Tag Archives: Television Criticism

Recap by Default: Why Terminology Matters To How We Write About Writing About TV

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In the wake of Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, which itself comes in the wake of Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, there has been new scrutiny placed on the culture of television criticism. In Ken Tucker and Phillip Maciak’s reviews of Difficult Men—Maciak also covers Sepinwall’s book—they each delve into the culture of “TV recaps” as a rejoinder between the shows being canonized by the authors and the culture with which those shows are being analyzed. It’s an acknowledgement that how we write about television matters, which extends Jaime Weinman’s argument that we are in a “golden age of taking TV seriously.”

In Tucker and Maciak’s reviews we see an interesting crosstalk, where Maciak ably dissects Tucker’s broad dismissal of what Martin refers to as “the strange and telling practice of ‘recapping.'” Tucker picks up Martin’s dismissal and runs with it, expounding on “the challenge of creating diverse aesthetic principles that rise above the Internet’s limited range of extracritical responses, which typically run the gamut from this-is-awesome! blog posts to fitfully edited twelve-thousand-word essays about this or that show’s elaborate ‘mythology.'” While citing a number of—great—critics who are indeed capable of “rising above” the apparent limitations of the form, Tucker largely paints recap culture as the venue for “the adoring gaze of online fanboys and fangirls.”

Maciak picks away at Tucker’s case, not so much disagreeing with his call for more serious television criticism as he is claiming that “the culture of online television commentary has expanded, rather than degraded, our critical culture.” With more space than Tucker to explore the nuances of the current landscape of television criticism, Maciak finds a larger sample of diverse writing about television that ranges in terms of genre, focus, and audience. Rightfully picking away at Tucker’s emphasis on asking “proper artistic questions,” Maciak makes a strong case for how the culture of instant responses to television has proliferated not as a dichotomy of fanboys and obsessives but rather as a spectrum of incredible breadth and depth (even if sometimes in a shorter form than the critics Tucker cites from other media).

It’s a rich conversation, one that reflects some of my own thoughts on the rise of episodic television criticism from a number of years ago. However, it’s also a conversation that bears the mark of our culture’s mass acceptance of “recap” as an acceptable term for this diverse range of ways of writing about television. If Tucker were speaking about the actual practice of night-of “recapping” which manifests as a basic plot rundown with minimal commentary, I agree with his argument; when he extends to the suggestion that most episodic criticism fits under this umbrella term, his argument is reductive. Maciak, meanwhile, goes so far as to acknowledge Matt Zoller Seitz’s use of “overnight review,” but ultimately accepts “recap” as an acceptable term for describing all types of episodic criticism while arguing for the critical capacity of that form.

I have long stood as the standard bearer of drawing a distinction between recaps and reviews, to the point where it’s kind of a joke. I made the distinction initially because I was seeing the work of critics I admired being forcibly labeled as recaps based on the belief from websites that the term was better optimized for search engines. However, over time my concern has grown to pieces like Tucker’s and Maciak’s which beyond the goal of SEO optimization accept the term’s ubiquity (if critically, in Maciak’s case), which was my real concern when considering the web practices of sites like AOL—now Huffington Post—or HitFix. I was the crazy person signaling an alarm bell over something that—while certainly still a first world problem if ever there was one—has had a negative impact on a larger public understanding of television criticism.

While I’d argue Tucker and Maciak’s pieces together represent a productive and ultimately constructive conversation (even if Tucker’s brushstrokes are too broad), today’s Wall Street Journal trend piece from John Jurgensen—entitled “The TV Recappers: From Breaking Bad to Honey Boo Boo”—is more problematic in its claim to be capturing the broader culture of writing about television. While rightfully tracking the lineage of episodic television criticism from its TWoP origins (although oddly addressing neither the fact those recaps are posted days after an episode airs nor the way the site has evolved in a contemporary moment), the article accepts “Recap” and “Recapper” as blanket terms to describe every single form of writing that emerged in what Jurgensen terms a “cottage industry.”

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That was (writing about) Arrested Development: TV Criticism in a Binge-Viewing Era

Arrested-Development-Season-4-PosterThere have been suggestions floating around in comment sections that the Netflix model—the decision to release every episode all at once—eliminates the function of traditional episodic television criticism. With viewers now able to choose the pace at which they watch episodes, potentially watching an entire season of Arrested Development in one session if they’re so inclined, the need for critics to evaluate individual episodes is no longer present. This is doubly the case, some would argue, with the puzzle-like structure of Arrested Development’s fourth season, which further confounds episodic analysis through its choice to emphasize each episode’s connection to a larger story arc one can’t truly appreciate until you’ve seen all fifteen episodes.

