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.
Considering that Levin has already acknowledged on Twitter that the piece contributes to the ongoing confusion surrounding the use of recap and review as synonyms when discussing television writing online, I won’t rag on him for it. However, I will say that I don’t think this is just an issue of semantics (which, yes, means that I’m mincing words in a discussion of semantics): the conflation going on within Levin’s piece is not just on the level of “what we call things,” as in Alan’s writing being called “recaps” as opposed to his own chosen term “reviews,” but also on the level of pitching Alan’s impact as being traced through sites like Gawker and Vulture.
With all due respect to the episodic coverage at Gawker and Vulture, it has almost nothing to do with Alan’s work. Both sites are more clearly following the TWoP model, although often without the same sense of authorial voice and community associated with that site – just look at how the author is buried at the bottom of the Vulture recaps. They are generally part of a larger trend towards TWoP Lite, wherein the basic idea of writing about a show week-to-week has been essentialized as “recapping plot, and throwing in a few witty remarks,” when the notion of the TWoP recap was predicated – and, to a much lesser extent, remains predicated – on the relationship between recapper and reader and the information gained from that sense of community. I’d argue that the Gawker Gossip Girl reviews that Levin mentions in his piece are moving further towards the TWoP ideal, but that only further demonstrates their connection to that trend as opposed to Sepinwall’s critical perspective.
Levin’s correlation between these elements is hardly unforgivable, but it sort of confirms my paranoid fears about the ubiquitous use of “recap” in discussions of writing I would personally classify as “reviews,” and which could also be considered “write-ups” if people are uncomfortable with using a term associated with evaluation. The fact is that Gawker and Vulture, while certainly considering Alan to be competition in the post-air analysis game, are not trying to follow his actual model of analysis: instead, they’re looking to draw in a different kind of reader, someone who wants only a basic sense of what happened with a generally pleasant perspective. The fact is that Alan’s audience is not these people, or at least the audience Alan most cares about (the literate commenters who populate his site) is not these people. Just go read the comments on Alan’s post discussing Levin’s piece, and you’ll find 100 people who took the time to write a detailed story of how they found the site, what they appreciate about it, and why they support his occasional “fandom.”
Those commenters exist because Alan started outside the “system” of online television coverage, where page views and ad revenue were not the number one priority. “What’s Alan Watching” was a supplement to his day job, a way of improving his professional standing as well as an outlet for a form of criticism that seemed driven more by personal interest than commercial appeal. Over time, that developed into a community, to the point that Alan’s more general criticism (pre-air reviews, press tour reports, interview, etc.) became the supplement to the post-air analysis rather than the other way around. This shift did not happen overnight, but in the process Alan had complete control over his audience: while pieces cross-posted to his day job, the Blogger setup meant that Alan could set commenting rules, avoid excessive advertising and page view expectations which came with it, and completely set his own rules when it came to managing his growing community.
It’s a level of control that has carried over to HitFix, in part because of the size of Alan’s community and in part because they are a demanding group who wouldn’t have followed him if there wasn’t some level of consistency (there was a lot of discussion at the time about HitFix’s damaged comment system, which was promptly overhauled). It also helped that Alan was arriving to an environment where writers like Drew McWeeny and Daniel Fienberg were running the Film/TV sections of the site from a critical perspective first and foremost: sure, Alan’s writing is still categorized as “recaps” on a sidebar despite the fact that he calls them “reviews,” and I still worry about the message this sends, but “What’s Alan Watching” still exists as a single-authored entity with an engaged readership there to read Alan’s opinion, rather than an opinion.
Certainly other critics, including many of those listed in Levin’s articles, have similar devotees (as James Poniewozik notes in the comments on his piece, he doesn’t have to do a lot of comment moderation at Tuned In, and the blog always has intelligent comment sections). However, the combination of high volume and civility is unachievable within the system of which Sepinwall is now part. In some cases, this is a question of location: sites like TV Squad or Entertainment Weekly are such that the majority of commenters are there for reasons other than “criticism,” which means that they get to writing from Maureen Ryan or Ken Tucker while looking for the latest Glee spoilers. I think there’s also a question of gender, however, as one wonders if a male critic would have received the vicious comments posted on Maureen Ryan’s criticism of Lost‘s portrayal of women during its sixth season (I don’t have space to expand on this issue here, but the gender imbalance within criticism is an ongoing concern). I don’t mean to suggest that Alan’s success is an instance of white male privilege or anything like that, but other critics face different types of challenges being connected to a less civil, less cohesive community.
