Reading The Readers: Should criticism speak to its readership, or attempt to influence it?

So who reads weekly television reviews, anyways?

On the surface, that’s an easy answer: fans of television. But obviously, the real answer is much more complex. But it’s a question I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, long before my “punk rock” piece over a year ago. It’s only increased as I’ve seen a slow but steady movement from other critics since that piece published towards moving away from weekly reviews as a baseline mode of critical writing. That doesn’t mean my piece influenced that trend in the slightest. But whatever I was thinking at that time seems to have been shared by others, and we’ve seen a small movement towards focusing on “write when there’s something to say” as opposed to “write about shows that are expected to have certain types of coverage”.

It’s a movement I support, since the idea that everyone HAS to cover a certain show is as much bullshit as the idea that there’s a certain canon of shows that should get universal coverage. “Universal coverage” in and of itself is a dangerous idea. The Internet is like, really big. Not only is fighting over which shows deserve coverage in order to validate the critic ridiculous, it’s also reductive. I’m already preparing for the heat I’ll get when people see where I rank “Spartacus: Vengeance” in my year-end list. Hell, the very fact that it will be on it at all will rankle some. But I don’t get that type of hate. Consistency in critical opinion is a happy byproduct, not a desire outcome.

So should it be with weekly coverage of shows. I’ve never argued that most shows don’t deserve a space for weekly discussion, but the role of the critic in providing those spaces has generally fallen under two categories: a semi-lengthy recap or a semi-lengthy review. To restate my definitions: a “recap” tells the reader what happened; a “review” tells the reader what it means. I don’t have any problems with recaps as an entity, but I hate when they get pushed into “reviews” as interchangeable things. I’ve worked for sites (and continue to do so) in which the word “recap” is used for SEO purposes, and that’s understandable. People search for “recap” far more than “review”, and I’m all for sites making money so they in turn can pay people like me some of that money.

But my interest in changing the ways we think about weekly coverage does feed into that economic model. Saving the current model is not simply a matter of throwing more writers at more shows. That’s providing breadth, but I’m not sure it’s providing depth. We’re in an age where there are more smart people writing about more shows than ever before. But that’s not nearly enough, and all it’s going to do is burn out those smart people so fast that the industry might collapse under itself. Writing about TV seems like the easiest and most fun job in the world. And while I love it, there’s no earthly way I can sustain it. I turned 37 this past week. My writing plus podcasting yields a 40-hour work week, which occurs atop of the actual 40-hour work week that pays for things like “my house” and “my car”.

More people are doing what I do than not, when it comes to episodic analysis. These weekly reviews are the easiest way to get assignments handed out as well as audiences to return to sites. I totally understand why dropping in on certain shows on certain weeks makes no freakin’ sense from a business perspective. Those that drop into sites such as Alan Sepinwall’s “What’s Alan Watching” and Alyssa Rosenberg’s ThinkProgress blog are the exception to the rule. In general, the show dictates the audience. Even if people love The A.V. Club, they probably aren’t going to randomly read a review of “Super Adventure Club” if they don’t watch that show. In addition, I can’t tell you how many A.V. Club readers don’t read bylines. When I cover a show as a one-off there, or someone covers for me, many comments struggle to link the opinions expressed about the episode in relation to analysis made in previous weeks.

This is a problem, but it’s also potentially an opportunity.* Rather than apply a one-size-fits-all approach to coverage, employing a variety of methods based on the appetites of the audience seems best. Television Without Pity has something like this already in place, and has so for a while, in terms of its forums. But while forums are good for providing space, they also don’t allow for directed dissections of an episode, either. One need not read a critical opinion in order to enjoy or understand an episode, but there’s certainly room for a more curated experience that falls short of dropping 2200 words about this week’s “Homeland”.

* And it’s an opportunity to expand, not contract. Weekly reviews still have their place, I still love doing them, and I’ll still continue to do them. But there needs to be variety in any diet, culinary or not.

All of this gets back to my initial question, which is really asking, “What types of shows need what type of analysis?” I don’t have any concrete answers here, but let me break down things not in terms of audiences but the shows themselves. These shows attract certain types of viewers, who in turn are attracted to certain types of analysis. I’m not 100% happy with these categories, but they work as a starting point for discussion.