We’ve been talking about the former ever since Netflix released all of House of Cards at once in February, and there has been further conversation in the buildup to Arrested Development’s this weekend (including the ridiculous theory that critics are biased against Netflix for destroying their cultural purpose, a claim I responded to here). However, I have to admit that I’m not sure Netflix’s paradigm shift is actually anything close to a paradigm shift. Putting aside the fact that Netflix’s claim we will in the future move to a completely mass-release system of television distribution—which I talked about in a CBC Web Chat last week—ignores a lot of functional realities of the television industry which have permeated even webseries distribution patterns, I still feel like episodic and other forms of television criticism are useful and productive within the space of binge viewing habits.

Any suggestion to the contrary seems to be operating with a very limited conception of how and why episodic criticism is written, which functions in opposition to the ways in which binge viewing can allow us to expand—rather than contract—forms of television criticism in the wake of the binge viewing moment.

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2011: The Year That Wasn’t – A Cultural Rewind

“Introduction”

Looking back on 2011, I think it will be clearly marked as the year in which I no longer came to associate with the term “blogger.”

Now, to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that I have done so due to this term being derogatory: bloggers are good people, and serve as an important voice within the world of people who write about television (and, of course, numerous other subjects). However, more simply, I don’t think I updated Cultural Learnings enough in 2011 to justify laying claim to the title (given, for example, that this is my first post in well over a month).

The dropoff in posts has come out of necessity, primarily – the time I would spend blogging has been swallowed by increased responsibilities related to the “real life” side of my existence, which has left the “online life” side of things to occasional Twitter observations and my more “professional” work at The A.V. Club. On some level, my semester became a choice between continuing to watch television and writing about it, a devil’s gambit that led to a lack of content here on the blog and a surplus of content on my DVR.

I will admit, though, that I’m not entirely convinced I missed it. As Twitter becomes a more prominent form of discourse within the world of television criticism, and as my teaching responsibilities became more connected to the television I watch (and the meanings we draw from it), I haven’t felt as though I’ve said nothing about the things I’ve watched. However, I realize that on some level I’m going from over-explaining my thoughts about particular shows (like, for example, Community) to largely letting occasional 140-character observations represent my general opinion. I’m sure a psychiatrist would consider this a breakthrough given my penchant for verbosity, but it does create a vacuum of sorts for regular readers (especially those of you who might not use Twitter, who may think I’ve fallen off the face of the earth a bit).

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Goodbye, 2009: A Brief Rumination on the Year That Was

Looking back, 2009 was a great year for television, and I’d also argue that 2009 was a great year for the online television community.

This has been the first year where I have felt comfortable self-identifying with a particular term within that community, “critic.” It isn’t that I would suggest I only started writing criticism this year, but rather that being unaffiliated with any media outlet, and lacking any formal journalistic training, places me in a liminal position between critic and “blogger,” a term which has gained an unfortunately (and unfairly) derogatory context over the past number of years.

Friend of the Blog (and of myself – I just really like the term “friend of the blog”) Dave Chen wrote a piece this week in response to a charge that film bloggers are killing film criticism as we know it, and he rightly argues that such a claim makes broad generalizations regarding the quality of bloggers writing about film. It’s a fantastic read overall, but this passage in particular resonated with me:

Fragmentation is not death. And film criticism can still remain a respected form of cultural examination, far into the future. But it starts with a spirit of acceptance and magnanimity. When those who have been doing this for a long time try to help those who haven’t – instead of lamenting the current state of things – I think we’ll all be better off.

And it got me thinking of what 2009 meant for me personally, in the year where I entered the world of television criticism in earnest. I won’t pretend that there isn’t the same sense of vilifying fragmentation in television criticism (as this essay demonstrates), but I would argue it is a minority opinion; considering my own experience, entering into the world of television criticism based on a blog which started with no such intentions, I have been humbled and honoured by the level of support offered by established critics. Through the joys of Twitter (which saw an increase in critical presence over the past year), critical dialogue has become a collective conversation about this medium we love, a conversation that I’ve loved being a part of even within the confines of the digital space. There was a moment earlier this year where a large group of critics (myself included) got into a lengthy discussion about Chuck and a number of other subjects, and I pondered aloud where else such a conversation could take place. The immediate answer I received was a bar (touché), but the idea of recreating in a digital space that type of interaction has (in my mind) invigorated the television critic’s position in the online television industry.

So, as we enter 2010, I wanted to thank all of the critics who have been kind enough to interact with me over the past year, as well as my fellow bloggers who have added their own voices into the mix. At the same time, I also want to thank all of Cultural Learnings’ readers for commenting and offering your own voices into these conversations; I want to be able to follow the examples of those who have much more experience at this in terms of interacting with readership, so I truly appreciate any tweets or comments that may come my way. I firmly believe that the online television community is in fact a larger whole, and that critics, academics, bloggers, readers, and simple viewers are all working towards a common goal of the appreciation (whether critical, academic, or just for simple pleasure) of this medium.

My only hope is that the year to come continues to demonstrate the collective intelligence and love for television that exists within this great group of individuals, whether they be established critics who do this for a living or people like me (or, people like you) who do it out of pure enjoyment.

All the best to everyone in 2010,

Myles

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