Tag Archives: Reviews

Transitions: Covering The Office for The A.V. Club

Transitions: Covering The Office for The A.V. Club

September 21st, 2010

As a freelance critic with an emphasis on the “free,” my goal is to write about what interests me: while I am, admittedly, in the midst of transitioning back into the world of academia, criticism is simply part of how I watch television, and so my goal is to find those series which compel me to write about them despite my lack of free time in which to do so. This includes complex serialized dramas like Mad Men, unsung comedies like Cougar Town, intriguing new drama series like Lone Star, or complete – if pleasurable – messes like Glee.

It also includes The Office, although it might not under different circumstances. Last season was a disaster for the show creatively: while Jim and Pam’s wedding was a highlight, the rest of the season was a meandering affair which tried to find comedy in corporate turnover and came up empty-handed. The problem with the Sabre arc was that it presented itself as an insurrection but was in fact wholly ineffectual: in fact, the office actually devolved under Sabre’s leadership, with Michael and Jim returning to their original positions and Andy and Erin offering a rewind to the days of Jim and Pam. While things appeared to change on the surface, the structures of the show were more stale than ever before, and this discrepancy forced myself and many others to reflect on why we were still watching the series.

If the result of this reflection was “Michael Scott” or “Steve Carell” (it was neither for me), then the seventh season promises to be testing: with Carell officially departing at the end of the year to move onto other opportunities (and to spend more time with his family), the show is in a period of transition unseen in television comedy since Spin City (where Michael J. Fox left the series in 2000, replaced by Charlie Sheen). The question becomes whether the show can survive without Carell, both in terms of how Michael’s departure will affect the office ensemble and in terms of how viewers will respond to the unquestionable star of the show departing.

While many may find this concerning, I’ll admit to finding it pretty fascinating: the show is in the unique position of being able to plan an entire season around an impending change in the series’ structure, which makes the seventh season an exercise in transition and preparation that is not often seen in television comedy. Suddenly the show has a purpose again, balancing the end of Michael Scott’s arc on the series with the process of preparing to introduce someone entirely new next year. I may not have complete faith that they’ll be able to pull this off, but instead of watching one of my favourite shows slowly melt away in front of my eyes I get to see the show scramble to ensure it can continue on without its star. While creatively I am a bit apprehensive, I am more critically intrigued than I’ve ever been with the show, and that’s really what matters.

And it’s what led me to accept an offer to cover the show for The A.V. Club, as my title gave away long before you got to this particular sentence – with A.V. Club staffer Amelie Gillette writing for the show, they needed someone from outside of the inner circle to cover the series, and so I have the ominous task of filling Nathan Rabin’s shoes in the season ahead. It’s a tremendous opportunity to engage in a more public form of critical discourse, as I am looking forward to seeing how the commenters respond to the changes and how the critical community at large responds to the (hopefully) creative behind-the-scenes efforts to pull off this transition. I too, of course, will need to transition to a different environment writing for TV Club, but that will simply be part of the journey: I’ll avoid listing names so as to avoid turning this into a laundry list, but I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the collective team writing reviews for the site, and to be in their company is truly an honour.

Whether or not the show will live up to this honour is yet to be seen, but frankly I’m just glad that The Office feels like a journey again: after a season without direction, the show has a clear purpose heading forward, and for better or worse I’m along for the ride.

The A.V. Club – TV Club – The Office

So, look for my first review on Thursday night – I’ll likely post a notice here as well as include a link in the sidebar.

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Series Premiere: Boardwalk Empire – “Pilot”

“Pilot”

September 19th, 2010

I could very, very easily write a couple of thousand words about the pilot for Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s latest prestige drama series which debuted last night. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning (well, relative to when I should have gone to bed) to watch the pilot, and I enjoyed it a great deal: Steve Buscemi’s performance is spectacular, Martin Scorsese was his usual talented self in the director’s chair, and Terence Winter has crafted a world which promises great return on investment for viewers.

The problem, however, is twofold. First of all, my Sundays are pretty much devoted to Mad Men at this point – Rubicon, for example, has been piling up on the DVR not because I’m not interested, but because there just isn’t enough time to give the series its due on Sundays and the rest of the week is just too busy to catch up. This means that it’s difficult to fit in yet another complex serialized drama, at least until Mad Men concludes its season in a month’s time.

The more important factor, meanwhile, is that the critics have the first five episodes, and many of them are devoting themselves to full-fledge weekly analysis of the kind which I would be creating. Normally, I wouldn’t use this as an excuse not to write: if I didn’t write reviews because other people were writing them instead, Alan Sepinwall and The A.V. Club would have scared me off a long time ago. However, starting a new degree program as I am, there comes a point where I need to make a decision: do I want to watch Boardwalk Empire and enjoy it, or watch Boardwalk Empire and feel the stress of trying to write about it?

