Category Archives: TV Criticism

Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies, Part 2

The following is the second part of an ongoing, cross-blog conversation between myself and my A.V. Club colleague Ryan McGee. The first part of the conversation is posted at his blog, Boob Tube Dude, and can be found here (and should really be read before this, as certain references won’t make sense otherwise).

These posts stem from conversations we’ve had regarding how we approach comedies from a critical perspective within our own criticism and within criticism as a whole. We welcome any and all contributions to this discussion, and I apologize in advance for the lack of photos to break things up (which Ryan so helpfully deployed on Part One) – I have a strict “Big Blocks of Text = A-Okay” policy around these parts. – MM

Myles McNutt: Since your last missive, I spent an entire weekend sitting in a room of academics discussing television comedy, which dealt with many of the issues you discuss in terms of expanded potential of journalistic criticism. As scholars, we’re the ones who are expected to delve into these areas, and as someone who probably best identifies as a scholar-critic (provided I’m allowed to make up my own hyphenated terms) I like to think I bring at least some of this to bear.

However, I don’t do it particularly often, in part because my academic interests have less to do with the issues discussed in part one [feminism, ideology in general] and more to do with television as a form and as an industry. That’s not to say that this work is not valuable (it is, in fact, invaluable), but rather that it is very much work that you need to feel comfortable doing. Alyssa [Rosenberg, discussed in Part One] does, and I appreciate her work for it, but it isn’t more prominent because there is a perception that “people” (speaking here of a general perception of people reading television criticism) aren’t interested in reading that form of criticism.

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Now What?: Advance Screeners in the Digital Age

Advance Screeners in the Digital Age

March 31st, 2011

It is hardly a secret that television critics often receive advance screeners of popular television programs: after all, the role of the traditional critic has been to produce pre-air reviews of programs, which would necessitate seeing the program in question before publication.

However, we live in an era where the awareness of screeners is cultivated through more than simple logic: through Twitter, engaged users know when networks are sending out particular programs, as journalists/critics/bloggers often tweet when a screener package arrives (sometimes even taking pictures if the packaging is particularly novel). It’s like a wave if you’re following enough of these professionals, as various unboxing tweets fill our feeds.

In the interest of full disclosure, although this won’t be a surprise to those who follow me on Twitter, I’ve had my fair share of screeners this year; currently, for example, I have received considerable chunks of new series from Showtime and HBO, including United States of Tara and Game of Thrones. I point this out not to brag, although that seems like an inevitable byproduct of this discussion. Rather, I share in order to express my central dilemma, which is quite simple:

What, precisely, am I supposed to do with them?

And I figured I would turn the question over to you.

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

Yesterday was honestly excruciating.

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

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

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

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

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

“The New Criticism?” at Flow 2010

September 30th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Could “C” stand for Community?: Musings on the Role of the TCA

In the final piece of his fantastic series of articles on his Comic-Con 2010 experience, Todd VanDerWerff asks an all-important question: why, precisely, do news organizations cover Comic-Con from the show floor? He writes that “the vast majority of the news that comes out of the Con can be covered as well by Sean O’Neal sitting in Austin and posting links to press releases and other reports as it can be by someone sitting in Hall H.” Now, Todd’s fantastic coverage proves that there is value to having someone on the show floor to report on the experience of Comic-Con – more interesting than the news itself is the kind of people the convention attracts and the environment they create. However, in terms of actually covering the news emerging from the panels, the value is comparatively limited, especially when I consider the headaches it seems to have caused the various people in my Twitter feed who attended the event.

It’s a question which will continue to be asked over the next two weeks, as my Twitter feed shifts from the madness of Comic-Con to the madness of the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour (which Alan Sepinwall captures here), and I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on some of my observations about the TCA over the past number of months. I want to make clear that these are not envious or spiteful thoughts about my lack of membership with this organization: while I may self-identity as a critic, a title which I feel I have earned insofar as one can earn such a title, I am not in any way, shape or form a journalist, and thus do not fall under the purview of the TCA, which “represents more than 220 journalists writing about television for print and online outlets in the United States and Canada.”

This piece is less about my exclusion from the TCA and more about my inclusion within the critical community it broadly represents: through Twitter and other forms of engagement, I’ve come to consider many established critics to be mentors and, at times, colleagues. On a daily basis, television’s critical community includes critics, bloggers, scholars, reporters, unaffiliated intellectuals, and fans who have something to say, collectively forming a living, breathing entity which I’ve come to value a great deal. If I’m at all disappointed about not being at Press Tour, it’s not because I won’t be touring the set of NBC’s Undercovers; instead, I’m disappointed that I won’t be there to witness my Twitter feed come to life before my eyes, to be part of that environment. As various media folk left Comic-Con, their tweets reflected less the panels they really enjoyed and more the people who they got to meet, putting a face to a name or in some cases a name to a Twitter handle. And it makes me realize that the reason I wanted to be at Comic-Con wasn’t because I felt it would result in better coverage, but because I wanted to be in the trenches with my fellow community members.

There was a sense of camaraderie there which feels, to me, like the kind of connection which an organization like the TCA would be interested in fostering, something they could use to demonstrate the value of criticism in the twenty-first century and something which could spurn further interaction and discussion. However, this is where my image of the TCA’s function conflicts with reality: it is, after all, the Television Critics Association as opposed to the Television Criticism Association, or the Television Community Association. It creates a connection between the industry and the people who cover it, a role which helps critics gain access to the material necessary to serve their readers, but for the most part I sense that the TCA is uninterested in the art of criticism, or in the interaction between critics rather than their interaction with the industry.

And, if you’ll allow me to indulge a curiosity, I want to discuss whether or not that should (or could) ever change.

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I Come to Praise Sepinwall, Not to Bury Him: Reflections on “What’s Alan Watching?”

In the world of television criticism, tomorrow is a pretty important milestone: Alan Sepinwall, television critic for the Star-Ledger and NJ.com, is becoming Television Critic for HitFix.com.

I don’t want to make this sound like some sort of eulogy: Alan’s writing isn’t going to change with this transition, and if anything his new job prioritizes the kind of writing that has made Alan so influential within the critical community. However, as someone whose work is unquestionably inspired by Alan’s and who has been lucky enough to become part of that critical community over the past few years, I want to take a moment to contextualize what “What’s Alan Watching” has helped facilitate.

While in his “transition” post Alan highlights some of the big moments on his blog (like his involvement in the “Save Chuck” campaign or his post-Sopranos finale interview with David Chase), the largest impact “What’s Alan Watching?” has had in my experience is the empowerment of the masses – his work bridges the gap between how we think about television and how professionals write about television, and used the potential of internet communities to form a space where the cultural value of television is more clear than perhaps any other space on the internet.

And I think now seems like a good time to recognize this.

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