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.

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.



Filed under TV Criticism

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

  1. Katie

    Really enjoyed reading this, it was a very thoughtful response.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to write off the entire culture of The AV Club as generally toxic to or ignorant of criticism. While strands of that are certainly present, I’m not sure it’s categorically worse than it is in other places. Sepinwall has pretty much given up covering Modern Family because his article’s comment sections feature the same sort of “why are you writing about it if you didn’t like it” train of thought that you discuss here. While the AV Club comments section can certainly have a more hostile tone than HitFix or Poniewozik’s site, I think that’s more indicative of the general culture there than proof of a collective ignorance of criticism. In your most recent review of Chuck, anytime a commenter would write something like “do some unbiased reviewing or die” (yikes!), another commenter would always jump in and note that that’s a pretty terrible argument to be making. And the rational comments almost always hugely outnumber the silly ones.

    I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that, like it or not, The AV Club is as much a discussion community as venue for thoughtful, professional criticism. For every person who comes by seeking a critical response to an episode, there’s going to be another who visits because they genuinely liked last night’s episode of Chuck (or any show), and want to discuss how much they enjoyed it with other people. In the case of the latter, consistently negative reviews are going to be interpreted as a buzz kill. Ideally these people would calmly explain why they enjoyed the episode, but when you’ve got 150+ comments on an article, there are going to be a couple of people who aren’t going to bother with civility (James Poniewozik’s site, which seems a lot more Critical Narnia-esque than Alan Sepinwall’s or The AV Club, also tends to have far fewer comments overall). And, generally speaking, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think the AV Club is the best place for television criticism out there right now, predominantly because it usually manages to effectively balance these two objectives without really damaging the integrity of either one.

    • Great points, Katie – in writing this piece, I definitely wanted to highlight the difference between these locations, but you’re right that Sepinwall has faced certain challenges and that the A.V. Club can achieve civility.

      I think my intention was less to “write off” the site’s comments, and more to demonstrate the lack of any sense of “order” on the level of Sepinwall.

      Personally, I love A.V. Club comment sections: sure, they can be frustrating, but there are some intelligent commenters, and every now and then a conversation emerges which is actually pretty tremendous. Frankly, some of the less “serious” stuff is often incredibly fun, and I don’t necessarily think that every comment section should be like Alan’s, or James’. I love participating in the comments, something that many writers don’t do, because I see the potential you speak of and want to facilitate that type of conversation.

      However, writing on the site makes one constantly have to defend their method – thankfully, smart commenters will chime in with support, but I would still consider the site a much more hostile environment when it comes to critical self-identification. Order is happenstance, dependent on unofficial defense forces and inconsistent from post-to-post.

      • Tausif Khan

        @Katie one of the differences I see between Poniewozik’s site and that of The AV Club and Alan Sepinwall’s sites is that in order to comment on Poniewozik’s blog you have to be a member where as well The AV Club and Sepinwall you just have to prove that you are not a robot but putting in some weird phrases after you type your comment this makes Poniewozik’s site more restrictive.

        General response from here on out:

        It is interesting that Sepinwall is compared to an entire site of critics. I know that The AV club recognizes that their recap style is derived from Sepinwall’s work on his blog but there are a multitude of voices at The AV Club and Sepinwall is only one man.

        I find that Noel Murray’s comments sections are different from most of the other comments sections. Specifically his Buffy/Angel recaps have almost all serious discussions (with jokes that fans of Whedon would enjoy) in the comments section.

        I feel that The AV Club is changing. They are not starting to cover a lot more shows. My feeling is that this happened after Todd Van Der Werff covered Huge and found a surprising amount of people willing to talk about it but I might be wrong. I see them now covering pretty much every premiere and even PBS.

        It should also be important to note that The AV Club and Hitfix (which Alan Sepinwall now works for) are sister sites. Ryan McGee does recaps for both Hitfix and The AV Club (as well as podcasting with the amazing Maureen Ryan). While the The AV Club takes its tone from The Onion I am wondering what type of tone Hitfix has to its commentary and whether it is equal across all quarters, meaning does Ryan McGee and Alan Sepinwall share the same sensibility when it comes to criticism or is Sepinwall given more latitude given that his following is larger.