As a result, this may be my last word on Boardwalk Empire for a while – as usual, I’ll probably be tempted into writing something when the show gets particularly spectacular in the weeks ahead, but it will remain something short instead of something fully detailed. If you’re looking for that sort of analysis, it’s like I say: between Todd VanderWerff at The L.A. Times, Noel Murray at The A.V. Club, Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, and (eventually, he promises) James Poniewozik at Time, I think the critical community has this one covered.

However, I do want to offer a few more detailed thoughts about the pilot, while I’ve got the time.

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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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Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”

Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”

September 6th, 2010

It’s pretty much consistent across the board: last night’s Mad Men, “The Suitcase,” was a season and even series highlight. As Todd VanDerWerff put it in his must-read review at The A.V. Club,

This is the kind of episode that, years from now, we’ll think of when we try to remember just what it was we loved about Mad Men, an episode that uses virtually every weapon in the show’s arsenal, yet leaves almost all of its moments and scenes unexpected. It’s so good that I want to call off the rest of the TV season and say this is as good as it’s going to get.

That’s generally the consensus, albeit to different degrees of hyperbole, which would make delving further into the episode myself a bit redundant: I already wrote my rave about the episode, and the week’s reviews pretty much cover everything else. So, instead, I want to spend a bit of time dialoguing with the recently returning Maureen Ryan, who is now the lead television critic at AOL Television (which runs TV Squad). She posted two substantial pieces on the season thus far last week, and then jumped back into the review game with “The Suitcase,” so I figured there’s no better way to welcome her back than to delve a bit further into her commentary (which I’ll do after the break).

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Mad Men the Weekend After: Critics accept “The Rejected”

Mad Men the Weekend After: Critics accept “The Rejected”

August 20th, 2010

I was without access to a television on Sunday evening, and in the chaos of moving I wasn’t able to get to this week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Rejected,” until yesterday. It was a bit nerve wracking to be in the dark regarding the episode, but this was a particularly strange episode to experience this with: I kept getting cryptic tweets about pears showing up in my Twitter feed, and every time I went shopping I had people asking if I had purchased pears at the store. It created an intriguing sort of mystery, a clue which I figured must be pretty important to have resonated so much with the audience.

Of course, the pears were an oddity, resonating with the audience because of how abstract that final scene seems in relation to the rest of the episode. This is actually one of the most thematically consistent episodes of the series in recent memory, leaning heavily on broad thematic material (in the form of a consideration of the value of marriage) and on our knowledge of previous events (in the form of Pete and Peggy’s divergent paths). It was an episode which rejected the series’ traditional sense that past and present relate to our own time and the nostalgic view of the 1960s, instead reclaiming past, present and future for these characters and their glimpses into the future.

And now, before I end up reviewing the episode in its entirety, let’s get onto “The Rejected” in a bit more detail and see what some critics thought about it.

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Mad Men the Morning After: Critics get “The Good News”

Mad Men the Morning After: Critics get “The Good News”

August 9th, 2010

Things are a bit busier today, and in fact for the foreseeable future, so today’s Mad Men the Morning After will be a little different: there’s one review I want to dialogue with, but I might have to settle with links and quotes for the rest of them, as much as it pains me to not go into further detail, especially since “The Good News” was an episode with a lot of subtext and, as it turns out, some disagreement.

This is actually the format I’m likely to be going with from now on: writing about each review is great in theory, but I just won’t have the time to keep it up: however, I like the idea of the critical dialogue involved, so I think I’ll be finding an hour of my Mondays to collect the reviews in the future.

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Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

August 3rd, 2010

I am not surprised to learn that critics, as a whole, are not jumping on the bandwagon for 18 to Life, the Canadian comedy which was recently purchased by The CW to fill out part of its summer schedule and which debuts with two back-to-back episodes at 9/8c. I watched and more or less enjoyed the show’s first season when it aired on CBC, but I did it without much emotional attachment, and certainly without any critical analysis (which is why reviews never materialized beyond the pilot). I appreciate some of the series’ choices, and am intrigued by the show it developed into, but it is unquestionably a simple pleasure rather than a complex reinvention of television comedy.

However, I was a surprised to see how many critics have been stuck on the series’ premise, and disappointed to see how many critics are unable to get past the stereotype of Canadian television and summer television as lesser entities in expressing their dislike of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve read pre-air reviews of a series which I’ve seen in its entirety, but most of the series’ reviews ignore the show itself and instead focus on attacking either its origins, its scheduling, or the apparent offensiveness of its premise – while I understand that these are all part of the series’ impact, that these critics have not bothered to watch closely enough to see the kind of show which 18 to Life is becoming seems a disservice to a show which is just trying to be an old-fashioned traditional sitcom.

Which doesn’t make it brilliant, but does make it something that doesn’t deserve this level of scorn.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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