Last week, I posted a piece in which I called for a new kind of television criticism. In truth, it’s not especially new so much as a return to the old. In short, it called for a type of criticism based not on the weekly recap/review model that currently dominates the industry but rather one dictated by authorial passion. This model won’t work for everyone: I doubt the sites for which I work will suddenly dismantle their business models and re-arrange them around “passion.” That’s fine. That essay wasn’t meant to call those models bad. It was only meant to call them limiting. And since there are far more people that aren’t in those models that want to write about television that are in them, I wanted to give those on the “outside” a way to try and reframe their approach to declutter the landscape and provide some exciting, unique takes on television.
What forms those new takes on television eventually assume will be up to the authors willing to assume the responsibility. Mostly, I am concerned with getting in people with a myriad of viewpoints, backgrounds, and takes on the small screen. Getting that multitude of viewpoints will hopefully lead in and of itself to new ways of approaching a “review.” I put review in quotes there not because these new versions will be pale imitations of the original, but because they will hopefully not look and feel like reviews upon immediate consumption. That’s a good thing: staring at a series of 1000-1500 word essays is a monotonous experience, no matter how well written that series may be.
Even if form is ultimately unimportant to the final product, I thought I’d throw down four things that every television review should do, regardless of its ultimate presentation. Why not five? BECAUSE I’M A REBEL LIKE THAT. Also, only four really came to mind. And rather than force a fifth one in here, I’m taking my own advice and writing what I feel strongly about. Think of these as extremely loose rules that will help frame any potential approach to criticism in this new online order.
1) Provide the reader with fresh insight.
My quick breakdown of “recap” versus “review”: A “recap” tells you what you just saw. A “review” tells you the meaning of what you just saw. We can get into the semiotics of “recap” versus “review” another time, but above all, readers should come away from a review feeling like they know more about the show in question than they did before reading your piece. Your insights need not be earth-shattering, nor should you pull insight out of your ass just to have something to say. Remember, the central tenet of the new television criticism is that you have something to say each time you write. If you can’t find something new to present to readers, don’t write anything at all. This leads to the next tenet…
2) Start the conversation, not end it.
Sorry, you’re not going to “solve” the episode/season/series that you’re analyzing. And trying to do so is both the height of arrogance and a radical misunderstanding of what television criticism is. Trying to write about everything is a fool’s errand, one that will burn you out quickly. Given the breadth of television criticism online, it’s not about talking about every single detail. It’s about tackling what interests you, and hopefully sparking new thoughts in the minds of readers/commenters. Yes, you will get plenty of “I can’t believe you forgot to talk about [INSERT RANDOM THING THAT OMG HOW COULD YOU FORGET]!!!” comments. Well, you can return the favor and not believe that they couldn’t believe it. Completism is the enemy of good criticism. Make the points that feel strongly about, and consider those in the proper context: as a small piece of a larger cultural conversation. Make that piece as strong as possible and the other pieces will side into place thanks to the work you started.
3) Supply context to the content.
No matter what unit of television you’re discussing, you need to give context to that unit in order to strengthen your point. The beauty of television lies in his rich history, in which nearly every show speaks to each other in some way. It’s your job to tease those connections out, whether they are obvious or not. Don’t compare “How I Met Your Mother” to “The Honeymooners” just for shits and giggles. But if you have a strong case for using those two shows as foils, sell it. You also can employ a type of “new historicism” to demonstrate how television reflects the culture in which it’s produced. Regardless, don’t talk in a vacuum. Everything doesn’t relate to everything, but it always relates to something.
4) Entertain the audience.
This might seem like a weird one to put on this list. And even if I’m putting it last, in some ways I feel like it’s the most important one. The act of reading a piece of television criticism should be a pleasure, not a chore. The biggest by-product from writing from a place of passion should be a noticeable uptick in authorial voice, which in and of itself will start to differentiate the types of criticism being practiced. I treat the work I do seriously, but also want to temper any high-brow takes through the filter of someone you’d hopefully want to have a beer with while discussing the article in greater depth. (At least, that’s what comes across when I’m successful in my attempts.) People watch televised to be both enlightened and entertained, and there’s no reason which criticism can’t accomplish both things as well. Yes, “entertaining” the audience is a nebulous concept for both television and television criticism, but your goal isn’t to cast the widest net. It’s to find the most passionate audience. And if there’s no passion in your writing, you won’t attract anyone at all.
Thoughts on these four tenets? How would you rank their importance? What aspects am I missing? Sound off below!