  • The Casual Show: Think of these like gameshows, talkshows, or anything not directly in primetime. The one exception here? Soap operas, which have a passionate following if not a widespread online presence in major media outlets. Those probably deserve their own category, but I’m not versed enough in the genre or its online presence to judge effectively here.
  • The Procedural: Here’s the genre most hurt by weekly reviews. It’s not “CSI”’s fault that it falls short under constant scrutiny. But it was also never designed to be analyzed in that way. That doesn’t excuse poor quality, but does mean that trying to write the same amount of words about this as “Mad Men” feels like a problem with the review system, not the procedural.
  • The Unsexy Show: These are shows like “Parenthood,” “Men Of A Certain Age”, or even shows like “Treme” which have moderate-to-high value yet fail to draw an engaged online audience. These shows have aspects of serialization, which lend themselves to weekly analysis. But those watching the shows on television tend not to seek out discussions of them in high numbers.
  • The Cult Show: Readers flock to converse with likeminded people. Nobody who is indifferent to “Community” seeks out reviews of the show. That doesn’t mean they don’t watch. They just don’t engage. Those that DO engage do so in a voracious manner, seeking not only thoughtful analysis but the ability to contribute meaningfully to the discourse. (Or, you know, just take it over entirely.) “Cult” doesn’t necessarily mean the show has a small audience, although it could. In general, this audience has no desire to read dissenting opinions on these programs. It’s not that they deny the right of those opinions to exist. They just have no desire to read them, and don’t understand any critics who would subject themselves to something they can no longer fully enjoy. These tend to be genre shows primarily, but “Community” is an example of how that’s not always the case.
  • The Long Running, Mixed Bag Serial: Or, “Lost”. Here’s the type of show that has been around for a while, used to have near-universal claim, but in later seasons supports dissent from both critic and audience. These are shows that have a depth that allow various interpretation and various assignations of quality at a single point in time. “Mad Men” is a good example of this, with plenty of people reading and writing about it with differing levels of enthusiasm for the current product.

Again, these are imperfect categories. But all I want to do is try and outline the different type of TV fan in order to understand the best ways we can write about them and offer up space online to discuss them. Certainly, no one show need be one category during its lifespan. But opening up the ways we think about audiences might open up the way we talk about the shows they consume. Let’s take this past week’s “Fringe” as an example. At that show’s point in its run, its audience is its audience. Trying to sell them on the merits of a particular episode is almost besides the point. One model could be teasing out my favorite theme of the hour–the Bishops hurting the women they love through their respective egos–over a paragraph or two, and letting the readers have at it. Part of this would alleviate the tension that inevitable comes when critical opinion differs from reader opinion. I’ve been slammed when I love an episode as much as I hate it this season on that show. Removing my overall opinion of the episode my seem counterintuitive, but that’s only if we treat all analysis of all shows under a single umbrella. Let’s talk about what people think about the episode, not how much they do or do not agree with the person writing the analysis.

Such a separation is a bit of a pipe dream, to be sure. And longer analysis will inevitably bring the critic’s person(a) into play. But that’s fine. Again: the one-sized-fits-all approach simply has to go, from practical as well as aesthetic purposes. The ROI on weekly reviews/recaps is getting lesser with each season: people don’t want to read twenty-five novellas about that week’s “Breaking Bad”, and over two dozen writers sleepwalk their way through Mondays trying to recover from the effort it took to write that piece in the first place. Screeners alleviate some of that stress, but it’s still a few hours of time per week to write up a normal-length review. (If you actually give a shit about that review, that is. Some reviews I’ve read clearly don’t take that long.) I can easily see an invigorated world of critical analysis halfway between “a quick tweet” and “a Dickensian analysis of ‘The Good Wife’” that finds a sweet spot for writers and readers.

Rather than having the final word, critics can simply worry about starting conversations. It’s what good critics have always tried to do anyways. And many do right now. But the longer we prattle on, the less room there is for others to contribute, and less desire to even do so in the first place. We don’t have to kill the weekly review in order to save it. But we may need to kill its dominance in order to save the industry as a whole, not to mention our collective sanity.