How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

Noel: Scott, you and I have one recurring argument about television that I think stems from the different ways we came to love the medium. I was a full-on, unrepentant TV junkie as a kid—the kind of boy who’d beg my parents to buy TV Guide’s Fall Preview Issue so I could plan out which shows I was going to watch each night. Because of that, I have a lingering fondness for television in its classic forms: sitcoms with laugh tracks, episodic dramas, what-have-you. But I get the impression—and correct me if I’m wrong—that you became more of a hardcore TV fan in the HBO era, thanks to shows like The Sopranos, and that you’re more interested in television for its cinematic or novelistic qualities. 

As a result, you’ve often been horrified when I tell you that I’ve taken an interest in one of your favorite shows and have started to watch it mid-season. For me, this is no big deal. I’ve been dropping into TV shows my whole life, and I find it hard to believe that there’s any show I’d be unable to get a handle on after an episode or two. This is especially true in the age of the Internet; it isn’t too hard to get a quick character sketch or a “story so far” plot synopsis. But you seem to think that it’s unacceptable to watch a TV series any other way than to start with season one, episode one—even if the general consensus is that the show took a while to find its footing. 

Similarly, whenever I talk up a new show that I like, you often seem to lose interest if I suggest that you don’t need to wait for the DVD or the summer repeats to catch up on it, but can instead just start watching in the middle. It’s like you assume that any show that doesn’t demand to be watched in full can’t really be that good. This argument makes me want to cuff you about the head—but since we’re usually arguing by phone, I can’t.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this as it relates to a couple of topics: how we do our jobs as TV critics, and whether we’re focusing too much on one kind of television—the tightly serialized kind—to the exclusion of the kind of TV that most people actually watch. Take Justified, for example, which just ended its first season. Justified began and ended as a serialized show, with one long story to tell, but in the middle of the season, it was more episodic, following a different case every week. I know you liked the episodic Justified fairly well, though I think you preferred it more serialized. So here’s my question to you: If Justified had remained primarily an episodic series, with only incremental character and master-plot growth each week, would you still have thought highly of it? Also, would you have found it as rewarding to write about for TV Club?

Scott: I’ll of course bow to your superior couch potato-credentials—though I did quit piano lessons as a kid so I could watch the Beatles cartoon on TV—but I wonder if your affection for classic forms has bred some inflexible thinking on how dramatically the medium has changed. I obviously don’t need to remind you, author of bazillion-word Lost posts, of the marvels of serialized storytelling, yet you persist in believing it’s okay to drop in casually on TV shows. That’s fine if you’re talking procedurals or sitcoms or other shows that get most of their business done over the course of an episode—and such shows are still the staples of popular network television, even if they miss critics’ year-end lists—but of course I’d advise (or demand, in some cases) that people start serialized shows from the beginning. If we accept the premise that many of the best shows on television unfold like novels, with richly developed characters and grand narrative arcs, wouldn’t checking in mid-season be equivalent to starting a book on chapter five?

Here’s an example from real life, and we’ll let the jury decide: If I recall correctly, we had a big argument over Friday Night Lights, which had finished its triumphant first season on NBC and was re-airing on Bravo the following summer in a bid to pick up its lagging ratings. Over my protestations, you decided just to dive into the action four or five episodes into it, under the reasonable logic that you’d pick up on who’s who and what’s what in due time. Though you eventually went back and watched the show from the beginning, it pained me to imagine you witnessing dramatic payoffs—like, say, Jason Street’s bittersweet return to the field after his fateful tumble in the pilot—without also seeing the careful plotting that went into them. You didn’t know these characters or their histories, so your emotional experience was inevitably muted, because your level of investment couldn’t possibly be the same as mine. 

Nevertheless, if you’re willing to admit you watched Friday Night Lights improperly—and lash yourself with a cat o’ nine tails, like that guy in The Da Vinci Code—I’m willing to concede that my insistence on watching shows from the beginning is occasionally misguided. There have been many times in the past you’ve encouraged me to jump right in on a show—Burn Notice, most recently—and I’ve balked, because I wanted to start with season one, episode one, and the time commitment didn’t seem worth it. That bit me in the ass most recently with Chuck, which had a middling first season that I’d have been better off skipping to get the much stronger second; I could have applied those precious units of time to wiser ends, like playing online poker or taking up smoking. But let me still throw out this blanket statement: Greatness in a dramatic series isn’t possible without a strong (i.e. predominant) serialized element. That’s the common denominator of all significant shows of the last decade—The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, et al.—which thrive because they’re constantly moving forward and revealing new things about their characters and their cinematic universes. 