There are also questions of industrial expectations. The fact of the matter is that sites like TV Squad are not actually looking for criticism: while Ryan has moved over from print media to serve as their lead TV critic, her work is not representative of the site’s larger output (despite their attempts to normalize through titling Ryan’s episode writeups in the same way they title other recaps). They are in the business of TWoP lite, with a wide range of freelancers who are very much expected to follow a traditional recap model. I understand why they follow this model, given the site’s audience, but what happens if someone writing those recaps wants to be the next Maureen Ryan instead of the next semi-anonymous recapper? Without getting into specifics, I’ve seen examples of good writers with aspirations beyond the straight “recap” be pushed out over creative differences, and it demonstrates the challenge of someone who wants to do something more in a system which is largely aiming for less.
On the other side of the coin, even sites which do offer the potential for writers to act as critics face a different challenge entirely. The A.V. Club, like HitFix, is a site run by people from critical backgrounds, which allows for a wide range of writing styles ranging from TWoP Lite to the more academic approach that I tend to use personally. The editors offer us the freedom to write about the shows as we see fit, which means our styles can adjust and there are no clear-cut edicts on what needs to be done: it’s incredibly freeing, and I’ve been incredibly satisfied with my experience with the kind folks at the site.
However, at The A.V. Club we run into the other problem: in short, the vast majority of commenters do not know what criticism is or how it is supposed to operate. While some writers fight industrial expectations, The A.V. Club writers fight reader expectations. Some people believe that criticism is simply someone who likes a show writing about why they like it; others, meanwhile, believe it is someone who shares the exact same opinion as the reader and says it using more words than they do. Yet more believe that criticism is meant to be “unbiased,” the meaning of which seems lost given the fact that what they really want us for the critic to stop saying negative things about a show they like. Just look at the responses to my review of last night’s Chuck, which I was asked to review from the perspective of someone who stopped watching the show recently, for evidence of this kind of resistance.
In other instances, shows become trapped between two different realities: some want a celebratory retelling of the plot and jokes in an episode of The Office, while others want an incendiary attack on The Office‘s stagnancy in this day and age. In my time writing for The A.V. Club, I have come to understand the meaning of critical whiplash: when I like an episode I’m angering the people who can’t imagine the show being good anymore, when I dislike an episode the “fans” call for someone who will stop being so critical, and when I’m smack dab in the middle both groups take umbrage.
Personally, I enjoy this type of interaction, mainly because I love hearing how people conceive of criticism in what Jaime Weinman called “A Golden Age of Taking TV Seriously.” Any time someone attacks my style of criticism, I ask them what they actually want to read: not because I want to prove them wrong, but because I’m actually curious. I may be too stubborn to dramatically change my style, perhaps naively believing that taking a sitcom like The Office seriously might encourage more readers to realize the potential for indepth critical analysis of shows that aren’t hour-long prestige dramas, but I like the idea of the tension between critic and reader turning into a sort of ethnography of comment culture.
However, one can’t deny that The A.V. Club can be an incredibly hostile comment environment, in many ways because of the lack of a standardized expectation for what constitutes criticism. It’s unfortunate, given that I would consider the site to be on the cutting edge of what criticism represents with features like the drop-ins on some of TV’s most popular series or Noel Murray’s A Very Special Episode pieces, that The A.V. Club does not have an audience like Alan Sepinwall’s, but that’s just the nature of the game.
It’s a game that Sepinwall has had to somewhat famously deal with on a few occasions: Chuckpocalypse, which I discussed in my conference presentation last June, saw part of Sepinwall’s comment base turn ugly. Having been positioned as an advocate for Chuck and its fans following the “Save Chuck” campaign the previous Spring, the show’s fans visited Alan’s reviews in large numbers. And, in many ways, Alan adjusted his Chuck reviewing style in turn: he listed out the pop culture references, he cataloged the soundtrack choices, and he made note of recurring guest stars and their previous roles. At the same time, though, he clearly genuinely liked the show, and obviously enjoyed writing with so much detail given the length of his analysis. Because of his advocacy, and because Alan’s reviews revealed that he genuinely liked the show, a certain rapport was built with the fans…which was then shattered when Alan did not share their outrage over character developments relating to Chuck and Sarah’s ongoing “Will They, Won’t They” relationship.
The resulting controversy was ultimately a blip in the radar for Sepinwall, but I do wonder if it hasn’t scared him off when it comes to actively disagreeing with his more avid “fan” readers (in order to avoid the unpleasantness which results, a sort of spinoff of his “No Politics” rule). In Levin’s piece, he raises questions about Sepinwall’s “objectivity,” wherein his support for the campaign to save Chuck and his decision to appear as a background actor on an episode of Community have somehow challenged his ability to make critical judgment, and I want to address the silliness of this.
As many have pointed out, the idea of being “objective” as a critic is ludicrous: we all have the shows we like and the shows we don’t like, and our taste will affect what we write about regardless of whether or not we choose to be in the background of a scene. Alan Sepinwall does not say good things about Community because he wants to be in a scene, or because he was in a scene. Instead, he says good things about Community because it’s the kind of show which makes him want to be in a scene, the kind of show that he’s happy to have on his television and that he would like to see remain on his television. Because of the degree to which his authorial voice and his readers’ knowledge of his taste preferences are a part of his success, to question his integrity for liking the shows he reviews too much is ridiculous.