        • Tausif Khan

          *where as with The AV Club and Sepinwall you just have to prove that you are not a robot by putting in some weird phrases after you type your comment, this makes Poniewozik’s site more restrictive.

          I find that Noel Murray’s comments sections (@ The AV Club) are different from most of the other comments sections.

          • “one of the differences I see between Poniewozik’s site and that of The AV Club and Alan Sepinwall’s sites is that in order to comment on Poniewozik’s blog you have to be a member where as well The AV Club and Sepinwall you just have to prove that you are not a robot but putting in some weird phrases after you type your comment this makes Poniewozik’s site more restrictive.”

            Specifically, I believe you have to be registered (technically through WordPress, I believe)–not a subscriber to TIME or anything like that.

            When instituted that practice on their blogs I resisted it at first, but I can see the benefit now; you’re trading off volume for a certain level of commitment (people have to want to comment enough to register). I don’t know that any system is ideal, but as it is I rarely have to moderate/delete, can read pretty much every comment and can engage fully–I couldn’t imagine doing that with an AV Club volume of comments without giving my family, sleep or both.

            Also, I can proudly say with a fair certainty that I have never had anyone post “FIRST!” at Tuned In. So, there’s that.

      • shopshopshop

        I find the comments section on the AV Club to be an interesting mix of the completely ridiculous, the rude, the funny, and the really intelligent. A lot of what goes on meanders between ridiculous and funny, but I frequently read through at least the first page of AV Club article comments just to check for intelligent discussions and see what shenanigans the commenters/the authors are up to.

        As to the quality of the writeups, I find that some AV Club writers (I can’t remember names/who does what) tend to write in a more recap-like style and some (TVDW, you) have a more academic, critical, reviewing style, which I for one prefer.

  2. Tausif Khan

    Another important marker that I would like to see discussed critically is the first critics conversation between Maureen Ryan, James Poniewozik and Alan Sepinwall. The meeting recorded was originally just a transcript of the three of them talking. The idea was Maureen Ryan’s idea to record their thoughts. She surmised their might be podcasts in the future. Eventually Alan Sepinwall began to podcast with Daniel Fienberg (which made the move to more natural) and Maureen Ryan started podcasting with Ryan McGee which has plucked him from obscurity and has allowed him to be a more regular critic.

    • Ryan “Plucky” McGee here, at your service!

      I’ve been lucky not to have to really change my methods, my opinions, or my overall format for any of the sites for which I have worked. When I started at Zap2It, they let me continue and hone the tone I’d established blogging on my own, and that’s carried through (hopefully with more refinement/skill) to TV Squad, HitFix, and The A.V. Club. The latter site seems to be more tolerant of swearing, but other than that, all of the sites above have been essentially and equally hands off, which has always been appreciated.

      I may or may not share sensibilities with some of my colleagues at that site, but that’s never been a criteria in terms of being hired to write alongside them. Hopefully I share a level of overall quality, however, and that’s what I strive for, as opposed to simply trying to write something as Alan, Mo, Noel, Myles, etc, would write.

      • Tausif Khan

        “with Ryan McGee which has plucked him from obscurity and has allowed him to be a more regular critic.”

        I only used this line based on what I have heard you say about yourself on “Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan”. I don’t know whether you agree with this narative.

        One difference I note between The AV Club and Hitfix is that The AV Club has tied itself to a hipster identity (I say this because one of the critics mentioned half-jokingly that the The AV Club signal is a flag with a hipster symbol on it) or I would put it a countercultural approach to television criticism whereas Hitfix is I feel to put it more bluntly for grownups or people in the upper bracket of the 18-49 year old demographic. There is a greater level of genuine seriousness when it comes to responding to a blog on Hitfix where I don’t find the same consistency of serious critical reflection on The AV Club (i.e. firsts and canceraids). Dan Fienberg being the most acerbic critic at Hitfix still engenders sincere genuine comments on a consistent basis.

        Therefore I find it very interesting that you (Ryan McGee) are able to do recaps for both without changing your style.

