Tag Archives: Critics

Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics

Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics

August 2nd, 2010

When it comes to critical reviews of AMC’s Mad Men, each week is more about understanding the nuances of the episode than ripping it apart. And this week, with very little from January Jones’ Betty Draper (who is the series’ most divisive character) and a welcome return for a few fan favourites, the critics are largely in holiday spirits outside of their understandable frustration with the actions of one Don Draper.

It may not be quite like Christmas morning, but opening the collection of Mad Men reviews in various tabs is sort of like opening presents, so let’s take a look at what came down the chimney.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Mad Men

A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

July 27th, 2010

Last week, I wrote at length about how Matthew Weiner’s concerns regarding spoilers speaks to the awkward place of pre-air reviews, which are forced to avoid spoilers, in a climate in which post-air analysis is far more successful and prevalent in the online critical community. My basic point was that the real value of critical analysis came after the episodes aired, which is why I was looking forward to the reviews of the episode (which were great) and the subsequent reviews throughout the season.

However, those reviews have been handicapped by a decision from Weiner and AMC, covered by Variety, to no longer send episodes to critics early, which is an enormously frustrating decision. It’s not a question of entitlement: I’ve never received screeners from AMC, and screeners are ultimately a privilege which networks are not required to offer critics in general, so that is not my point of concern. It’s also not a question of whether all critics should be punished for one person who didn’t adhere to Weiner’s spoiler guidelines: that was that critic’s call to make, just as this is Weiner’s call in terms of pulling the screeners. Rather, what frustrates me is they’re entirely ignoring how online criticism actually operates: no mainstream critic does pre-air reviews of individual episodes beyond the premiere and perhaps the finale, which means that Weiner’s concern about “spoilers” is woefully misplaced in this instance.

Critics use these screeners in order to prepare their post-air analysis ahead of time, meaning that the discussion regarding the episode is able to begin as soon as it ends, and critics are able to do the proper research for cultural references or series continuity ahead of time rather than rushing to meet a deadline either to grab their slice of the SEO pie or to allow their community of readers to start the discussion of the episode. Rushing leads to reviews which fail to capture the nuance of each episode: critics could often watch an episode twice if necessary, and their reviews reflected their dedication to offering an informed perspective that helped create discussion. Now, it’s possible that my concern over this would suggest that Mad Men is a show which confounds that post-air analysis review structure, but the fact is that there are more critics than ever reviewing each individual episode, and it’s both an issue of the quality of the show and the demand from the show’s audience to have these sorts of discussions. And considering that demand, people are going to keep writing about the show, but it’s going to come late, and it might likely lack the sort of depth which critics were able to offer when they had a number of days to prepare their articles.

This likely seems like a bit of a strange argument for me to be making, since I’ve only rarely received screeners from networks, and have been watching each episode of Mad Men “live” with everyone else since the beginning. However, it’s maddening to see how much Weiner and AMC don’t understand the critical community they’re limiting in this instance. It’s entirely logical to no longer send out review copies for season premieres or season finales: not only is there some value to critics experiencing them with the general audience, but they would also likely be writing season previews, or season-in-review pieces surrounding those episodes in which the spoilers Weiner so fears may emerge. However, on a week-to-week basis, those same expectations don’t exist, and writing about the series is confined to post-air analysis and perhaps a harmless “This episode is really great” tweet or something like it. Instead of fixing the actual problem they had (a problem which I am also concerned about), they’ve fixed a problem which has never really existed, a phantom menace fabricated in order for Weiner to send a message to those critics who dared cross his path.

The way in which Weiner sent this message, attaching a note to copies of the second episode saying that the screeners are being nixed due to “inevitable spoilers,” communicates a message of distrust: critics are no longer capable of upholding his strict desire for no future details to be revealed, and so they will no longer be receiving episodes in advance. I almost respect Weiner for being so willing to come right out and say that this is entirely reactionary: he could have easily made a note about how he wanted critics to experience the episodes with the rest of the audience, a legitimate point, in an effort to limit the bluntness of the message. That he chose not to indicates that this is less about a legitimate concern over week-to-week spoilers, which I’d argue have never existed for the show to any degree beyond what AMC’s cryptic promos reveal, and more about sending a message.