Admittedly, though, I have to say that Sepinwall’s Chuck coverage has given me pause this year. As I have very much fallen out of love with the show, and considering that many other critics have fallen away from covering the show full time, Sepinwall’s fairly consistent praise has surprised me. It has made me wonder if the presence of the Chuck fanbase has led Alan to give the show a bit more slack than he might otherwise (so as to avoid another Chuckpocalypse over a small hiccup in the narrative), and I’ve wondered if his exclusive access to weekly screeners not sent out to critics at large has influenced his reviewing style (in that his reviews have shifted from immediate reactions to more measured, detailed takes on the episode in question which he has more time to consider).
However, so what if it has? Alan is reviewing a show he likes, for an audience who wants to read about it, and it represents but one small part of his larger critical enterprise. Alan readily admits that Chuck is the kind of show he truly loves, and so his coverage is a reflection of that fact – I might see the show differently, but that disagreement is hardly a sign that Alan is no longer capable of functioning as a critic, and any questions I have about his reviewing method are ethnographic, not ethical. This is not the kind of writing which threatens Alan’s place within the upper echelon of television criticism, but is rather the kind of writing which secured him that place. Levin’s piece very much locates Alan’s influence within the shift to post-air analysis, but his real innovation was mixing multiple styles of criticism into one more substantial critical presence. While Sepinwall may not do as many “features” as someone like Matt Zoller Seitz, Sepinwall’s former Star-Ledger colleague who is now staff Television critic for Salon, his weekly reviews clearly show an engagement with more traditional modes of criticism, tackling larger trends and bigger questions within the basic structure that other sites have followed without the same level of depth.
I have a lot of opinions on the future of criticism, opinions that will be saved for another day (or, more accurately, another outlet later this week – stay tuned). However, I think that Levin’s piece is unrepresentative in its portrayal of the past, and its location of “criticism” within the recap/review/writeup culture which has emerged. While I have an enormous amount of respect for Alan’s work, and hope that this piece reflects the amount of hard work it took for him to reach the position he is in, I think he is in some ways sheltered from some of the bigger issues relating to television criticism in this current era as a result of his unique origins and the independence they offer.
On a personal level, I certainly emulated Sepinwall’s writing when I began, but I could do so because I wasn’t writing for anyone in particular, starting out writing criticism purely as a hobby. Sepinwall’s influence lies less in commercial ventures and more in the amateur critic, people like me who have the freedom to write as we want and follow our impulses (a freedom that Sepinwall, too, enjoyed). And yet when we start entering into the “real world,” the parts of Alan’s writing which differentiate him from Gawker or Vulture are challenged by industrial and reader expectations, and only so many people are fortunate enough to find outlets which allow for actual criticism to become the dominant discourse. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to create a personal outlet for critical analysis of television, where people will read my 3000-word Mad Men reviews, but there are many others who have been similarly influenced by Sepinwall who don’t have the same opportunity. Even some of his fellow critics, moving in the same direction as Sepinwall, meet with resistance that he has been in a position to handle more easily: as noted, this has taken incredible dedication on his part, dedication that should not be undersold, but it is also dedication which separates him from his peers on many emerging issues.
I realize that Levin wasn’t actually making an argument about many of these points: his piece focuses more on the concern over the forest and the trees (which I think James contested with brevity I am clearly unable to achieve), and on questions of fandom and critical analysis (which, as noted above, I don’t think are half the concern he makes them out to be, and which I thought Sepinwall handled nicely in his response). My point, however, is that “TV criticism” is not simply an industry: it is an artistic expression, a form as much as an occupation, and its democratization in the internet age is both a key reason for Sepinwall’s success and a key roadblock for emerging and established critics. On a formal level, debates continue to rage, debates which do have consequences on how we read the industry as a whole (if the correlations drawn in Levin’s piece are any indication). While weekly coverage of television has become an industry standard, and Sepinwall is the most prominent critic operating in this form, his contribution remained uniquely associated with “criticism” in a way that Gawker or Vulture have not, and in a way which raises bigger questions about the future of the critic.
My argument, as always, is that we need to be having this conversation, which is why I was pleased to see the Levin piece even if my immediate response was a desire to write over three thousand words suggesting an alternate history. I can’t claim to know what television criticism is because it means something different from my vantage point than it might from Alan’s, or James’, or Mo’s, or Noel’s, or that or any other of my fellow critics; the above is simply my perspective. This week, I expect that there will be many crosstalk conversations on this subject, conversations that I wish we had more often: while there are plenty of informal outlets wherein critics gather to debate the state of the discourse of television criticism, that there is no larger body concerned with the big picture seems an oversight given the myriad of personal and professional questions raised on a daily basis.
But, that’s an argument for another day.