        One important difference I note between you and Sepinwall is that at the end of your reviews you write a set of critical questions to shape the comment discussion in a certain direction. I wonder if this a commentary on the types of readers (age-wise and attention to critical reception for a television program) that read your work or that is just a personal style you have developed. Sepinwall on the other had is able to trust his readers by just asking what did everyone else think.

        Also rest assured the quality I find in your reviews, Ryan, are on par with the people you cited.

        • Katie

          I think one of the reasons that some critics from other sites can drop in and write reviews for the AV Club without changing style quite as much is because – more so than most other television sites – it has its own comment culture that exists independently of who is writing the review. There are inside jokes and references that pop up on in the comments for all sorts of shows to the extent that the tone of the critic doesn’t have to match up exactly with the tone of the commenters. People go to HitFix to read Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg, they go to Time to read James Poniewozik, and while some go to the AV Club for specific critics, I get the impression that a lot go for the vibe of the AV Club as a whole. I’m sure certain styles fit in better than others (and it always seems like newer critics tend to get picked on a bit more), but I think there’s quite a bit of flexibility.

      • Ryan: Please swear MORE.

  3. djones

    I think the fact that Alan’s critical response to Chuck has remained much more positive than the critical community in general is much more the result of affection for the show than any concern for the response of his audience. Chuck is a show that has always required viewers to “go with it” and accept things like bad special effects and cheesy plotlines, so I think his continued praise is more shaped by a willingness to accept those things and enjoy the show than it is a conscious decision to cultivate community response. On the other hand, I find his decision to cut Modern Family from the rotation as a result of negative response somewhat concerning. As probably the highest profile TV critic (and one who was really only writing slightly critical reviews of Modern Family) writing weekly coverage, the fact that his truly negative reviews are confined to the larger picture form (see his Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior review, for example) and aren’t given the same detail in episodic reviews has the effect of skewing the perspective of his output toward the positive.

    He’s obviously got page-view and logistical time constraints to keep in mind, and I can’t say I’d want to force myself to watch and write about something terrible on a weekly basis just for the sake of balance. That said, I do think the emphasis on episodic reviews of predominantly quality shows means that the potential of that format to explore negative opinions is not being as well served as it ought to be (save for a few things like The AV Club’s coverage of shows like V and The Event).

    • Katie

      I think that last bit is a very interesting point, but I’d imagine that the main reason critics don’t do episode-by-episode reviews of shows that they don’t like has as much to do with content as with preference. Following your example, Alan Sepinwall’s reasons for disliking the Criminal Minds spin-off seems predominantly based on large-scale issues: the characters aren’t terribly interesting and the cast doesn’t do much to help, it’s exploitative, and there’s no real creative reason for it to exist. These aren’t things that are going to change from week to week, so any attempt to follow the show and provide criticism on a weekly basis would probably become redundant.

      It’s certainly possible to write weekly negative criticism of a show, but it seems to work best when the critic likes a show, but also believes that it could be much, much better. Glee has been a great example of this over the past couple of months. I’m pretty ambivalent about the show overall, but I actually enjoy reading its critical reviews more than I do for any other show that’s currently airing.

      And Tausif, thanks for pointing that out concerning registering to comment. I hadn’t considered it before, but it makes a lot of sense.

      • djones

        The long form episode review is definitely a style that has developed predominantly for reviewing more ambitious shows than Criminal Minds (or as Alan mentions in the original piece, NCIS), but I still feel like the overwhelming focus on quality television stifles the development of the form to handle negative opinions to some extent. There’s a lot of effort put in by these critics to bring a fresh perspective to each of their episode reviews, always informed by what has come before, teasing out long term themes and character development. It’s true these things are sometimes absent in bad shows, but without long term effort to investigate how bad television develops narrative and characters there’s a large blind spot in TV coverage. That might be more suited to academic work than critics like Sepinwall or the AVC staff, but given how interesting the AVC project covering individual episodes of programs normally not given critical attention I’d like to see what can be accomplished in making that project a bit more long-form. It’s possible there’s nothing there, but just to see someone intelligent find new ways to pick at something seriously flawed each week seems like it would have a lot of potential even if the core issues stayed the same.