And considering that this message means that the real Mad Men criticism which matters has been impacted negatively is a real shame. I should be excited, really: suddenly, I’m on the same page as everyone else, which means that my reviews will no longer be as “late” as they have been in previous seasons. However, I don’t just write about Mad Men for the stats: I write about it because I am a fan, and so I love reading others’ thoughts on each episode after finishing my own review. To know that those reviews may no longer be there when I finish, for no real reason beyond paranoia and spite, is an unfortunate state of affairs.

23 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

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.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under TV Criticism

Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Relate to “Public Relations”

Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Relate to “Public Relations”

July 26th, 2010

When I was somewhat incredulous about why anyone even the least bit afraid of spoilers would read pre-air reviews of a show like Mad Men, part of that response came from the fact that I think pre-air reviews are a horrible medium for capturing the complexity of a show like Mad Men. I am a firm believer that the best analysis from television critics comes after, and not before, an episode airs, and so while I avoided reviews before “Public Relations” aired I spent the morning (or, more accurately, the early afternoon) reading some really intelligent thoughts from the critical community.

And, as I’ve done in the past with other shows, I figured the intelligence of those comments warrants some further discussion, so let’s take a look at what the critics are saying about Mad Men’s “Public Relations.”

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”

Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”

June 21st, 2010

In Alan Sepinwall’s fantastic interview with David Simon about Treme’s first season, Simon was particularly animated about those who argue that Treme is a show light on plot. In an amendment to the earlier interview (which Simon requested to add during a subsequent conversation), Simon says the following about the criticism of the show:

When they start to sort of evaluate the arc that they can’t know, the story arcs themselves, even if they’re loving it, I just can’t take it seriously. Nobody knows what we’ve built until the end. In some ways, even though we’ve planned it out and know where we’re going, until we look at the last edit of the last episode and send it off – that’s the only point where we can look at it and go, “This worked really well, this not so much.” Until then, you can’t really tell. That’s what I was trying to say. I was not trying to say I do not take criticism seriously. Obviously, anybody who gets to the end and says, “I don’t think this worked,” that’s entirely legitimate. But I can’t take seriously stuff in the middle. It’s like reading a book report in the middle. Not to say there isn’t valid commentary about the process. Just not about arc.

Writing about Treme has been a distinct challenge (as Scott Tobias mentioned in this A.V. Club Crosstalk with Noel Murray) for those of us who write about television on a week-to-week basis, largely because “arcs” are one of the primary ways in which we evaluate individual episodes. What Simon is arguing is that it’s not really possible to evaluate an arc until it reaches its conclusion, and that while critics can like/dislike certain characters, or moments, or direction, they can’t like or dislike the story arc until they discover how it ends. In the case of Treme, these arcs were elusive on a good day and near non-existent on others, and so their presence or absence became a key part of these reviews despite Simon’s concerns.

I have a great deal of respect for Simon, and I’ll agree that he is in no way suggesting that criticism isn’t a worthwhile venture. However, I think that the “stuff in the middle” has been an important glimpse into how critics, and viewers, have been watching the series. A critics’ analysis of an individual season of television is not unlike the first season of Treme, building momentum and information until eventually reaching a conclusion: at no point do critics use individual reviews to offer definitive opinions on a storyline, their responses to episodes standing as evidence of their emotional and critical reaction to the series which build towards an eventual judgment on how the season has progressed. While a story should ultimately be judged once it has concluded, there is nothing wrong with reacting to that story as it unfolds, and critics have simply documented the ways in which they’ve responded to the series both positively and negatively over the course of a season. Even if those concerns are eventually washed away by a strong finale, or if their opinions change through the course of the year, this doesn’t mean that we should take earlier reviews less seriously: instead, we should see them as a dialogue with the text, valuable not in offering a definitive judgment of particular storylines but rather in terms of capturing the way viewers are experiencing the series as it unfolds week-by-week.

