Tag Archives: Alan Sepinwall

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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Fiske-ian Learnings: Reflections on Fiske Matters

While I don’t often delve too far into my academic experiences here at Cultural Learnings, this past weekend offered an interesting convergence of my various different hats, and since I’m going to be more academically involved in television studies in the years ahead I figure now seems like a good time to introduce some of that material here at the blog.

I was in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend for Fiske Matters, a conference celebrating the legacy of John Fiske, professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Madison and considered to be one of the most influential figures in cultural and media studies. In particular, the conference was organized to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of his retirement from academia, and to begin the process of rescuing his work from a few decades of reductive criticism which has unfairly marginalized his contribution to the field.

The majority of people at the conference were themselves products of Fiske’s influential work: most of the attendees were former students, many of whom are now prominent academics within the field and who continue to rely on his teachings when inspiring a new era of scholars. And while I never had the pleasure of studying with Fiske, nor have I ever learned about Fiske in any of my direct academic experience, the conference was a fantastic introduction into the collaborative, creative and engaged academic environment which owes a great deal to Fiske’s work in the field.

I’m not going to be posting my entire presentation (for reasons I’ll get to beneath the fold), but I do want to discuss my paper and then raise some of my observations from the weekend which will hopefully be relevant to both academics and readers who may not be academics but might be interested in seeing how television and media are filtered through an academic lens.

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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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Irrational Actors: 3 Reasons I Have Little Respect for Angry Horde of Chuck Shippers

Irrational Actors: Chuck/Sarah Shippers

February 9th, 2010

There’s been a lot of talk on the Twitter today regarding the storm of angry comments about last night’s episode of Chuck, in particular what some fans are viewing as a betrayal of the relationship between Chuck and Sarah (the comments on Alan Sepinwall’s post are the most telling).

Now, I have two immediate impulses in response to these comments:

  1. Write a lengthy treatise on the inherent positivity found in “shipping” a particular couple, arguing that the practice turns ugly when it shifts from celebration of a couple’s promise to anger over that couple remaining apart.
  2. Slap these people upside the head.

Since I don’t quite have time for the former, and technology has not advanced far enough for me to dole out the latter electronically, I’ll settle for an amalgamation of the two: let’s look at the three reasons why these fans are being entirely irrational, both in terms of general shipping logic and in terms of the content of the actual storyline.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Six – “Reinventing How We See the Wheel”

“Reinventing How We See the Wheel”

December 18th, 2009

[This is Part Six in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

I started Cultural Learnings in January 2007 for two main reasons. The first was that my brother Ryan had a blog, and thus its proximity to my life made it seem like a cool thing to do. The second was that I was in a “Politics of Mass Media” course and the idea of using a blog as a way of brownnosing extra credit appealed to me. So, in the early days (which, for the sake of my pride, have largely been purged), there were posts about a myriad of subjects, as whatever struck my fancy made its way under the collective banner of Cultural Learnings.

As noted throughout these pieces, a number of factors influenced the switch to a television blog, whether it was the return of Battlestar Galactica and Lost from their respective hiatuses or the false optimism engendered by Heroes’ first season. And in 2007, I wrote a piece that suggested (quite accurately, at the time) that the fan campaign surrounding Jericho was what made Cultural Learnings what it was in its first year. It made me realize that what I wrote had an audience, and that said audience could be enormously passionate about things in ways that I simply was not. It was what convinced me of the value of writing about television online in a blog format, and my experience in that community (despite my lack of affection for the show itself) was an important part of this decade.

However, if there were a single show that defined television criticism in this decade for me and quite a few others, it would have to be According to Jim

…wait, scratch that. Yes, I have to make a joke to distract you here, as I’m about to provide more praise for David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Wire, an epic tale of urban decay and personal tragedy that broke the hearts and captured the minds of critics and a relatively small number of viewers. It’s a show that will be near the top of almost every critical Top 10 list, and a show that until last summer I had never had the pleasure of watching. And that, if you look back in the archives, I’ve written about far less often than you might think, which isn’t entirely going to change here.

Rather than being the show that I’ve written the most content about, or the show that had the greatest emotional impact upon watching it, The Wire defines the past decade of television for me because it’s the show that has most made me want to be a television critic, to be able to not only analyze it more carefully but also spread the word and facilitate further discussion using the power of this blog. While I could probably get away with calling it the best television series of all time, my blind spots require me to simply say that no piece of television has had a larger impact on how I live my life than The Wire, both in terms of my choice to write television criticism and my aversion to hardware stores.

And I’m not sure there will be another show like it in the decade ahead.