        I have to agree with you about the fact that negative criticism is most effective (or most interesting) in shows with potential, as I find myself oddly compelled to read Glee coverage despite never having seen the show. I don’t know why I wanted to read about the “Three Glees” theory and all that other stuff, but I end up reading about it a surprising amount (perhaps some form of OCD that also drives me to recommend critical attention for bad shows for the sake of balance?)

        • Katie

          Those are all very good points. A lot by-the-week coverage negative coverage of shows is very snarky, TWOP style, and it could be really interesting to read similar coverage in a more serious/academic tone. I’m still not convinced it could really work in the long-term, but I think you’re definitely right that it would be an interesting experiment.

        • I think many of us at the AV Club can actually do more academic-style writing. Given my druthers, I tend to do a fusion of academic writing with the intelligent snark of the AV Club – I think one of my No Ordinary Family reviews is a good example of that.,48026/. But the week-to-week reviews, especially without screeners, can make that difficult. Sometimes I have a plan to write more, and it goes away in favor of a direct response to the episode at hand.

          I hope and believe that we’ll have more opportunity to do different discussions of TV than episode-by-episode soon. Even still, the TV Club Classic format can occasionally yield some fantastic results.

          • djones

            Hopefully your site does expand into more forms of coverage. Given that the quality level in the TV section is generally ranges from solid to great, I look forward to what you can all do with a bit more freedom if the opportunity comes up. I don’t know what the deadline situation is for you guys to get your reviews up, but I can imagine that that definitely leads to trimming out some more ambitious stuff (and also that there’s a limited audience for a 3000 word review). I haven’t kept up on NOF after the pilot, but given what you had to say in the first half of that review, and the THR article linked in it I’m much more interested in it (I wrote a similar piece about Hawaii Five-0’s kind of terrifying disregard for the rule of law disguised as a review of the 8th episode that I’d link if I had it online anywhere) even though it sounds like it’s wedded weak execution with a reductive moral structure that sounds really out of place for the show’s concept.

    • Tausif Khan

      @djones as to your point about Alan Sepinwall stopping his Modern Family reviews I think there needs to be a clarification. I am sure Alan didn’t stop reviewing the show merely because of negative response. Alan gets negative responses all the time. I am sure Alan stopped reviewing Modern Family due to the level of vitriol in the comments and the particular antagonism towards him personally. The antagonism that I am refering to is people telling him in the comments that he doesn’t know anything about being a critic were the subject of the comments moves away from discussion the show and to Alan’s personal level of intelligence. At that point I don’t think it would not only be unenjoyable but really not worth a person’s time to write reviews for a show that is not helpful to either the person writing them or the people reading them.

      Also, Alan does not just purely dismiss readers who attack him personally or challenge his decisions. Alan will usually defend his decisions with the reasoning he has provided for that decision in a direct response to the commenter. Therefore I don’t think we can say that Alan gave up too easily on Modern Family reviews.

      • djones

        Alan listed his reasoning for why he dropped MF, and they’re good reasons (15 regular shows, plus a podcast, plus most new shows, plus news, plus keeping up with shows that aren’t being written about form time to time is a hell of a workload), I just recall that the vitriolic comments those reviews got played a role in the decision and I’m not sure that’s a positive thing even if MF was a logistically sound exclusion otherwise. If you look at the vitriol of average AVC comment sections, it’s not much different from the worst of what I saw on HitFix Modern Family reviews, and I find it a little concerning that negative feedback played a role, however small, in the decision to drop those reviews. I’m definitely opining from a high horse where I don’t have to meet those kinds of workload expectations for when I write about TV, and from a reader standpoint I’m totally fine with losing MF reviews over some of the other stuff he covers. Basically what I’m trying to get at is that I don’t think negative personal feedback from the internet hate machine should shape coverage in the absence of other variables.

