Taking TV criticism to the next level (Part 2)

A few days ago, I posited that the critical coverage of shows that attempt long-form narrative “mythology”-based stories created a unique environment for networks and writers to cater to those critical voices. This would be a great thing, if 90% of those attempts didn’t fundamentally suck. That’s not to say that every “Lost” knockoff was designed in order to curry favor from the Alan Sepinwalls and Mo Ryans of the world. But the overwhelming number of shows that achieve critical acclaim tend to take the long view in their narratives. This would be great, if the executions were solid. But the sheer number of programs that have buckled under undo narrative weight suggests that there is a happy middle ground that is ripe for exploration.

This exploration should happen, ideally, in two worlds. It should happen within the complex mechanisms that produce content for distribution. Since “distribution” is such a nebulous thing right now, I want to be clear that I’m not talking about producing content for “television”. That’s part of what I’m talking about, but not all of what I’m talking about. I sort of want to scream every time a web-based series bends over backwards to claim that their content is every bit as good as “real” television, since this further cements the notion that what’s on my 50’’ screen is superior to what’s in my web browser. That very well might be the case in many direct comparisons, but come on: how we watch something does not determine that thing’s quality. Someday we’ll have a word for “filmed narrative that isn’t a movie but instead shows a core set of characters over a long period of time”. We don’t have that word yet. So let’s just run with “narrative content” for now and do our best.

586_the_event.jpgThis narrative content could, in theory, have a long-gestating storyline that follows characters through a vast, complex, multi-year exploration that by and large holds together as a discreet story. In no way, shape, or form should these types of shows go away. Not only do they produce some of the best examples of narrative content today, but their ambition often forces others to aim high. But aiming high is how we get shows like “Surface”. Putting the cart before the narrative horse pushes mystery over character, which leads to a bunch of episodes in which cardboard cutouts walk around using vague pronouns and even vaguer nouns. (I’m look at you, “The Event.”)

The problems inherent in these long form iterations of narrative content also cause economic pain for all involved. Shows such as these by and large demand that you watch them all, lest you be hopelessly confused. At best, a newcomer to a series such as this will miss out on some payoffs months or years in the making. One could, of course, jump into “Lost” with “The Constant.” That episode tells a discreet story that starts and ends within the hour. But the newbie would lose four seasons worth of story. The thing that makes the model so powerful also serves to make it often impenetrable. This isn’t a reason to forsake this style of storytelling. But it’s easy to see why networks wouldn’t exactly mind it if every show reset itself, more or less, at the end of each installment. But selecting shows based on strong characters versus high concepts should be Rule #1 for anyone greenlighting anything.

ht_homeland_nt_111026_wg.jpgOn the critical side of things, there are several practical reasons why these types of shows get the most ink (real or virtual). “Quality” definitely has something to do with it, as shows as ambitious as “Homeland” often attracted top-tied talent behind the screen as well as on it, yielding a better overall piece of narrative content. But there’s another, more pressing reason why such shows have turned into the singular model for “quality TV”: these shows provide more to write about on a weekly basis than those that tell smaller, more iterative stories on a weekly basis. You could make a strong case that “Breaking Bad” is better than “CSI: NY”. I wouldn’t dispute that claim. But such as argument ultimately falls flat in the face of someone who would rather watch Gary Sinise solve crimes than Bryan Cranston cook meth. These are subjective opinions, and while many reading this article would side with “Breaking Bad,” many more that don’t read TV blogs (or engage in any type of pop culture media) may not even know the show even exists.

What’s objective, however, is that “Breaking Bad” offers more to write about on a weekly basis than “CSI: NY”. I’m talking here about “reviews”, not “recaps”, since in theory every show from “Mad Men” to “Storage Wars” can be recapped equally well. To me, a recap tells a reader what happened. A review tells the reader what it meant. Shows with longer-form narrative are suffused with more “meaning” than a procedural, more often than not. That’s not to say every procedural is devoid of meaning, just as its equally true that most long-form stories don’t have one percent of the meaning that networks/showrunners like to pretend exists within them. But television criticism stands apart from film, music, and book criticism in that it constantly has to adjust to new content within the relentless format of the weekly recap. No one would expect a music critic to review an album based on the release of twelve tracks over twelve weeks. But that’s what hundreds of TV critics do every week.

