Tag Archives: Recap

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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Saturday Night Live – “May 8th: Betty White and Jay-Z”

“Betty White and Jay-Z”

May 8th, 2010

I wrote yesterday that I didn’t think that Saturday Night Live could pull of an episode which lived up to the hype surrounding Betty White’s triumphant ascension to the position of host for this week’s penultimate episode of the season, but I’ll admit I underestimated the infectiousness of her personality and the amount of material they would choose to give her (keeping the returning alumni largely sidelined in favour of White). However, I was right in that the show didn’t really have much material for her, relying too heavily on sex jokes, her age (which worked for a while but felt overdone), and the incongruity of an old lady saying dirty/angry things for me to say that they really rose to the occasion.

As a celebration of women on “SNL,” the episode showed that there have been some funny performers from the show’s past who are part of an important legacy of comedy on television; however, as an episode of “SNL,” the episode indicated that they still don’t entirely know how to write for those women in a way which delivers on their potential.

For all of my thoughts on the episode, though, you can check out my complete recap of the show over at HitFix.com, where I run down all of the individual sketches, including the genius of the Digital Short. Here’s a brief introduction to that review, then head over to HitFix for the rest.

Betty White is an extremely funny lady, Jay-Z is a darn engaging performer, and when you start listing off “Saturday Night Live” alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch you can’t help but think back to some pretty darn memorable sketches and characters. In other words, on paper, this has the potential to be one of the strongest episodes of the series in a very long time.

However, the big question I had going into tonight’s episode is whether it will actually be able to properly do justice to this potential: White seems too old to be able to carry a full host’s load, and while bringing in a wheelbarrow full of past cast members allows her to take on fewer sketches it may also crowd out her contribution to the episode. The balance between the internet-appointed host and the likes of Fey and Poehler is not going to be easy, and I don’t know how Betty White fans will respond to Jay-Z as the musical guest.

Ultimately, the most-hyped “SNL” since the 2008 election delivers what it promises: with an absolutely journeywoman-esque performance from White and some energy from the returning cast members, the show turns in one of its most enjoyable episodes in recent memory even if the material never quite feels like it earns the talent who bring it to life.

[For my complete recap of Betty White on SNL, click here.]

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Hope You Didn’t Take It Seriously (Ricky Didn’t): The 2010 Golden Globe Awards

Hope You Didn’t Take It Seriously (Ricky Didn’t):

The 2010 Golden Globe Awards

January 17th, 2010

I said going into the 67th Annual Golden Globes Awards that I was more excited than ever to watch the show but the least “interested” in the actual awards that I’ve ever been. And that made for an interesting viewing experience as what I was excited for most disappointed me, with Ricky Gervais’ hosting gig becoming a muddled mess from the moment he started.

However, while I’ll get into that below the jump, what’s interesting is how liberating it was to have no emotional connection with the winners: admittedly, I’m usually one of those cynical objective types when it comes to these awards, so I’m not going to be legitimately outraged, but not having been “following” the nominees in detail made the show a lot more fun. It helped me see the show more for what it is, an entertaining amalgamation of what’s popular, whats trendy, and what’s been successful with audiences. And while you could argue the show at times feels like the People’s Choice Awards and other times feels like a Hollywood roast of those who have been around the business forever, it’s never boring.

And although I thought we could have gotten a far better show out of what was on the table, I have to say that I enjoyed watching it. And let’s face it: that’s all the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is really going for.

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Who Won The Amazing Race Season 15, and Did They Deserve It?

“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound!”

December 6th, 2009

For three seasons, I have asked this question, and for three seasons I always wonder why I asked it in the first place.

You see, I like to think myself objective about The Amazing Race, more capable than most of separating my personal feelings for each individual team from my analysis of each individual leg. This isn’t to suggest that I don’t have teams I like more than others, but ever since I started writing television criticism I like to keep my distance to manage disappointment (like last year’s early exit from Mike and Mel and this year’s tragic end for Justin and Zev) and be able to avoid sounding too bitter if something goes wrong.

However, the reason I asked this question in the first place (and why I continue to ask it despite my supposed objectivity) is that the final leg of The Amazing Race always raises this question whether we’re trying to detach ourselves or not. The very nature of the race is that we’ve seen these teams at their highest and lowest, and the editors have done everything in their power to make their inevitable finish in this race as meaningful as possible.

For Meghan and Cheyne, that finish would symbolize the strength of their relationship as evidenced by their teamwork throughout the race (the frontrunners). For Brian and Ericka, the win would symbolize the strength of their relationship and more importantly their ability to bounce back from near defeat (the underdogs). And for Sam and Dan, after intense focus on “dishonest acts” in recent weeks, the win would demonstrate that doing everything it takes to win the Race is both opportunistic and highly effective (the villains).

And for at least some viewers, each of these teams would represent a “deserving” victory of The Amazing Race’s 15th journey around the globe – for me, I’d say that any one of them would have deserved it, but I think it’s tough to argue that the “right” team didn’t win.

So, time to found out: who won The Amazing Race?

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Summering in Deadwood: “Sold Under Sin” (The End of Season One)

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Summering in Deadwood: “Sold Under Sin”

Season One, Episode Twelve

[A note before we move on: friend of the blog Todd VanDerWerff is going through the show from a different perspective than I am, having already seen it, and is recapping the show for The A.V. Club. You can check out his thoughts on the first three episodes there – I am sure they are far more entertaining than my own.]

