There have been suggestions floating around in comment sections that the Netflix model—the decision to release every episode all at once—eliminates the function of traditional episodic television criticism. With viewers now able to choose the pace at which they watch episodes, potentially watching an entire season of Arrested Development in one session if they’re so inclined, the need for critics to evaluate individual episodes is no longer present. This is doubly the case, some would argue, with the puzzle-like structure of Arrested Development’s fourth season, which further confounds episodic analysis through its choice to emphasize each episode’s connection to a larger story arc one can’t truly appreciate until you’ve seen all fifteen episodes.
We’ve been talking about the former ever since Netflix released all of House of Cards at once in February, and there has been further conversation in the buildup to Arrested Development’s this weekend (including the ridiculous theory that critics are biased against Netflix for destroying their cultural purpose, a claim I responded to here). However, I have to admit that I’m not sure Netflix’s paradigm shift is actually anything close to a paradigm shift. Putting aside the fact that Netflix’s claim we will in the future move to a completely mass-release system of television distribution—which I talked about in a CBC Web Chat last week—ignores a lot of functional realities of the television industry which have permeated even webseries distribution patterns, I still feel like episodic and other forms of television criticism are useful and productive within the space of binge viewing habits.
Any suggestion to the contrary seems to be operating with a very limited conception of how and why episodic criticism is written, which functions in opposition to the ways in which binge viewing can allow us to expand—rather than contract—forms of television criticism in the wake of the binge viewing moment.
After watching the first episode of Arrested Development’s fourth season at 2am—central time—on Sunday, I wanted to write something about it. This is because I’ve been conditioned to want to write things after watching an episode of television, which I do because I enjoy exploring the ideas that I’ve had while watching it. For me, as someone who starting writing episodic reviews as a personal outlet as opposed to a professional job, it is very natural for me to sit down and write about what I just saw. It was an extension of wanting to go to message boards to talk about it, or sending an MSN message to my brother, or—later on—going to Twitter to talk with other viewers. Even when I’ve now become someone who starts a community discussion with a review either here or at The A.V. Club, I still see myself as just another member of the community who is offering his thoughts not as a proclamation of an episode’s quality but rather as a jumping off point for a larger conversation.
In other words, writing episodic reviews for me is effectively like keeping a viewing diary, designed to capture an experience—one week at a time—more than a definitive take on a given episode. This has always been my philosophy, and while I tend to try to turn each review into a discrete essay on a particular idea—as opposed to simply a plot recap or a stream of consciousness—I nonetheless feel they better capture the experience of watching the series than evaluations of individual episodes. It’s one of the reasons why, although I understand their functionality, I dislike the idea of attaching grades to individual episodes: while it’s productive for readers to gauge their responses and I enjoy seeing how A.V. Club readers grade episodes compared to my own, they nonetheless foreground evaluation where I would argue reflection is the most prominent component of episodic criticism, something I wrote about after some suggestions that a theory I had about an episode of Elementary being proven wrong made my review less meaningful:
“There was some suggestion that the validity of this theory would in some way alter my impression of the episode, that the episode and the sequence would be lessened should my theory—which I was pretty convinced of—prove untrue. This surprised me, as for me the very ability to theorize…is a testament to the strength of the sequence. Criticism doesn’t exist to get something right, but rather to explore the critic’s response to an episode of television and that episode’s meaning.”
This is something I would argue is true of any form of episodic criticism, and I believe it’s as central to binge viewing as it is to traditional weekly distribution. Just because I was watching Arrested Development’s fourth season in chunks of episodes didn’t mean that each episode didn’t come with its own set of reflections, its own set of themes or ideas, or its own thoughts on how the season was evolving. Although there might not be a week between episodes in which that conversation takes place, and the conversation won’t take place at the same time for everyone, I find it difficult to believe that anyone who watches an episode of Arrested Development doesn’t respond to that episode as a discrete unit. While it may be odd to pass final judgment on an individual episode given the way the series was released and structured, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have thoughts about it which reflect our own distinct viewing experiences, and which we might want to work through while reading other people’s responses or writing our own.
I chose to write about each episode of Arrested Development’s fourth season after I watched them, although I didn’t treat it in the same way as I would a more traditional episodic review. Without writing any notes, I would watch an episode and then flip open my computer, where I would write brief—ranging from 430 to 1048 words, getting longer the deeper I got into the season—responses to each episode. These usually focused on a single idea that came into focus during that episode, whether it’s about the character involved, the season’s structure falling into place, or sometimes also more traditional thematic or narrative-based analysis. I would then post these to Tumblr, cross-post them to Twitter, and then move onto the next episode (or take a break to avoid going insane).
