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.
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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