I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the people that read episodic reviews. That’s not to say that I’ve been working hard to fit them into a single category. After all, that would be insane. But what’s equally, if not more, insane is the way that the economics of weekly reviews have catered to the audience for them as if they are indeed a single-minded mass. It’s not just that we basically all talk about the same shows. It’s that we basically all talk about the same shows in basically the same ways. And while I’ve sounded this trumpet before, it never hurts to occasionally sound it again in a slightly different key.
With the “Cougar Town” finale, I ceased having any writing responsibilities for the present time that involved staying at home on a particular night in order to review a show within an hour or so of its initial airtime. Sometimes I had screeners. Sometimes I didn’t. But 6-8 times a week, depending on time of year, I cranked out close readings of a certain’s show’s weekly output. Some of these shows I loved. Some of them…not so much. But the basic format was always the same, give or take the occasionally entry ghostwritten by a dinosaur in “Terra Nova.”
(And just to be clear: what I’m talking about here is a “review,” not a “recap.” The latter tells you what you saw. The former tells you what it meant. Everything below refers to the act of reviewing.)
Naturally, I was far from the only one doing this, which creates a certain sense of healthy competition as well as healthy variety. But lately, it’s felt as if that competition has turned unhealthy, and the variety has all but dried up. Rather than have a choice of a broad spectrum of analysis for a broad spectrum of shows, readers are now confronted with a glut of similarly-written tomes about, say, “Game of Thrones,” in which reviewers are upping the word count yet not upping the variety of approaches to the central text. There are only so many 3,000 word reviews that seek to explain everything about every episode a person can read, nevermind write. And yet, that’s the current expectation. Not writing about “Mad Men” is tantamount to being ostracized from the “real” online discussion. Which is why it’s high time to change it.
This isn’t about saying people should stop covering “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “Community,” or the myriad of other shows that appeal to engaged television viewer. But it’s time to recognize that they way in which critics write about these shows has self-selected a certain subset of television and artificially elevated towards a perceived canon that is, essentially, arbitrary. It’s not that “Breaking Bad” is a bad show because a bazillion people write about it. It’s that critics have created an environment in which shows that can’t stand up to weekly tomes of analysis seem like inferior programs. This isn’t about judging the quality of the show in and of itself, but through an extremely specific lens. You might think a show like “NCIS” is crap compared to “The Good Wife.” But the quality of “NCIS” has nothing to do with its inability to fit into a weekly 2,000-word discussion. The problem lies not with the show but the types of review that have turned into the standard metric by which to analyze television as a whole.
To once again be clear: I’m not advocating that we take the Sepinwall-ian model out of the equation. I would however suggest that trying to out-Sepinwall Sepinwall is straight up ridiculous. It’s counterproductive. It’s exhausting. But pushing aside all the personal BS that comes with trying to work within an extremely successful model, it’s simply bad business! It’s a great model, so great that many emulated it (including yours truly). But the last thing any of us should be trying to do is copy what another is doing. I use Sepinwall as an example here, but I could cast the light on a dozen other critics who all employ close readings as the de facto way in which to cover episodes of television. All bring their own unique style to the genre, but we’re talking about a host of essays that all fall within a standard deviation from the critical mean here. For people trying to make a name for themselves, it seems prudent to step out towards the extreme of this normal distribution and try to stake out some new territory.
Now, new territory is scary since there’s a reason why certain shows get covered: They draw eyeballs, which people want to have on their posts, and so they gather around the pop-culture watercooler and try to have their voices heard about the cacophony. To articulate the central fear, I’ll appropriate a famous conundrum: If you write a 300-word piece about “Ice Truck Drivers,” would anybody hear it? The arguments against covering more shows, rather than less, stems from the fact that most shows can’t handle the scrutiny that comes from the types of weekly analysis that currently reign supreme. But there are an enormous amount of enormously popular shows that writers simply ignore. You can chalk it up to snobbery. You can chalk it up to disinterest. But I’m not sure we can chalk it up to economics. In refusing to think about ways to alter the ways we talk about television programs, we’re potentially missing out on amazing ways in which to monetize our writing.
Because that’s what this is all about, right? Money? 19.5 million fans on average watched each episode of “NCIS” versus the roughly 3.5 million that watched “Community”. No We kill ourselves to service the “Community” fans but by and large ignore the “NCIS” audience. Part, if not all, of this has to do with demographics. But I find it hard to believe that, say, a fifth of that “NCIS” audience isn’t as equally engaged with that show as the seeming entirety of the “Community” audience. That fifth adds up to about 4 million NCIS fans, which find slim pickings when it comes to finding places online that confront the show in a critical light. Trying to come up with seven paragraphs of unique, non-repetitive analysis of “NCIS” might be an impossible task. But that’s limited thinking. Again: the problem lies not with the show, but the lack of creative on behalf of the critic. It’s our job to find meaning that isn’t instantly obvious. And there are dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to approach this. Employing new techniques will allow us not only to engage with currently popular shows, but also the hundreds not supported by the current model. New techniques will lead to new eyeballs. New eyeballs will hopefully lead to more jobs with hopefully better pay. This isn’t about being different for the sake of different. This is about the survival of the industry as a whole.
My punk rock piece from last Fall featured this as a central tenet: “Kill the form before the form kills criticism.” What was once a fresh approach to analysis has turned into a slogfest, with critics completing pieces with bleary eyes and aching fingers. There’s nothing wrong with a short look at a single piece of a single episode….except that current models suggest this is inadequate. There’s nothing wrong with dropping in on a show only when the mood strikes…except we’ve trained people that no viewing is actually complete until the moment they can extol/criticize it in the comments. Critics have instilled a Pavlovian response that is in many ways fantastic. But it’s also insanely limited. And we can’t think about ways to innovate because we’re 12 paragraphs into our next doorstop of a review. We’re really good at working really hard. But we’re kinda piss poor at working smartly. If we don’t apply a “Moneyball” approach to our writing, we’ll be writing ourselves into oblivion before long.
As examples of fresh takes on the form, I’d look first and foremost to Tom & Lorenzo’s weekly “Mad Style” takes on “Mad Men”. Each week, they do a “normal” review, but then do another than explores the show’s fashion in-depth to reveal theme and character. It’s a simple, breathtaking way to approach the show in a wholly unique way. Alyssa Rosenberg regularly approaches shows in what I feel is a sideways manner. But it’s only sideways because she looks at these shows from a unique perspective. Neither are THE way to look at these shows, and both have their limitations. But the point of all this isn’t to produce an all-encompassing view of a television program. It’s about coloring in the viewer’s perspective, adding dimensions that weren’t evident, and giving a reason to actually seek out multiple authors discussing the same text. People select a mere fraction of the available material written about television because, by and large, a lot of it’s exactly the freakin’ same. How can we blame people for not reading our work if we give them the same ol’ about the same ol’? The problem doesn’t lie on the small screen. It lies in the mirror.