Thus, because the long-form narratives offer the best subjects for analysis, they become the choice objects for critics to select. And because the critics tend to select these for weekly analysis, readers either overtly or subliminal take these choices en masse in order to create a hierarchy amongst existing programming. Sites like The A.V. Club and Television Without Pity, which cover just about everything under the sun, are the exceptions, not the rule. More often than not, the sheer amount of content available to review on a weekly basis outstrips a single site’s ability to financially cover a wide swath of programming. This is why you see an overabundance of reviews all clustered around the same shows: there’s a type of zeitgeist feedback that envelops certain swaths of critics and has them all competing for the same real estate. Meanwhile, vast tracts of land sit unattended, waiting for someone to pay any attention at all.

louie-season-3-fx.jpgOne of the shows that both has a cluster AND represents a new way for critically loved shows to push past the current self-selecting restrictions to obtain that love is FX’s “Louie,” a show that confounded everyone (myself included) at first through its sheer rejection of continuity. Things that happened one week didn’t appear to have ever happened the next. Actors played multiple parts. Sometimes characters make a lasting impression, and sometimes they disappear into the ether. What creates continuity in “Louie” is, well, Louie. He’s the center around which all things orbit. I’ve grown to appreciate the ways in which the show constantly asks you to engage with it anew. Each episode is an adventure unto itself. It’s not often clear if what we’re seeing is actually happening or just how Louie himself processes stimuli. The episode in which he attempts to buy a house is more fantastical than last week’s episode in which Garry Marshall tries to use him as a bargaining chip against Jerry Seinfeld, but I never thought for a second that either the realtor nor Marshall’s network head were actually saying those words. An outsider observer would have seen and heard something else. But the filter through which Louie experiences reality, not any particular storyline, offers a new way for shows to offer up discreet entertainment while not sacrificing ambition in the process.

Now, I’m not suggesting “make a shitload of ‘Louie’s” as my way of solving television. Far from it. But it’s nevertheless heartening to see that critics have found a show that bucks normal parameters and still produces a positive response.  I’m also not naïve enough to think that critical opinion by and large affects audience’s viewing habits. Sepinwall getting credit for saving “Chuck” is the outlier here, to be sure. But I’m extremely interested in getting a broader scope of shows that critic choose to cover, rather than conglomerating around the same programs and flooding the market with different-but-not-different-enough takes on the same episodes. If more critics did what Tom & Lornenzo do with their “Mad Style” breakdowns of “Mad Men”, this would be fine. But we’re not only oversaturated with the shows we cover, but also the ways in which we cover them. Most critics employ a “close reading”, which is fine but wearying after the fifth time I’ve read about Skyler’s mindset in the latest episode of “Breaking Bad”.

“American Horror Story”, another FX program, isn’t a program I particularly care for, but its 13-episode, self-contained, anthology-based format is something that delights me to no end. (Except when it’s used to circumvent the Emmys nominations. But that’s another take for another time.) I started this two-parter off by talking about my love of videogames, and there’s something to be said for a videogame developer as well a writer of “narrative content” for respecting the audience’s time. A videogame that forces players to double back in order to proceed is just as bad as a program that drags its feet in order to fulfill its episodic requirement for that season/series. Having last season’s narrative in “American Horror Story” go on indefinitely would have been a mistake. Unbelievably enough, every involved recognized that and married form to narrative in a satisfying way. If the execution was less than appealing, the idea of this type of program couldn’t be more appealing.

It’s worth stating, yet again, that the “AHS” model is something that should be added to the overall mix, along with “Louie” and other shows that sit in between the two sides of “long-form narrative” and “strict procedural”. There’s enormous room to play between these two poles, and those that stake out ground in this up-for-grabs new world earlier rather than later will have a foothole as “television” slowly (or quickly, depending on your personal predictions) gives way to a more amorphous entity. And if shows go boldly into this realm, it’s up to critics to help identify these types of content and shine a light on them. That might mean taking a little attention away from the more heavily covered “heavy hitters” of the critical world. But don’t worry. People aren’t going to stop talking about those shows. They will do fine. We should all be less concerned with existing models of criticism, figuring out new types of shows to cover, and finding a way to critically engage with those in a new way as well. It’s incredibly hard work for all involved, but it’s work worth doing all the same.