As critics confront “I’ll Fly Away,” they draw back on some of their early misgivings in order to properly elaborate on their perspectives, giving the show credit for pulling some storylines together while criticizing the show for potentially missing some opportunities with others. Simon is right that arcs can be judged prematurely, but I think critics have a responsibility to reflect the fact that watching a David Simon series requires a degree of patience that only monks could pull off without difficulty, and that while they will ultimately wait to pass judgment on the series they will have their moments of doubt which should be reflected in their reviews. While Simon is likely right that Treme (like The Wire) would benefit more from a Sepinwallian post-series rewind to these earlier episodes within the context of the broader story, critical commentary of the experience of watching Treme is valuable insight into how the arc is being read by viewers as it progresses, which is ultimately how we primarily watch television.

So as the internet’s television critics offer their views on Treme’s first season finale, all of those who have been writing about the show with some regularity acknowledge the ways in which their opinions have changed and how arcs have or have not come together, acknowledgements we can understand and see for ourselves in reading their intelligent analysis of the season’s individual episodes. As television become a more collective experience in the internet age, viewers want to be able to become part of critical communities which analyze episodes of a show like Treme and create discussion surrounding its relationship with history, its characters, its direction and, yes, its story arcs. And while writing about the show has at times been a challenge, the “stuff the middle” created intriguing conversations which extended the series’ impact beyond its individual segments, building towards a more thorough and definitive conversation to be held now, after the season has come to a close.

While I will agree with Simon that now is when the real analysis can truly take place (and has been taking place, as you’ll see from the reviews I’ll link to after the break), I wouldn’t want to have lost the dialogues which emerged throughout the season, if only because I can’t imagine how long my already ludicrously long review would have been if I had held it all in – while Simon’s concern is not entirely misplaced, the experience of Treme was better for the discussions which emerged from critical reviews, and so long as critics continue to reserve judgment within their analysis of individual episodes I will continue to take them seriously in the future.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Treme

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.

Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under Cultural Studies

Lost the Morning After: Critics face “The End”

Lost the Morning After: Critics face “The End”

May 24th, 2010

Writing about the end of a television show is a lot like writing about the end of a war. When a war comes to a close, people want to know the facts of how it came to an end, and they want to understand the legacy that it will leave behind, and the same goes for a television show: people want to “understand” the ending, and they want to see the “big picture” in order to evaluate the series as a whole.

However, for critics who have been reviewing the series episode-by-episode, this is a greater challenge than I think people realize. It isn’t that we don’t have opinions about “The End” in terms of where it fits into Lost’s big picture or how its ending concludes the series’ long-term storylines, but rather that we have been in the trenches, so to speak, for years of our lives. Noel Murray likened writing about Lost weekly to “reports from the field…recording immediate impressions,” but now we’re forced to combine the immediacy of our response to the finale with this desire for closure, both within the viewing audience and within our own expectations. These critics are the embedded reporters, people who have dedicated so much of their time to cataloging their immediate responses that channeling that energy towards the end of the series seems like a different and in some cases counter-intuitive experience.

However, they’re also the people who offer a valuable glimpse into the series’ run as a whole, both in their wide-reaching commentary and in their specific analysis of “The End” and its various mysteries and reveals. Their “reports from the field” may be over, but the final transmission will serve as a wonderful starting point for the larger discussion, so let’s take a closer look at their analysis and see how the process of historicizing Lost’s impact begins.

Continue reading

11 Comments

Filed under Lost

The Lost Weekend: Reflections on Reviewing Lost

Reflections on Reviewing Lost

May 22nd, 2010

There are a lot of articles floating around the internet right now about Lost’s legacy (including a great one from my brother), but I don’t necessarily know if I’m prepared to contribute to them.

This comes from the fact that I’ve already written about nearly every facet of this series. Because of my recent “Television, The Aughts & I” series, I’ve written extensively about how Lost was part of my initial initiation into the world of being a television obsessive. Due to the complaints piling up even before this past season began, I already wrote my lengthy diatribe against those who believe that Lost “owes” something to its fans. Since we were also already in a list-making mood before Season Six, I’ve done my list of key episodes as well. And not only has the mysterious nature of Season 6 kept the series’ conclusion almost entirely unpredictable, but reviewing every episode along the way means that I’ve already analyzed much of the season’s narrative in great detail.

