Trench Warfare: Kurt Sutter vs. Critics, Round Infinity
January 4th, 2012
As a vocal critic of the third season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, I was apprehensive going into its fourth season, and found myself more or less pleased with how the season went down. By dialing down the number of storylines, and focusing more exclusively on the inner-workings of SAMCRO (with additional storylines intersecting with the club dynamic quite successfully), the strong performances rose to the surface and the “plot mechanics” largely proved quite effective even if I would agree that the finale was a major step back in that department, ending up too cute for a show that purports to being so dark. Ultimately, while it didn’t make my “Top 20” at The A.V. Club, it probably would have made a Top 25, which is more than it would have managed last year.
I didn’t have time to write about the show this fall, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly disappointed by this at the time: while the show was better than last season, it was better in ways that were not particularly surprising, and which other critics reviewing the show week-to-week were capturing well in their own reviews. Similarly, while I did have my issues with some of the plot developments, people like Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan, and Zack Handlen were effectively covering the ground I would have covered, nicely capturing what proved to be a solid (if flawed) season of television that cemented the show’s future as a solid (if flawed) staple of the basic cable landscape.
However, when the season ended amidst a flurry of dismissive comments from creator Kurt Sutter regarding the critical reception of the season, I changed my mind. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to pick a fight with Sutter, who rang in 2011 by insulting me over Twitter, but rather that it felt wrong to be sitting on the sidelines while Sutter waged trench warfare on hardworking critics who were being criticized for doing their jobs (and doing them well). While I remain convinced that Sutter has a point regarding the limitations of weekly criticism with a serialized show, to suggest (despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise) that these limitations are a function of individual critics as opposed to the form made me wish that I had reviewed the series if only so I could stand alongside my fellow critics in support of critical analysis that reflects a personal, subjective approach to television.
The End of Covering Glee
January 3rd, 2012
This was the year that the “3 Glees” theory died, in more ways than one.
More practically, the show hired a writing staff in addition to its three creators (Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk). While this hasn’t eradicated the problems with consistency that have plagued the show since its first season, it has made the simplicity of the “3 Glees” no longer adequate as a strategy for understanding the show’s creative formation.
However, simultaneously, a Tuesday night class meant that there was really no way I could continue to cover Glee in the way I had in previous seasons, outside of a few weeks where screeners were made available in advance. This meant that updating the “3 Glees” page even in order to reflect the writing staff’s contribution was simply not going to happen, which means it quietly went on an indefinite hiatus this fall.
Allow me to make the hiatus permanent as we begin 2012. Although I no longer have a night class on Tuesdays, and thus could continue to review Glee if I so desired, I think I’m taking this as a natural breaking point. While I intend to keep watching Glee, and I remain open to writing about the show when a particularly strong/weak episode emerges, this seems like as good a time as ever to say that I might be running out of ways to describe Glee’s failings.
I know – I didn’t think it was possible, either.
NBC’s Community and Parks and Recreation
Aired: January to December
I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to write about television for a wider audience at The A.V. Club, no moreso than with my weekly reviews of The Office. However, as the show’s eighth season has signaled a decided shift in the show’s critical and cultural position, I’ve had a number of people effectively express pity for my position, forced to review a show that is pretty comfortably past its prime (but with just enough life left in it to remind us of the show it used to be).
And yet I’ve never felt it to be a pitiable job: sure, it’s nice when you have a show that you really like to cover in a situation like this one, but the show’s decline has been fun to deconstruct, and creating a dialogue with both devotees and spurned viewers has been a valuable insight how that decline is being received. While I might not love The Office, I love the process of writing about it, even though I can fully understand why others don’t feel the same way (which is why the number of critics reviewing the show has dropped off this season).
However, I will say that there is one thing I resent about covering The Office, which is that it means I don’t have time to review Parks and Recreation and Community, the two shows which precede it within NBC’s Thursday night lineup (or, rather, preceded it, given that Community is being benched for at least a few months). While other critics have been able to adjust their priorities, dropping The Office while continuing to cover the two shows that arguably merit greater attention, I’ve spent my Thursday evenings watching The Office, writing about The Office, and then using Parks and Community as a chance to unwind without a laptop in front of me.
It’s a different way of viewing than I was used to, and it seems as though it has affected my opinion of the two shows differently. While I actually feel as though my appreciation for Community has dipped slightly as a result of this viewing pattern, my general sentiments about the series less than they might have been a year ago, something about the comparative simplicity of Parks and Recreation has really suited this more casual form of viewing.
Aired: June to September
When, as a critic, you stop writing about a number of shows, there is always the risk that your opinion will begin to lean towards the critical consensus, especially if that critical consensus is as effusive as the praise surrounding Louis C.K.’s second season of Louie on FX. Similarly, in circumstances where you fall behind on a particular show and begin to soak in all of this praise, it’s tough to view the episodes piling up on your DVR with fresh eyes.
Louie had a very strong second season, but something about the way I watched it kept me from considering it the best television of the year – this isn’t to say that The A.V. Club (and various other sites/critics) placing it as the #1 show of the year was “wrong” by any measure, but I will say that I did not come close to putting it in that position (and, if we’re being honest, probably placed it higher than my initial instinct due to the indirect influence of other critics). Perhaps it was that I felt my experience with the show was unduly influenced by the critical culture surrounding the series, or that my DVR catchup method somehow changed the series’ impact (with its episodic segments mashed together as opposed to being parceled out), but Louie didn’t jump out to me as the best show of the year (nor did it necessarily jump out at me as a comedy, but we’ll save that genre conversation for another day).
Aired: January to March
With Shameless starting its second season next weekend, and with my parents recently gaining access to an expansive OnDemand archive featuring the series, I’ve taken the past week or so to introduce them to the “deranged” – my mother’s word –Gallagher family.
It’s not often that I rewatch dramatic series in this fashion, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I managed it. I didn’t write about Shameless more than a handful of times when the first season aired earlier this year, but rewatching the show has made me wish I had, both because I find myself really enjoying the show (more than my review of the finale would suggest) and because I think writing about it would have helped me confront my frustration with one half of the series.
Looking back on 2011, I think it will be clearly marked as the year in which I no longer came to associate with the term “blogger.”
Now, to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that I have done so due to this term being derogatory: bloggers are good people, and serve as an important voice within the world of people who write about television (and, of course, numerous other subjects). However, more simply, I don’t think I updated Cultural Learnings enough in 2011 to justify laying claim to the title (given, for example, that this is my first post in well over a month).
The dropoff in posts has come out of necessity, primarily – the time I would spend blogging has been swallowed by increased responsibilities related to the “real life” side of my existence, which has left the “online life” side of things to occasional Twitter observations and my more “professional” work at The A.V. Club. On some level, my semester became a choice between continuing to watch television and writing about it, a devil’s gambit that led to a lack of content here on the blog and a surplus of content on my DVR.
I will admit, though, that I’m not entirely convinced I missed it. As Twitter becomes a more prominent form of discourse within the world of television criticism, and as my teaching responsibilities became more connected to the television I watch (and the meanings we draw from it), I haven’t felt as though I’ve said nothing about the things I’ve watched. However, I realize that on some level I’m going from over-explaining my thoughts about particular shows (like, for example, Community) to largely letting occasional 140-character observations represent my general opinion. I’m sure a psychiatrist would consider this a breakthrough given my penchant for verbosity, but it does create a vacuum of sorts for regular readers (especially those of you who might not use Twitter, who may think I’ve fallen off the face of the earth a bit).