the HBO brand, or that I’ve been tempering my expectations for the series amidst the seemingly endless wait for an official date for the series’ arrival, but I think I’m officially excited about the show for the first time. I’ve always anticipated seeing what Weiss/Benioff would be doing with this story, and hearing the various casting announcements (most notably through the fantastic Winter is Coming) made the series a constant presence in my online existence, but something about a concrete date and our first substantial look at the world of Game of Thrones has turned anticipation…well, into hype.

And so, some thoughts on what we’ve seen to date, the way in which we’re seeing it, how HBO intends to sell the series, and how I expect to cover it.

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Cultural Conferencing: “The New Criticism?” at Flow 2010

“The New Criticism?” at Flow 2010

September 30th, 2010

I am currently awaiting the arrival of a late night bus which shall take me to Chicago and to a plane which will deliver me to Austin, Texas (my first time in the city/state) for the 2010 Flow Conference at the University of Texas – Austin.

This is exciting for a few reasons. First of all, Flow is unique in that it is about conversation more than presentation: instead of having attendees present formal papers, each panel member submits a short response to the panel’s prompt which then form the basis of a discussion which includes participation from the collected scholars in attendance. Conferences are usually all about conversation anyways, with the time before and after panels often more beneficial and interesting than the panels themselves, and Flow formalizes that process within its topics, and I am very much looking forward to witnessing some fantastic discussion over the weekend.

However, I will also be presenting myself as part of a panel convened by Jason Mittell (who I often link to) on “The New Criticism? Academia, Journalism, and Digital Critics.” It’s spun-off from a blog post Jason wrote back in March, which focused on the blurring of critical categories, and admittedly discusses my own position within the erosion of traditional boundaries. As a result, I was very interesting in continuing this conversation, and am excited to continue the conversation with others who come at the question from different perspectives – along with Jason and myself, the conversation will include The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray, The New School’s Laura Crestohl, and UCLA’s Sudeep Sharma, and I am extremely excited to expand on Jason’s post (and my own writings on the topic) this weekend and perhaps into the future as well.

It’s going to be an extremely exciting weekend, and I look forward to plenty of discussion, debate, and analysis in the days ahead. In the meantime, though, readers can join in the conversation: the panel is at 9:45 on Saturday (October 2nd), and if you’re on Twitter you can follow the #Flow10 hashtag where members of the audience of this and other panels will be tweeting. You can also head to the Flow Conference site, where you can read the position papers from each of the panelists which will be used to spark conversation. In the short term, however, you can check out my own position paper below the fold.

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Transitions: Covering The Office for The A.V. Club

Transitions: Covering The Office for The A.V. Club

September 21st, 2010

As a freelance critic with an emphasis on the “free,” my goal is to write about what interests me: while I am, admittedly, in the midst of transitioning back into the world of academia, criticism is simply part of how I watch television, and so my goal is to find those series which compel me to write about them despite my lack of free time in which to do so. This includes complex serialized dramas like Mad Men, unsung comedies like Cougar Town, intriguing new drama series like Lone Star, or complete – if pleasurable – messes like Glee.

It also includes The Office, although it might not under different circumstances. Last season was a disaster for the show creatively: while Jim and Pam’s wedding was a highlight, the rest of the season was a meandering affair which tried to find comedy in corporate turnover and came up empty-handed. The problem with the Sabre arc was that it presented itself as an insurrection but was in fact wholly ineffectual: in fact, the office actually devolved under Sabre’s leadership, with Michael and Jim returning to their original positions and Andy and Erin offering a rewind to the days of Jim and Pam. While things appeared to change on the surface, the structures of the show were more stale than ever before, and this discrepancy forced myself and many others to reflect on why we were still watching the series.

If the result of this reflection was “Michael Scott” or “Steve Carell” (it was neither for me), then the seventh season promises to be testing: with Carell officially departing at the end of the year to move onto other opportunities (and to spend more time with his family), the show is in a period of transition unseen in television comedy since Spin City (where Michael J. Fox left the series in 2000, replaced by Charlie Sheen). The question becomes whether the show can survive without Carell, both in terms of how Michael’s departure will affect the office ensemble and in terms of how viewers will respond to the unquestionable star of the show departing.

While many may find this concerning, I’ll admit to finding it pretty fascinating: the show is in the unique position of being able to plan an entire season around an impending change in the series’ structure, which makes the seventh season an exercise in transition and preparation that is not often seen in television comedy. Suddenly the show has a purpose again, balancing the end of Michael Scott’s arc on the series with the process of preparing to introduce someone entirely new next year. I may not have complete faith that they’ll be able to pull this off, but instead of watching one of my favourite shows slowly melt away in front of my eyes I get to see the show scramble to ensure it can continue on without its star. While creatively I am a bit apprehensive, I am more critically intrigued than I’ve ever been with the show, and that’s really what matters.