Just as I expected, there was a moment in Season One of Deadwood where my ability to successfully stop after each episode to blog about it, or to find enough time after watching a disc to sufficiently try to summarize where things were going to that point, pretty much disappeared. This isn’t a sign that I have become disinterested in the show, or even necessarily that I was so engrossed that I couldn’t take the time to stop. Rather, it was a combination from some “real world” commitments and the fact that this show may have some of the most unique pacing I’ve seen in a drama of this nature.

Admittedly, I’m used to watching The Wire in terms of my epic ensemble HBO shows go, and as such I got used to a single plotline denoting a season, and that plotline representing the plot that you could sort of follow your way through. In the process, you learn things about each character, the process serving as the main impetus while the characters react as seems necessary, often times to tragic or at the very least suspenseful results.

But what I’m learning watching “Sold Under Sin” is that Deadwood operates differently: yes, each season represents more one large storyline than any small selection of storylines contributing to a whole, but what sets Deadwood apart is that there isn’t really a plot to speak of. While the show’s finale shows the outside world infiltrating this lawless camp more than it has before, the show has been clear from the beginning that this was an inevitability, rather than anything we would find surprising or that would bring forth surprising behaviour from these characters.

On some level, this would be a complaint about another show: I can’t think of a single characters whose path has fundamentally surprised me, or gone in a different direction than I expected, and the show has relied almost entirely on nuance and performance in terms of its characters fulfilling predetermined destiny more than charting their own path. The show’s plot, meanwhile, has moved so slowly that a majority of its more explosive conflicts are left entirely absent from the finale, left smoldering while smaller and more recent conflicts prove the most dramatic in the episode. If we were to judge this finale based on these qualifiers, expecting dramatic shifts in character or plot resolution, “Sold Under Sin” is an abject failure.

But, just to be clear, this isn’t a show that should be judged on those qualities: those acting nuances are just plain compelling, the performances coming alive in this episode as in every episode right in line with Milch’s particular brand of dialogue, and the smoldering embers of conflict in the town are so full of potential that it was all I could do, even finishing the finale as the sun rose, to keep from popping in the first disc of Season Two.

And isn’t that the right way to judge a show, especially one which has clearly not yet begun (and considering its cancellation might not end) its journey?

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BSG: The Long Goodbye – Introduction

bsggoodbye

Introduction

March 23rd, 2009

I have written a lot about Battlestar Galactica over the past two years of this blog. One of my very first posts, in fact, was about how Battlestar Galactica was more or less taking over my life, leading me to see parallels in literature, in every day life, and expecting in some way that it would slowly meld with my own life. And, on Friday night, it pretty well did: after watching the finale, I shut myself into my room and turned out an epic, sprawling and rather indulgent review that was part catharsis and part exorcism. It was not, however, a goodbye.

I don’t think I’ll ever say “goodbye” to the show, what with the DVDs I could watch, or the academic papers I might eventually write, but at the same time I felt after writing that review that I need some more time, and some more posts, to really come to terms with this ending. And so, throughout the week I’ll be posting a myriad of thoughts on the show, whether it’s some links to the views of other critics, or an extended analysis of Season Four’s narrative structure, or potentially even something I’ve been resisting for a while but may have found its ideal time frame in the wake of the finale. I’m also considering the rather insane task of confronting the issue of the finale’s religious elements, but perhaps I’ll come to my senses before wading into that particular conflict.

Regardless, it’s one last chance to get some of this off my chest before I know I’ll have to put it on the backburner in favour of academic pursuits.

Monday:

The Critical Response to “Daybreak” – A collection of various critical analyses of the finale, with some of my own insight sprinkled in for good measure.

Tuesday:

Finale Discussion – A two-hour discussion of the series finale done with Devindra Hardawar and Meredith Woerner, recorded as a special edition of the /Filmcast, is now available for download at the above link.

Wednesday:

The Trouble with Twenty – As ironic as it sounds, an analysis of how the problems of feeling like the season needed more time could have been solved by shortening its season to tighten the show’s narrative.

Thursday:

The Real Higher Power – With all this talk of God and religion, let’s realize who really holds the most control in the BSG universe: Bear McCreary, composer of the Gods, controls our emotions and reactions more than any writer, producer, or higher power ever could.

Friday:

Romancing the Cylon, Revisited – My obsession with BSG is perhaps best represented by my undergraduate thesis about the series’ connection with Medieval Romance, so what better way to finish this cathartic week than spreading it to the world?

[Come back daily for another dose of The Long Goodbye.]

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Fringe – “Bound”

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“Bound”

January 20th, 2009

When it takes four people to write an episode of television, it is easy to become suspicious: there is nothing about “Bound” that screams as if it needs to have so many cooks in the kitchen, and the show has enough trouble keeping a consistent tone as it is without having so many independent voices in the writer’s room.

But this is a huge episode for Fringe: it is the first to air behind American Idol, the biggest lead-in in television and, as a result, a real test of the show’s ability to draw in new viewers. As a result, I can see why four writers had enough of a hand in this episode: it has to introduce potentially new viewers to the universe while at the same time dealing with the fall finale of sorts which left Olivia Dunham in the hands of some dangerous people.

What “Bound” becomes is a prime example of why these types of mid-season reboots for the purpose of drawing in new viewers are inherently dangerous, if not why they are an entirely bad idea: the episode is not a complete disaster by any means, and its back to basics approach will probably help it draw in some of the post-Idol audience for a few weeks at the very least.

But the problem lies in the fact that they bring to head a long gestating question of double agency in an episode where they are treading carefully with serialized elements: it’s hard to feel the sense of finality or build-up we should have felt when everything felt too clean due to the episode’s lack of time to really get dirty. There was something about the episode that just felt a bit too clean, mouth slugs be damned, and while I get the reasoning I can’t help but feel it’s nonetheless a step back in terms of momentum.

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