Part of why I stopped writing so many episodic recaps was functional: The pace at which I was writing them outstripped my desire to keep doing them. But part of it was also due to that fact that I couldn’t do the type of writing I always wanted to do, because so much of that subgenre of television criticism accentuates what happened and what might happen versus what any of it actually means. That’s not all episodic recap culture, to be sure, and the best balance both worlds. I tried to do my best in balancing that, but it’s really easy to speculate since it’s hard to disprove that in the moment.
What speculating does, however, is cheapen the present at the expense of a theoretical future. Again: I’m totally guilty of doing this: When I did recaps for “The Flash,” I talked a lot about what Harrison Wells’ game might be, since the show directed me towards that. But I also did so because it’s a lot easier to spin out three hundred words of BS about Wells than articulate what so often moved me about the show: Barry Allen’s relationship with his two father figures, an aspect of the show that was an unquestionable success and yet hard to devote lots of words to each week.
Why was it hard? Part of it was repetition: It’s hard to come up with new ways to say, “Grant Gustin plus Jesse Martin equals my tears.” But episodic recap culture, and television criticism in general, shies away from the personal in favor of the objective. I’ve said recently how “objective criticism” is an inherent fallacy, but there’s a difference between subjective criticism and criticism-as-biography. I think there’s space for the latter that’s really not explored enough, because it runs the risk of being navel-gazing and self-serving. Then again, criticism is based on the idea that the ideas put forth are worthy of recognition and reflection, which is pretty navel-gazing and self-serving in and of itself.
Where criticism-as-biography really comes into play is in areas that are usually extremely difficult to articulate in normal forms of criticism: Why certain things make us feel certain ways. That’s a vague phrasing, but intentionally so, since it gets at the heart of what makes art successful. You can build a “perfect” structure that has all the pieces exactly where they should be, but it can still ring hollow. Early seasons of “Boardwalk Empire” are like this: You can see that the show ticks off the boxes that are supposedly used to construct a good television show, and yet I could NOT have been more bored watching it. I never felt for a single character, and therefore never felt a thing. Didn’t matter how good the sets, cinematography, or acting was: It felt constructed in every single frame, and therefore disallowed any attempts to lose myself inside of its fully-realized yet completely hollow world.
Compare that with a recent episode of “Penny Dreadful,” another handsomely mounted period piece that shares a lot of production DNA with “Boardwalk.” Look at this screenshot.
It’s a marvelously composed shot, with the arch behind Vanessa Ives and Caliban setting the stage for the two to share a dance. But it’s what this shot MEANS that absolutely killed me during my catch-up this weekend. “Penny” works because it’s about a single idea–the desire for connection–and hangs everything else off that central idea. Vanessa, Caliban, and the rest of the cast are all lost souls in some way, both in society and out of it. John Logan uses the tropes of the supernatural and the literature that gives this series a name as a way to tap into that universal feeling that everyone else in the world seems to be getting along just fine without us, thank you very much.
In this regard, look at that arch again: It’s not just a handsome way to frame a shot, but also suggests the way in which these two characters have created a safe space for one another. But it also suggests this is a temporary space, one that dissipates as soon as the dance is done. But that does NOT mean that the meaning of this dance dies the moment they leave the arch. Vanessa’s act of kindness has a ripple effect that she can’t possibly know. She’s not doing it for any other reason than to make a kindred spirit happy for a moment. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
Now, in the moment, I wasn’t thinking about any of that in particular. I was just thinking the moment made me profoundly happy in ways I couldn’t quite describe. It reminded me of two of my favorite songs: U2’s “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and The Shins’ “Phantom Limb,” two tracks I love not in spite of the fact that I don’t know most of the lyrics but because I don’t. I purposely have never learned them, because the “text” as such is beside the point. I connect intimately with the way those songs sound and the feelings those sounds produce. I’m pretty convinced the lyrics to “Phantom Limb” have no relationship whatsoever so the emotion it produces, but that ultimately doesn’t matter. I don’t want to have conclusion in this respect because the emotion is so raw. Those chords and that production and those vocal performances trigger something in me that this scene in “Penny” did: The possibility that life isn’t always horrible.
Now, admitting that I do think that life is often horrible is exactly the thing that is forbidden in typical criticism. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I understand that a newspaper might not want to run the inner life of its critics in black and white. But elsewhere? It seems insane to NOT do it when applicable. Not every show will trigger such a response. But those that do should be treated as such whenever possible, and celebrated in turn. We’re in an age where mass audiences are dwindling, replaced by smaller, more niche, but also more intense viewerships. These types of viewers must, on some level, have similar emotional connections to these shows, and therefore are more open to responses that lean into, rather than away from, those connections.
To be sure, opening up oneself like this is really difficult and fraught with its own kind of peril. I mean, it’s one thing to have your theory about the end of “Lost” called into question, and quite another to be called out for crying over “Enlightened.” When criticism turns to the personal, than criticism of that right also turns personal. But…hasn’t that always been the case? If, as I conjecture, that we’re all doing stealth criticism-as-biography anyways, then any shitty comment or hurtful tweet is personal. I’ve always understood why showrunners take criticism personally: It doesn’t often offend me when a show sucks, but I would think it totally weird if a showrunner saw a negative review and shrugged it off. What showrunners do and what critics do are two totally separate entities, but the mindset behind those types of writing is a lot closer than I think most would anticipate. We almost always assume a television writer has an emotional connection to the thing he/she writes. But the same holds true for television critics, at least the ones you should take seriously.
Part of what I hope to do over the next coming months is focus on moments, rather than episodes, that move me. That analysis of that “Penny” photo is a pretty good example (I hope!) of what that might entail. The engine of television writing lies in churning out tons of pre-season reviews and episodic recaps. But the heart of it lies elsewhere. And the heart