However, I feel like I’m letting the haters win if I don’t write something “broad” ahead of the finale: I’ve been arguing for weeks that the people who believe that a finale could fundamentally change their opinion of the series are a bit nuts, so to avoid writing about the series’ legacy (definitively speaking) until after the finale would be conceding defeat on that particular argument.

So, taking all of this into account, I figure the best way to write about Lost is to write about the experience of writing about Lost, which feels especially timely considering the attack on Lost criticism in Mike Hale’s New York Times piece I responded to on Thursday. I am not paid to write about Lost, nor are paid critics necessarily required to write as much about the show as they do. If we ask why myself or my fellow critics write about the show with such passion, the answer would be part reflection on the show itself, part reflection on the fan culture surrounding the show, and part reflection on the ways in which television criticism has evolved over the past six years.

Critics write about Lost for reasons beyond its popularity, just as bloggers write about Lost for reasons beyond blog stats, and their reasons offer an interesting glimpse into Lost’s legacy and an explanation for why so many of us will be burning the midnight oil long into Monday morning and still writing about the show in the months ahead.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Lost

Lost in Lost’s Critical Culture: A Response to the New York Times

Lost in Lost’s Critical Culture

May 20th, 2010

The end of Lost is going to create a deluge of pieces celebrating the show, but it’s also going to create a lot of pieces which claim quite the opposite. I don’t want to suggest that the latter is in some way invalid, as not everyone is required to be a fan of the show, and there are plenty of arguments to be made that Lost’s success sent the other networks on a wild goose chase for a similar series which has in some ways crippled dramatic development over the past number of years.

These pieces are going to be a dime a dozen this week, but I want to make a few comments regarding Mike Hale’s piece at the New York Times, “In ‘Lost,’ Mythology Trumps Mystery,” where he makes some fairly contentious arguments. The piece, which reads as if it could be an artifact from the show’s third season as much as its sixth, makes the claim that Lost’s only good season was its first, which I would personally contest but which is Hale’s opinion. I don’t agree with his classification of the show, and I have some concerns with the way in he boils down the series to suit his argument, but he’s entitled to dislike the show as much as he likes.

However, I am personally offended at the way in which Hale attacks those people who do like the show, especially those who choose to write about it. It is one thing to say that Lost itself has failed to live up to his own expectations, but it’s quite another to make the claim that critics and fans have become sheep being led by Shepherds Lindelof and Cuse – not only is this patently untrue of critics of the series, but it is also belittling to those fans whose Lost experience has been enriched, rather than obfuscated, through the interactive experience of watching this series.

There is room for a critical analysis of the ways in which the relationship between Lost and its fans has been managed, but Hale is more interested in vilifying rather than embracing its complexity, and it makes for a frustrating piece of journalism.

Continue reading

18 Comments

Filed under Lost

Lost the Morning After: Critics Ponder “What They Died For”

Critics Ponder “What They Died For”

May 19th, 2010

Trapped between perhaps the most divisive episode in the show’s history and a sprawling two and a half hour finale shrouded in mystery, “What They Died For” is a bit tough to “criticize.” Generally speaking, the episode was dramatically strong and effective at providing momentum heading into the finale, but with no guarantees that the payoff will live up to our expectations there is this sense of uncertainty which means that this weeks reviews from critics are sort of hedging their bets.

Normally, you might claim this is in some way counterproductive, but it means that critics are focused on making connections to past episodes and offering their own takes on how the developments in this episode apply to larger ideas within Lost as a whole. It makes for another strong week of Lost criticism, as the setup work done in “What They Died For” is mirrored by critics setting up their own perspectives on the series as we head into Sunday’s finale.

So, let’s take a journey around the internet to see what the critics are saying, shall we?

Continue reading

13 Comments

Filed under Lost