  4. Pingback: The waiting game: Watching and writing about today’s television comedy « TV Surveillance

  5. As usual, compelling read. Honestly, the amount of thought you put into this article (clearly something you’ve felt passionate about for a long time) is the polar opposite of what was in the Slate article. I’ve wondered about Sepinwall’s Chuck reviews this year (though I never gave his extra work on Community a second’s notice), but not to the point where I’d expect an article on Slate to discuss the meanings of it all. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Sepinwall for a few years, and I would avidly read TWoP recaps as far back as 2002, but some of the thrust of the article seemed to be, “I can’t believe people write weekly reviews of TV shows! Did you realize this?”

    I do agree with you about the quality of Chuck this year versus Sepinwall’s praise, but I’ve come to accept that–as you stated in your AV Club review–I’m not just invested in the show any more. I got sucked out somewhere in season three, when it was clear that the writers were afraid of putting Chuck and Sarah together, and thought there would be more drama in keeping them apart for as long as possible. While I wonder a bit about Sepinwall’s objectivity (not in his opinion, so much as in him always having a variation on the same opinion), I never think his reviews are anything less than genuine.

    The AV Club manages to be, in terms of content, my overall favorite entertainment website. In terms of comments, it’s usually disposable. For the TV Club reviews, I enjoy reading when you or Todd Van Der Werff (who was strangely absent from the Slate article, which surprised me, as his work over the past few years has been very noteworthy) or Noel Murray delve into the comments to respond to the thoughtful commenters, but even now, they’re few and far between. Still, the thought that goes into the reviews is so pervasive, to me, that I go out of my way to read every review, even of shows I don’t watch (and will never watch).

  6. Alan Sepinwall

    Hey all,
    Let me respond to two specific points:

    On “Chuck,” I would say two things. The first is that I’ve genuinely enjoyed this season more than most of last season, and more than many of my counterparts in the “Chuck” critical/fanboy community. It hasn’t been perfect, but I feel it’s done a lot of things better than the previous season did. The second is that some shows just reach a level of personal attachment for me – not in terms of anything I’ve done for it, but just in terms of my investment in the characters and the world – that they become, if not critic-proof, then critic-besides-the-point. I was this way with “NYPD Blue” in the later seasons, where I just liked seeing new Andy Sipowicz adventures more than I cared about, say, the lack of intensity. I suspect I’ll be this way with “Cougar Town” for as long as it runs, and a handful of others. It’s not necessarily about any kind of professional attachment I’ve had to the show, or even necessarily its quality, just about an ephemeral, hard-to-explain connection I develop with some shows and not others. I would say, for instance, that “Homicide” at its best was better than “NYPD Blue” at its best, but I never felt quite the level of affection for those guys and therefore took a tougher eye when that show began to slip than when “NYPD” did. Similarly, even though I like many of the “Modern Family” actors and enjoy them when they’re given good scripts, I have never felt the slightest bit of personal connection to any of those characters, so it doesn’t qualify for the “I’m just happy to spend time in the company of…” pass I might have given a middling episode of, say, “Frasier” (where both the “MF” creators once worked).

    On the “Modern Family” thing, and the idea that a critic should keep writing about shows he doesn’t like: first, I have spent time in the past dwelling on shows I couldn’t stand. Please do a search of the old blog for my Studio 60 reviews, or many of my Grey’s Anatomy reviews. In those cases, I found it interesting to keep making complaints, in part because the type and level of thing that was driving me crazy kept changing from week to week, in part because I was covering those shows in an era when there were fewer other series demanding my attention. (AMC wasn’t doing anything yet, FX wasn’t as prolific, etc.) In large part, it comes down to time management. If I were an AV Club reviewer assigned to 1 or 2 shows, I would glady pick apart Crappy Show X for week after week, at least for a season. At this moment in this particular season, I’m writing about 15 shows on a regular basis, and that number’s going to go up when the likes of Treme and Game of Thrones debut. Something’s gotta give, and if I have to choose between a show I both enjoy and enjoy writing about and one that I either dislike on its own or (in the case of Modern Family) one where the experience of writing about it has become a drag.

