Why I’m getting out of the episodic review rat race

A few weeks ago, I wrote this in a time of reflection. I was trying to figure out how to keep my sanity in a moment that seemed the furthest thing from sane. But it’s not like that piece emerged fully formed out of absolutely nowhere. It had been percolating in my brain for weeks, months, even years. I just hadn’t had the time to jot it down because I was always sprinting to the next thing. I thought I was running towards a particular destination. But it turns out I was just running around in circles. I couldn’t see the forest from the trees, and I was just as lost as those kids from “The Blair Witch Project”.

I came really close to saying what I meant back in mid-April, but I held up short. I held up short for the reasons that I always hold up short, which is to say I’m a scared man who fears more than he embraces. I feared doing what I knew I had to do, even though not doing it would probably do untold harm. I feared the repercussions on a dozen different levels. And it’s not that I’m suddenly emboldened here. I’m just tired. I’m too tired to even fight it anymore.

All of this is a way of saying I’ve told everyone that I currently freelance for that I’ll not be doing any more weekly coverage for any more shows for the forseeable future. This is a necessary step for me to reclaim some semblance of sanity in my life, and indeed, some semblance of life itself. I’ve had some fantastic opportunities from some fantastic people, and I’ve been generally left alone to write about things in the way I saw fit. I didn’t always like every assignment, but that’s fine. I learned something from each opportunity, growing as both a writer and a student of the medium.

But I also learned a lot of other things along the way, things that disillusioned me towards the industry in general and my approach towards filling a day/week/month/year of my life. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve been going so hard for so long at this that I don’t know any other way to actually live. I get the creeping sense I’m falling behind or missing out if I take a night off or don’t get to a certain screener or didn’t push forward with that extra think piece. My biggest strengths are my biggest weaknesses, and both have propelled me forward long past the mental and physical breaking point.

After all, what’s known to some seemingly isn’t know to most: this isn’t my job. Writing about TV is something I do after my 9-5 job. Podcasting about TV is something I do after my 9-5 job. That’s been the case for the former since 2007, and the latter since 2010. I’ve loved doing it so much that I pretty much said “yes” to every opportunity I could, even if that meant averaging five hours of sleep a night for a half decade. I’m not old, but I sure as hell am not young anymore. And those six years spent writing/podcasting for the equivalent of a second full time job? Those happen to basically coincide with how long I’ve bee married.

If I go at this current pace for the next six years, I’ll be dead or divorced. Period.

And that’s why I’m stopping. I’m stopping because when all of this was moving towards something, it was easy to drink coffee at 11 pm and knock out a review even though I had to be up to shower/shave for the job that pays the mortgage six hours later. But since over the last few months it’s abundantly clear that there’s no end in sight other than more of the same, there’s really no incentive or desire for me to stay on the hamster wheel. As an industry, we’re incredible at attracting hungry talent that will produce increasingly massive amounts of content. It’s a rat race fed by the boom in quality TV, a boom in interest around in, and a boom in outlets that use that interest in order to try and make money.

But with this huge explosion in content, no one has stopped to think about whether or not more is actually better. The episodic review is the easiest to quantify, assign, and organize. But it’s also the easiest form of criticism there is. I don’t mean to say that it’s “easy” to write up a review of an episode. Far from it. But…we KNOW how to do that in current state criticism. We have the templates, and maybe we stray a shade of two away from the basic close reading approach that’s the norm for most sites, it’s just variations on the same, extremely verbose theme. And I’m a terrible offender in this regard! I’m totally part of the fucking problem! I try to give my reviews the best spin I can, but when you’re faced with covering a decent-yet-hardly-groundbreaking episode of TV on a site for which you work as a freelancer, reinventing the wheel simply isn’t possible.

Moreover, you can’t even think about trying to reinvent it when you’re in the thick of things. Take last Fall, where I literally covered a show six nights a week: “The Voice” Monday and Tuesday, “South Park” on Wednesday, “Scandal” on Thursday, “Fringe” on Friday, and “Saturday Night Live” on Saturday. I had Sunday off, only Sunday was “catch up on screeners so I could podcast about them later that week” days, on atop of recording a podcast about “Saturday Night Live”. All this while trying to pitch other articles, make my presence known on Twitter, and maybe occasionally even talk to my wife and/or my family. Maybe. The fact that my brother calls me the night before our parents’ respective birthdays to make sure I don’t forget probably indicates that last part has been slipping of late.

And for what? For people to read and enjoy or simply trash? For the money, which isn’t great but certainly is great to have? It was never really about any of that for me. But what it’s turned into is a double-edged sword: the more I write, the more exposure I get and the more bills we can pay more easily. But it also cuts me off from my life and turns each day into “just getting to the next one”. Those day-long gauntlets turn into “just get me to the weekend,” which most of the time starts at 3 am after I’ve calmed down mentally after my “SNL” recap goes live. Did I mention the lovely fact that it’s almost impossible to go to sleep after writing late at night, because even though you’re bone-tired your mind is so on fire that drifting off without the aid of pills or booze is impossible? I don’t take pills, and while I enjoy my wine, I’m not drinking it so I catch an extra thirty minutes of shuteye.

Ultimately, I did it because I loved trying to write a better review than the last one I wrote, and because I thought if I did enough well enough for long enough it would be my sole full-time job. That looks like that won’t be the case, or won’t be so long as I keep doing things the way I’m doing it now. This isn’t some great fucking tragedy. But doing things the way I’ve done them for the past six years in hopes something will suddenly change? That would be tragic, or at the very least pathetic. The reasons for my rather pessimistic outlook are the sole thing I won’t fully explain here, since they involve rather touchy matters that are as much personal as professional. But a lot of it rests on my shoulders as well: I found my passion for this a little too late in life while living in a place that’s not terrifically conducive towards this type of vocation and not necessarily wanting to make some of the sacrifices/changes some have suggested I might FOR THE CHANCE that it might actually happen for me. That’s all on me. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t like my life here and my house and my dog and living in New England (even though Jesus Christ guys the weather here you don’t even wanna know). I love that dirty water, and I love being fifteen minutes from my “Avengers”-loving nephews. If this is what I have after writing six years nonstop in the hopes of making it to that next level, that seems pretty good all things considered.

What I want to actually happen for me is actually something of a mystery. I thought I knew what I wanted. It turns out to be much simpler and more complicated at the same time. I’m not going to stop writing about TV. I’m not going to stop podcasting about it. I’m essentially cutting off my primary revenue stream in this medium in order to reclaim my sanity, my love of TV criticism, and my intense, intense, intense desire to bring it into the next phase of whatever it will be. I wrote this piece about punk rock criticism ages ago and I haven’t come close to living up to the ideals I expounded in it. There are so many ways to approach it that go beyond episodic reviews, pre-season previews, and even the longer think pieces that dot the landscape. I think I have a few ideas about what to do, but I have had absolutely no time to even explore them. They might totally suck. But at least I’ll be able to see if they do. There are tons of people who are absolutely amazing at reviewing episodes on a weekly basis. What we as an industry need are people who can do other things equally well. Without the chance to explore what those other things even are, the whole industry will eat itself up as it spits countless exhausted people like me out only to welcome a fresh-faced batch of people ready to take over the next shift. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So this site will become more active over the summer, being the central repository for almost all my writing/podcasting. If analyzing TV isn’t going to be my career, it should really be my passion. If it’s neither, that’s not helping anyone. I’ve put everything I have into what I’ve done over these past six years. In the near future, I’m going to reclaim a bit of that in order to redirect it outwards in what I hope are new, exciting, and invigorating ways. Hope you come along to see what happens.