Four Things Every Television Review Should Accomplish

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!

6 Comments

  1. Ken from Chicago
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Ah, nice article, Ryan, as usual. You asked what was missing:

    The audience.

    What does the audience, those reading or listening to tv criticism, what do they want? That’s simple: It depends. No, seriously, it depends on two thing: Am I checking the criticism BEFORE or AFTER I’ve seen the show in question?

    1) If it’s BEFORE seeing the show, then I think the thing that I would be looking for most would be whether I would like the show (and / or certain elements therein)–regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with the criticism.

    2) If it’s AFTER seeing the show, then I think the thing that I would be looking for most would be acknowledgement. Did someone else like what I liked? disliked what I disliked? agreed with my reasoning for liking or disliking? Even they disagreed with me, do they acknowledge the points up for contention even if their reaction to said points differs from mine? (In explaining some particularly confusing point in the show that I didn’t understand, the critic is also acknowledging that it was a confusing point.)

    – Ken from Chicago

    P.S. Checking a review after a show is often as or more entertaining than the show itself because even if the show is bad, having others react negatively also is comforting. I guess misery does love company. The flip side is when you really enjoyed something, you want to share it others.

  2. Sofia
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    This is another great article. Thanks for sharing. On the surface these seem like obvious points to remember when writing reviews. But the truth is I rarely stop and think, “would I want to read this?”. It’s an important thing to remember. If your writing isn’t entertaining you don’t only lose your audience, you stunt any possible discussion.

    So I’ve got a slightly related question for anyone interested in offering insight. I make it a point to write my reviews before reading others reactions to episodes. I avoid my twitter feed, facebook, anything that might skew my perception of an episode. Is this a mistake? I realize there’s no “wrong” way to do things, but are there benefits to reading the thoughts and comments of others and letting it shape my opinion a bit?

    Thanks again Ryan!

  3. JW
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Um..isn’t claiming to know what the correct formula for television criticism and advising others to follow it the epitome of “the height of arrogance”?

  4. Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Yes, “loose rules”=”correct formula.” You figured me out.

  5. Brad
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    The Cheers recaps you and the AV Club staff do are a great start at the collaborative form you mentioned before. Todd may have asked a question or two, but everyone had their own unique take. Because it was a shared review, people seemed free to discuss what they found most compelling, rather than take on everything. The result was less comprehensive than a standard recap+review, but more well-rounded and satisfying.

    I’d like to see how this would work on a current show. I think there would be less running down rabbit holes than occurs in isolation. I don’t know how it would work economically for the site and/or the authors, but aesthetically it would be exciting.

  6. JW
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    So you admit you’re establishing rules.

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