    And also, as Kate points out above, when I dislike a show – or even when I feel ambivalent about it as I often do Modern Family – it tends to be for the same reasons over and over again. I fundamentally hate Criminal Minds. I will always find David Duchovny’s character on Californication to be an insufferable d-bag. The microscopic stakes and humor level of Entourage will always bore me. I don’t find value in repeating those points over and over again, when instead I could either be discussing shows that tend to fluctuate in quality for notable reasons, or else shows that I find consistently good but that I either like for different reasons each week or can find different elements (them, structure, acting) to analyze each week.

    I’m only one man. Gotta pick and choose.

    • Wait, Alan, you can’t review every single scripted show every single week of the year? Well, I never. 😉

      Seriously, though, regarding Modern Family, on the one hand, I wish you would jump back into the fray of reviewing that–if not on a weekly basis, more sporadically, should an episode be extra-special good or extra-special bad. On the other hand, your point is well taken. What’s more, I can appreciate your reviews of Community or Mad Men or Breaking Bad better when you’re not writing a review filled with glowing praise. Because you can have such an attachment to a show (and even though you didn’t say it, I’d wager Community’s up there), your criticism seems more incisive when it’s pointing out the negatives.

      Regarding your last point, though, I never read your second-season Modern Family reviews as if you either hated it or as if you were constantly repeating the same points about the show. Having said that, I consider Modern Family completely unwilling to change, so I guess in that respect, it would make perfect sense to not want to rehash your arguments from, say, two months ago.

      On Chuck, I get that you have a personal attachment to it. I suppose I’ve just been at odds with what formed that attachment for a while, and when I read your reviews each week, I keep hoping to figure out what it is and how I could make such an attachment. I keep wishing I could like the show, and your reviews are certainly passionate enough for me to reconsider what I just watched. It just never comes together for me in the same way that it does for you (or for many of the commenters).

    • Tausif Khan

      @Alan if Modern Family created a spin-off series just for the Fizbo character would you be interested in watching that?

    • Katie

      Re: Chuck, I’d agree about the intangible aspect you mentioned. It would take quite a bit to make me stop watching the show. Even when it’s not at it’s best, I still really enjoy watching it.

      I think part of it has to do with the fact that even in an average episode of the show there are moments that teeter on the edge of (or awkwardly stumble towards) being great. I certainly wouldn’t make the argument that it’s near the quality of it’s Season 2 heyday, but I also feel like it wouldn’t take that many changes to get back there again. While that can be frustrating on occasion, it also makes Chuck pretty compelling for me to watch each week.

    • Josh Litten

      I have to agree that I was very disappointed when you stopped doing Modern Family reviews. I’m of the opinion that the show has grown somewhat stagnant though. I still watch, but it’s become more “Oh, right, that’s still on the DVR” and less “YAY! MY DVR LOVES ME!” We didn’t always like the same parts of the show (and it was clear to me you still like certain episodes or characters within the show), but that’s what made it interesting! Like I said, I was disappointed – less in your decision to stop reviewing than in the pit of whining and accusations the comment section became. I doubt I would have bothered to endure that mess either, and the excuse that “Oh, it’s your job. Suck it up” just doesn’t play with me. As you pointed out, you review a LOT of shows, and I always enjoy your initial reviews of new shows, commentaries on special television events, and retrospectives on seasons and shows.

      I responded more broadly to the ideas Myles brought up on Josh Levin’s response, but I’d just like to add here that the general discussion has been very intelligent. It’s really great to see so many people chiming in about the medium as a whole, let alone this or that critic’s contribution. The differences between each reviewer’s style and personal “code” if such a thing can be said to exist are fun to see spelled out by both the critics and readers. Thanks for continuing the discussion, and for doing it so well.

  7. Tausif Khan

    Oh the glorious amount of the critics on this post!

    Some great conversation Myles!

  8. Myles, which TV Squad reviews are you reading? I know mine have always tended toward the analytical and not toward pithy plot recaps. And, when I was editor there, I took pains to make sure our bloggers did the same. Even now, most bloggers take the “write about it as if the person has watched it” approach; something that we’ve emphasized since close to day 1.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joel.

      Rereading that bit, I overgeneralized, likely because of the across-the-board use of “recap” which fails to distinguish between different review types – my apologies for being unable to get past that barrier. Without getting into specifics, there are definitely some who follow the more traditional recap mode, whereas others are definitely doing something more approaching analysis, so it’s a mixed bag rather than “Maureen Ryan and a bunch of hacks” (which was *never* my intention with this piece or that paragraph, but is a possible reading in its current form).