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“Those Stories Plus…” – Sports Night Season One

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Those Stories Plus…

Sports Night Season One

It’s no secret around these parts that Alan Sepinwall’s criticism is a fairly big influence on both what I do and how I do it, but what I find is his most influential contribution to the television watching community is his summer coverage of various shows. Last summer, I started watching The Wire when I did because of his detailed writeups of first season episodes; yes, I knew the show existed and had even purchased some DVD sets ahead of time, but Alan’s work was the motivating factor that made me commit to the series wholeheartedly. Alan’s devotion and commitment to these shows motivates people to watch TV, to buy TV on DVD, and more importantly to discuss that television within a community of like-minded surveyers of moving image.

It also means that this summer, as Alan turns his attention to three different projects (The Wire Season 2, Band of Brothers and Sports Night), many wallets are somewhat lighter, including my own: while I have already seen The Wire’s second season, his other two projects served as the right motivation to keep catching up on shows or miniseries that I missed in the days before my television addiction. It is as a result that I now own a copy of Band of Brothers and the complete series of Sport Night; I’d blame Alan for my dwindling bank account, but then I’d have to lie and say that they weren’t worth every penny.

Sports Night, which aired on ABC from 1998-2000, is something that I’ve always known about, but to be honest I really didn’t know much about its origin, or its format, or really anything to really recommend the series beyond its pedigree. Serving as the training ground for The West Wing for writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme, the show covers the behind the scenes goings-on at a cable news show (ala SportsCenter), and relies heavily on the dynamic of its cast, led by the show’s two anchors (Josh Charles and Peter Krause) and the show’s executive producer (Felicity Huffman).

I’m not going to go episode by episode, or really even offer any sort of constructive thoughts about the show’s storylines – it’s a damn good show, one that I suggest everyone watch, but there’s more important things to discuss. For now (I’m only done the first season), I want to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and how I’m absolutely fascinated that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip fell apart like it did when Sorkin had these lessons to fall back on.

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Down in the Hole: Podcasting HBO’s The Wire with Alan Sepinwall and the /Filmcast

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Podcasting HBO’s The Wire

December 10th, 2008

For those who follow me on Twitter, or have visited my twitter page, you’ll know that I refer to myself quite realistically as a “Wannabe T.V. Critic.” This is the wonder of the internet: through sheer productivity and a few karmic turns of fate, I have managed to fall into a routine that is both personally satisfying and, I hope, something that adds to the internet’s critical discourse of television.

This week has been a reminder of both how those turns of fate have manifested themselves and how much I enjoy doing this. Since I’ve started appearing on the /Filmcast, with the gang of Dave, Devindra and Adam who I quite incidentally teamed up with in their podcasting days before the big time, I’ve found another outlet for discussing television. Both on the podcast and (perhaps most importantly) through the chat room, I have been able to meet some great people and have some really great discussions.

Ultimately, though, Monday night’s /Filmcast was the one that will likely always stick out in my mind. It was what I would refer to as an exorcism: a chance for the /Filmcast to get everything it needed to say about a certain HBO drama series which is highly critically acclaimed, unduly underappreciated by the Emmy Awards, a personal favourite show of every member of the /Filmcast, and the show that enraptured me this past summer.

The show is The Wire, and what began as a germ of an idea suggested by a few readers ballooned into an epic 3 1/2 ode to the series that should have changed the face of television and instead only raised the standards by which we rate shows which come after it and fail to pick up on what made it such an amazing feat from David Simon and Ed Burns. And if you don’t believe us, consider that we spent 3 1/2 hours and both never ran out of things to say and, worst of all, barely scratched the surface with certain characters and events. Recording the podcast, and preparing for it ahead of time, was a reminder just what the show accomplished, and being able to revisit that was going to be a lot of fun.

It was also a real honour: Alan Sepinwall, from the New Jersey Star-Ledger, is a fantastic (and real) TV critic who I often link to, and who I certainly view as a “role model” when it comes to developing a critical discourse in a blog setting. He’s also one of the most vocal and knowledgeable voices on The Wire, which made Monday’s discussion that much more monumental for someone whose first post on this blog was an indepth expose on violence in university broomball. I just hope that I held myself well enough not to bring a bad name to criticism from my perch in “Wannabe” land.

Overall, it was another sign of how grateful I am for Dave, Adam and Devindra having me on the /Filmcast and Dave, in particular, for egging me on to start watching The Wire this summer. I haven’t written as much about it as I would have liked, but you can find what I’ve written by clicking here. In the meantime, if I were you, I’d subscribe to the /Filmcast – it’s most certainly going to pay dividends to your critical future.

The /Filmcast Episode 29: HBO’s The Wire (f. Alan Sepinwall and I)

NOTE: There’s a forty-five minute discussion with Alan which is light spoiler territory, for those who want to know why we spend 3 1/2 hours talking about the show. What follows is a season by season breakdown, although I’ll warn you ahead of time that we sometimes spoil future seasons within discussions of other ones. So, if you’ve only seen three seasons, I’d still get through the whole thing before listening.

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