To that end, Justified is an interesting test case, because it’s a hybrid, balancing master-plot episodes with more traditional (albeit very well-executed) crime-of-the-week procedural stuff. After the pilot, a near-perfect hour of pulp television that introduced our outlaw hero, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), his chief nemesis (the brilliant Walton Goggins), most of the other major characters, and the beautifully evoked Harlan County milieu, the series immediately settled into a standard cop-show format for the next three weeks. Much as I enjoyed those episodes—the fourth week, featuring Alan Ruck as a dentist on the lam, was particularly lively—I’ll confess that I felt a bit deflated by them, because all the urgent issues raised by the pilot were punted down the road a bit. And yes, I probably would have designated Justified as a good-but-not-great show had it continued to hit the reset button every week, with Raylan, the rakish Old West quick-draw, getting in and out of various pickles. 

But even in more self-contained weeks, Justified would still inch the master plot forward a little, and it’s become a model hybrid show, a breezily entertaining hour that welcomes casual viewers, but rewards more intense fans. (Joss Whedon, with Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse, is a master of the hybrid, though I think most would agree the serialized episodes of the lattermost series far outclassed the Charlie’s Angels-like doll adventures that littered the early part of season one, when it was still trying to hook viewers.) Moreover, it’s been ideal to review every week: Unlike wholly serialized shows, you don’t feel like you’re reviewing a book chapter by chapter, yet it’s rich and varied enough to give you something to sink your teeth into every week. 

Now that TV Club has been up and active for a few years, it’s time to take stock. What are the pleasures and perils of reviewing a show as it unfolds week to week? How has it changed the culture, at least for those serious enough about television to engage in the discussion? Reviewing a work-in-progress can be enormously frustrating—and even embarrassing at times, when an insight or bit of speculation one week is discredited the next—but it can also be enriching in ways that film criticism isn’t. I have my thoughts on it. But first, what are yours?

Noel: Actually, first let me address the Friday Night Lights thing, because that’s a good case in point for what I was saying about being an experienced television-watcher. Though a lot of the best TV has novelistic qualities, the two media aren’t really the same, and most TV creators—if they’re any good at their jobs—are aware that they need to reach both hardcore fans and casual viewers if they want to keep their shows on the air. Friday Night Lights falls far more on the serialized than the episodic side, and yet the characters are so likeable and easy to grasp that it really isn’t that hard to drop into the story and follow it—if you have at least a rudimentary understanding of television storytelling, that is.

More to the point, though, while I think the first season of Friday Night Lights is a good one, and that the second season succeeds in spite of some ill-conceived plot twists, to me, the show didn’t become one of the best TV dramas of this era—yes, in the same league as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Shield, and The Wire—until its third season. And the current, fourth season has been just as strong. If I wanted to convince a skeptic of FNL’s greatness, honestly, I wouldn’t tell them to start with season one, episode one, unless they have a high tolerance for melodramatic contrivance. The storylines of the early FNL—the racial strife, the performance-enhancing drugs, the improbable comebacks—really aren’t any less soapy in their way than season two’s near-rape and body-burying. It’s in the third season that the stories become as wonderfully small-scale and well-observed as the characters and setting have always been. In fact, I wouldn’t have a problem telling a newcomer just to watch the season-four episode “The Son,” which deals with standard dramatic themes of loss, anger, and regret in ways that are remarkably real and powerful. Yes, there’s a lot of backstory that goes into that episode, but I think that just about anyone could get it, and might be so moved by “The Son” that they’d want to see more.

How is this relevant to what you and I are talking about? Well, one of the things that complicates TV criticism is the ways in which we watch. Following a show week-in, week-out is a different experience than catching up with it later. I’m not discounting your opinion of FNL’s first season by any means, but I think your emotional investment was higher, not just because you watched from the beginning, but because you came in on the show’s ground floor, more or less. As I recall, you didn’t start watching on the night it debuted, but watched a mini-marathon of the first few weeks’ worth of episodes, then watched the rest of the season week-by-week. Anyway, you discovered the show early, and were part of its first wave of champions. By the time I got around to FNL, I’d already heard how good it was, so I was judging it against high expectations. And I ultimately watched the second half of the first season on DVD over the course of about three days, so I got to see some of the disappointingly conventional payoffs of the first season’s storylines in mere hours, while you had to wait weeks, and could thus let the world of Dillon, Texas and your perception of the show’s overall quality expand in your mind.