      I think my point in that section, which I will admit got lost in the rhetoric a bit, was that the *culture* is different – there’s not the same freedom in abandoning the episodic form to consider larger issues, nor is there the same sense of community around the author (which is a key part of TWoP’s influence).

      As always, that’s just my impression – I’d love to hear more about the general edict offered writers at other sites, as I think it would help us understand the differences between the various approaches and their prevalence.

      • We’ve been doing recaps/reviews/writeups/whatever the term of the day is at the site since 2005, and since my first days there (November ’05, about eight months after the site started), we’ve tried our best to keep reviewers from doing blow-by-blow recaps. It’s just that sometimes people get into bad habits and need to be set on the right path, or a new reviewer takes the recap moniker to heart and does a blow-by-blow for a few episodes before they get the format we like.

        But even with that “directive” in place, there is still a wide variety of writing styles. Some are more analytic, some like to have fun with it. Depends on the show. A fun, lighthearted review of ‘Vampire Diaries’ is more appropriate for that show, and a measured, considered view of ‘Mad Men’ or ‘The Office’ is more appropriate there, and I think most of the writers at TVS write to how they think the fans will engage with them on a particular show. As Ryan has mentioned, most people there have been able to find their own voice and haven’t been restricted. Heck we can even swear — within reason.

  9. rosengje

    The point I am most interested in that was only broached in the Slate piece is the issue of selection. I completely understand that critics are not objective and have their own developed taste that they communicate to their audience through both their reviews and platforms like twitter. However, I do find that that established taste increasingly precludes certain critics from sampling material outside of their chosen niche. As you note in your piece, there is a certain homogeneity to the current crop of prominent critics, both in appearance and in taste. Todd broached this in a podcast once, but this has led to a very specific type of show being singled out as great and as worthy of discussion.

    I was very disheartened by Alan Sepinwall, who is my absolute favorite critics and one of the reasons I now work in television, choosing not to review Downton Abbey because of a genre bias. He did eventually return to the show, but I kept find myself questioning why it took insomnia and Netflix. Yes, in depth reviews are time consuming, but then what about all of the attention paid to readily dismissed shows like Off the Map, Criminal Minds: Bland Subtitle, and Mad Love? This issue was especially glaring over the summer when almost no critics took the time to pay any attention to Huge. I find the staggering difference in outpouring of support for Terriers vs. Huge kind of embarrassing.

    I seem to have lost control of my point. I guess I just feel like there’s already a lack of diversity in viewing amongst critics, and the review culture promotes staying within a specific audience rather than broadening out to offbeat titles equally in need of support.

    • Tausif Khan

      I completely agree with you about your point about Downton Abbey. For me the larger point is that PBS went largely unexamined at the beginning of the Golden Age of television/era of the three davids @HBO. While critics were awed by the level of quality that was produced from HBO’s original programming PBS masterpiece fans knew that quality of television has existed for quite a while. What is even more important about PBS is that it is accessible to anyone with a television set which makes the level of quality to me all the more astonishing.

      I hope Downton Abbey/Sherlock/Doctor Who interest (and Maureen Ryan deserves special kudos for this because she has championed the series @TV Squad and on Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan) marks a change or openness towards a critical response towards british television in the American television critic section of the blogosphere.

    • A great point, however lost you might think it became. I think there are definitely some insulating qualities about review culture, in particular because many of us enjoy the idea of writing as part of a community: one of the reasons I’ll collect reviews for shows like Mad Men or Lost is because I like seeing the indirect conversations which emerge (and which often continue on Twitter or in comment sections after the fact).

      But, you’re right in that this narrows our focus to some degree. While I personally try to cover some things that others don’t, like Huge, I’m limited by time – I don’t do this full time, and so I tend to choose the shows that *everyone* is talking about rather than the shows *no one* is talking about. I have time for a few exceptions, but when it came to something like Downton Abbey, I just wasn’t in a position in January to give the show the time necessary to review weekly.