That Was Arrested Development: Tumblr Capsule Reviews
My choice to post them to Tumblr—you can find them all here as well—and not here on the blog was a conscious one. I didn’t want them to look like traditional episodic reviews, although one could certainly place them in the same category, so the micro-blogging emphasis of Tumblr—and the distinction of that space and the blog space—made that easier. I took to calling them “capsule reviews,” emphasizing their limited length and scope compared to more traditional episodic criticism. They became an intrinsic part of my viewing experience, the chance to unpack each episode after watching it playing a role in shaping and reshaping my expectations; the result was a more free-flowing dialogue about the binge viewing experience, while nonetheless providing clear signposts at which others who were also binge viewing the series—or who watch at a more leisurely pace in the future—could use to drop-in on my commentary episode-by-episode.
While I didn’t necessarily set out to do so—I said on Sunday morning before going to bed that I didn’t imagine having something to say about every episode—I ended up replicating the experience of reviewing a season of television episode-by-episode in fast motion, moving at my own pace and generating the basic content of episodic reviewing over a shorter period of time. And while I would agree with Ryan McGee that the inability for us to have a collective conversation is a loss of this format, and I strongly believe such watercooler discussions are central to what I love about television and television culture, as a critic I nonetheless found this form of engagement to be a fulfilling one. I was able to use the capsule reviews as a space to work through ideas, while my Twitter followers were able to engage with individual reviews and start conversations based on them (which had to remain somewhat spoiler-free but nonetheless offered a sense of dialogue). Those who were watching at a faster pace could anticipate my reviews as I got to episodes they liked or disliked; those watching at a slower pace could bookmark the reviews for later.
It actually made me excited about potentially using Tumblr as a space for shorter responses to television content in the future. Full episodic reviews—which, as many have pointed out over the years, are probably longer than they have to be in my case—have become challenging as time commitments for my other job have increased, which has led to more or less limiting reviews to Game of Thrones and anything I write for The A.V. Club. I’ve tended to use Twitter as a supplement to these efforts, but I also tend to think in paragraphs as opposed to 140 characters. While my Tumblr until recently was used as a companion to the Intro to Television class I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this spring, I could see myself using it in the future as a space to—among other things—continue my Cultural Catchup Project with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel where there isn’t the same expectation of lengthy 1500-word reviews that I simply don’t have time to write.
While acknowledging this is a lot of inside baseball, I believe strongly that claims binge viewing in any way threatens the function of television critics grossly underestimates what critics actually do. Yes, on a basic level episodic criticism functions as a business model, whereby traffic is driven to sites after an episode airs on a weekly basis thus perpetuating continued readership and consistent page views to sell to ad buyers. I can see how this sort of a la carte delivery system threatens this regularity, while also—once again—expressing skepticism the entire television delivery system will ever function in this way. However, at the heart of that business model is a relationship between critics and readers, a relationship that is built not on the economic logics of criticism but rather on the desire for critics to contribute to a community and for readers to engage with those contributions. Alan Sepinwall’s readers at HitFix are still waiting to hear his thoughts on Arrested Development, just as The A.V. Club readers were waiting with baited breath to dive into Todd VanDerWerff’s review. Episodic reviews are not the source of this relationship but instead an outlet in which it can be fostered; as we evolve the forms of criticism we write, we can find new ways to leverage this relationship in the same way that critics like Sepinwall shifted from pre-air to post-air episodic reviews in the first place (which I covered in this piece).
Through platforms like Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr, the work of an individual critic does not exist solely as a weekly textual evaluation of an episode of television. While I may not function in the capacity of a full-time professional television critic, and therefore my sense for how this impacts my livelihood is undoubtedly shaped by the fact that it isn’t actually my livelihood in the way it is for someone like Todd or Alan, I nonetheless feel that the Netflix model does not dramatically alter my approach to television criticism. I might write in different formats or on different platforms to emphasize some distinctions between responding to each episode of Arrested Development and covering Awkward. week-to-week at The A.V. Club, but the drive behind that writing is connected by a need to reflect on what I watch, an interest in sharing that reflection with a broader community of viewers, and a desire to contribute to conversations happening now or later. While the unique nature of Arrested Development’s fourth season pushed me to adjust my approach slightly, the ideology that drives me to write television criticism has been in no way weakened by the experience.
There is still a place for traditional episodic criticism for the foreseeable future, in the same way that there was still a place for traditional pre-air criticism in the wake of the arrival of post-air episodic analysis. As both methods of discussion and methods of distribution change, criticism evolves with them, and yet the older forms of criticism aren’t suddenly erased overnight. If the past decade has shown anything, it’s that television criticism—and television critics—are by and large an adaptive breed whose love for the medium enables them to channel their work as the cultural moment sees fit. Without suggesting that my use of Tumblr to cover Arrested Development offers some sort of master plan for how critics can respond to mass distribution on a larger scale, I nonetheless believe my experience emphasizes how—like so many changes in the television industry—the Arrested Development experiment offers both challenges and opportunities for who write about and engage with television on a regular basis.