And it’s what led me to accept an offer to cover the show for The A.V. Club, as my title gave away long before you got to this particular sentence – with A.V. Club staffer Amelie Gillette writing for the show, they needed someone from outside of the inner circle to cover the series, and so I have the ominous task of filling Nathan Rabin’s shoes in the season ahead. It’s a tremendous opportunity to engage in a more public form of critical discourse, as I am looking forward to seeing how the commenters respond to the changes and how the critical community at large responds to the (hopefully) creative behind-the-scenes efforts to pull off this transition. I too, of course, will need to transition to a different environment writing for TV Club, but that will simply be part of the journey: I’ll avoid listing names so as to avoid turning this into a laundry list, but I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the collective team writing reviews for the site, and to be in their company is truly an honour.

Whether or not the show will live up to this honour is yet to be seen, but frankly I’m just glad that The Office feels like a journey again: after a season without direction, the show has a clear purpose heading forward, and for better or worse I’m along for the ride.

The A.V. Club – TV Club – The Office

So, look for my first review on Thursday night – I’ll likely post a notice here as well as include a link in the sidebar.

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Label Lamentation: The Growing Misuse of “Recap” in Television Criticism Semantics

If I could change one element of modern television criticism, it would be the notion that recap and review are synonyms.

To clarify, I have no issue with recaps or the people who write them: there is a place within the online television community for outright plot recaps with a touch of personality, the kind of writing which led to Television Without Pity’s prominence earlier in the decade and which continues as part of the offering of sites like Give Me My Remote. However, as parts of this diverse community have moved in a more critical direction, the term recap has remained predominant despite no longer accurately describing a substantial amount of writing within the field.

While you may argue that this is doing no harm, and I am simply arguing semantics, it’s something that has been bothering me for quite some time. As a result, I want to put in writing why I think this is happening, and why I feel that it obfuscates the contributions being made to the critical community by both critics and bloggers alike.

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Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”

Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”

September 6th, 2010

It’s pretty much consistent across the board: last night’s Mad Men, “The Suitcase,” was a season and even series highlight. As Todd VanDerWerff put it in his must-read review at The A.V. Club,

This is the kind of episode that, years from now, we’ll think of when we try to remember just what it was we loved about Mad Men, an episode that uses virtually every weapon in the show’s arsenal, yet leaves almost all of its moments and scenes unexpected. It’s so good that I want to call off the rest of the TV season and say this is as good as it’s going to get.

That’s generally the consensus, albeit to different degrees of hyperbole, which would make delving further into the episode myself a bit redundant: I already wrote my rave about the episode, and the week’s reviews pretty much cover everything else. So, instead, I want to spend a bit of time dialoguing with the recently returning Maureen Ryan, who is now the lead television critic at AOL Television (which runs TV Squad). She posted two substantial pieces on the season thus far last week, and then jumped back into the review game with “The Suitcase,” so I figured there’s no better way to welcome her back than to delve a bit further into her commentary (which I’ll do after the break).

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Why I Write About the Emmys

Why I Write About the Emmys

August 27th, 2010

On her Twitter feed, the illustrious Maureen Ryan (soon to be of AOL TV) posted the following:

This would likely be a common sentiment amongst TV critics: they write about the Emmys less because they care about them and more because they’re a major television event which their employers (whether they be print or online outlets) feel they need to have coverage of. There’s a general cynicism towards the Emmys, with many critics writing posts which question their validity or offering their own alternative ballot to better reflect a more objective (albeit decidedly subjective) survey of the year in television.

However, in my unique position without any sort of employer, I am able to write about what I want to write about, which begs the question: why, precisely, do I write about the Emmys as much as I do? I don’t have to predict the nominations, or analyze the submissions, or break down each individual category, but I choose to do so. I had originally planned to just predict Comedy and Drama series and be done with it, but there’s been enough talk about how and why we cover the Emmy Awards floating around that I wanted to offer my personal perspective before we head into the weekend.

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Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

August 3rd, 2010

I am not surprised to learn that critics, as a whole, are not jumping on the bandwagon for 18 to Life, the Canadian comedy which was recently purchased by The CW to fill out part of its summer schedule and which debuts with two back-to-back episodes at 9/8c. I watched and more or less enjoyed the show’s first season when it aired on CBC, but I did it without much emotional attachment, and certainly without any critical analysis (which is why reviews never materialized beyond the pilot). I appreciate some of the series’ choices, and am intrigued by the show it developed into, but it is unquestionably a simple pleasure rather than a complex reinvention of television comedy.

However, I was a surprised to see how many critics have been stuck on the series’ premise, and disappointed to see how many critics are unable to get past the stereotype of Canadian television and summer television as lesser entities in expressing their dislike of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve read pre-air reviews of a series which I’ve seen in its entirety, but most of the series’ reviews ignore the show itself and instead focus on attacking either its origins, its scheduling, or the apparent offensiveness of its premise – while I understand that these are all part of the series’ impact, that these critics have not bothered to watch closely enough to see the kind of show which 18 to Life is becoming seems a disservice to a show which is just trying to be an old-fashioned traditional sitcom.

Which doesn’t make it brilliant, but does make it something that doesn’t deserve this level of scorn.

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