      I think there is a sort of general rule that you can’t just read one critic: they won’t write about all of the shows you do, or watch all of the shows you do, and so you need to branch out. But I think you’re right in that branching out doesn’t always result in more variety, and so I think selection definitely remains an enigmatic question we’ll be grappling with in the years ahead.

      • Tausif Khan

        “I think there is a sort of general rule that you can’t just read one critic: they won’t write about all of the shows you do, or watch all of the shows you do, and so you need to branch out.”

        For me critics are not interchangeable. I read the critics not so much because I am a fan of the shows but I am interested in the critical discussion that is generated. Different critics generate different discussions. I think this is more important if some one is looking to read reviews as opposed to recaps.

    • Alison

      Great point to bring up. In analysis of other media (literature, movies) this would probably come under the question of what counts as canon. And when you bring up the idea of a canon, you inevitably have to ask who the gate-keepers are. Is there something about the type of person who becomes a TV critic that pushes she or he towards certain shows over others? And does the methodology of each critic’s reviews lend itself to one type of show over another? I know that the question of critical methodology comes up in my field (literature) all the time. So for example, many scholars link the canonization of the major authors of High Modernism (Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Pound, etc.) to the critical methods of New Criticism that came to the fore in literary studies from the ’50s onward. New Criticism championed the practice of close reading–looking closely at the details and structure of the work to understand how it makes meaning. A poem by Eliot with its large number of obscure allusions and seemingly inscrutable word choices was wonderful “fodder” for a literary critic who wanted to pick apart the details.

      Speaking as someone who loves to pick apart the details both in books and TV, I often think something similar may be at work. So a show like Mad Men may support the scrutiny of close reading week-to-week while procedurals might be better analyzed through a genre lens. Basically, I think that one way of trying to understand why some shows enjoy more critical discussion than others is to investigate who the critics are and what methods they use to engage.

  10. Pingback: Review of Glee, Comeback - Tuned In -

  11. As someone who has done week-to-week reviews of a show for almost five seasons now (‘HIMYM’) along with others for a shorter period of time, I do wonder if it’s best for a critic to change things up from time to time and step away from certain shows for awhile. They could either let someone else do the reviewing, or just do the occasional look-ins. You do start to get a little myopic commenting on a show week-to-week for multiple seasons, something I’ve found myself doing with ‘HIMYM.’ At a certain point, you get tired of writing “So is this one the Mother?”

    Commenters can sense when you don’t like a show; it comes through in the reviews. Even though it runs counterintuitive to what people think ‘criticism’ is, it’s always best to have a fan of the show do the reviews instead of someone who’s been assigned to do it but doesn’t care for the show. That person will be harder on the show because of their high expectations, and they’ll also be able to have that shared experience of talking about the episode with their readers.

    I don’t think the concepts of being a “episode-to-episode” critic and a “looking at the bigger picture” critic are mutually exclusive; all of the people you mentioned do both, and I write think pieces about shows all the time. I do wonder, however, if we’re all hoping to one day be a Matt Roush-style critic, who can make a weekly or bi-weekly comment on a show, or post general pieces on a blog, and not have to try to write a bleary-eyed recap of ‘Glee’ every week at midnight when all you really want to do is go to bed.

  12. I’d really appreciate a future post regarding something you briefly touched on, the relationship between gender and the culture of criticism. Thanks.

  13. Pingback: Talking TV Podcast Talks TV Criticism in the Digital Age | TV Daily TV News, TV News Daily, Breaking News, TV Star,TV Stars,TV Show News, TV Series News, TV Show Reviews, TV Show Review, TV Online News, Reality TV World, Reality TV News, Fringe tv show ne

  14. Pingback: Talking TV Podcast Talks TV Criticism in the Digital Age | Hili.Us

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  16. Pingback: Critical Fandom: Are We Already Practicing New TV Criticism? « Archivve

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  18. Pingback: Homework for Monday, January 30 « ENG1131: Writing through Media

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  21. Pingback: That was (writing about) Arrested Development: TV Criticism in a Binge-Viewing Era | Cultural Learnings

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