You mentioned how tricky it is to review a serialized show week-to-week, because we’re trying to assess character choices and plot turns that haven’t yet reached fruition. That means we have to engage in a lot of guesswork about where the creators are headed, and what their choices might mean. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised by the direction a show heads in, as has been the case consistently with Breaking Bad (for me, at least). And sometimes what we imagine will happen is more compelling than what the creators come up with. The prime example of that would be Lost for a lot of its disgruntled fans, and to some extent Justified, which to my mind didn’t end its first season as strongly as I’d hoped. (A hail of gunfire and a cloud of irresolution does not a finale make, in my opinion.)

But I personally consider the uncertainties of weekly TV reviewing to be one of its strengths. We knock out reviews quickly, from the gut, then have a spirited discussion in the comments section with our readers and on Twitter with our other critic pals. It’s more like reporting (mixed with symposia) than traditional criticism. Of course, there are lots of different ways to do what we do: straight recap, quick impressions, in-depth analysis, and so on. My philosophy has always been to provide a fairly full summary of an episode—so fans of the show can come to a write-up long after an episode aired, and be reminded of what happened—combined with some consideration of themes and aesthetics, and always with my personal biases on the table. And because we write every week, we have the space to reassess whether a serialized show goes somewhere we weren’t anticipating, as well as having comment sections and social media to carry on the conversation after the original review is done.

Plus, that conversation is so much livelier than the conversations surrounding other media these days. Because we aren’t primarily engaged in telling people whether they should or shouldn’t watch a show—because we’re usually talking with people who are already watching—we get to kick around symbolism, character development, and real-world connections to what’s on the screen, rather than just writing about whether the show is worth a damn. Sure, we write about what’s working and what isn’t, and why, but we have the space and the freedom to get into so much more. And the people we get into it with—the readers, and our fellow critics—seem so much more open, friendly, and engaged than, say, cinephiles these days.

Consider this: over the past few weeks, a number of our film-critic pals have been bickering over which acclaimed new movie is “overrated,” and whether the profession is dying because they didn’t get an advance screening of Killers, and whether watching movies on an iPod is a crime against art, and whether the reviews (not the movie, mind you, the reviews) of Sex And The City 2 are misogynistic. Not only are most of these debates depressingly insular, they’re old. We’ve been having these same boring conversations for years now, with fewer and fewer participants. Meanwhile, in TV land, we’ve been kicking around the meaning and lasting impact of Lost’s controversial ending, and whether Walter White’s recent rash acts on Breaking Bad mark another dark turn for the character, or a redemptive one. Advantage: television.

Scott, you studied film as I did, and you came to criticism on the film side. Would you agree that writing about TV has been more rewarding lately? And how do you handle the in medias res reviewing problem?

Scott: Sorry, I can’t let this Friday Nights Lights argument go just yet. You make some compelling points about some of the largely unacknowledged (by critics, anyway) weaknesses of the first season, but while I agree with the specific subplots you found too soapy, the show’s characters and general ambience have moved me from episode one. But I think raising the problems you had with the first season is a fiendishly clever dodge of the serialization issues we’re talking about here. Yes, it’s entirely possible that a new viewer could drop into a brilliant episode like season four’s “The Son” and be convinced, even moved to tears, by the truth in its depiction of a young man’s grief. But we know that young man to be Matt Saracen, and if you’ve been watching FNL from the beginning, the weight of his entire journey on the show profoundly affects your emotional response to it. And while newcomers might get it, they wouldn’t have been privy to the burdens that Saracen already carries: the demented grandmother who anchors him to Dillon, the QB2 status that poisons his esteem on and off the field, the young girlfriend with a future that’s certain to expand beyond him, the military father who would rather accept another tour of duty than take responsibility for his family. That’s a lot of backstory, as you admit, but to my mind, it’s essential backstory, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to drop into a show like that midway through its run. 

But I can’t stay mad at you, Noel, because that paragraph you wrote about the old arguments currently bogging down film criticism made me happier than a last-second Matt Saracen touchdown heave. I won’t add anything to it, because the world needs another thumbsucker about the state of film criticism like David Lowery needs a hole in his head. (Do references to old Cracker singles age me? Don’t answer that.) But there’s no question that TV criticism—and more crucially, TV culture—is more exciting to me these days, in spite of a few misgivings I have on writing about it. Maybe the reason we aren’t seeing the same rash of state-of-the-craft thinkpieces about TV criticism is that it doesn’t have much of a tradition to weigh itself against: The ghosts of Manny Farber, James Agee, Pauline Kael, and Cahiers Du Cinema haunt serious film writers, but I don’t see any equivalent in television. We’ll see how the dust settles, but I think the current wave of TV writers are setting a new standard, and don’t have to give a second thought to how their voices measure up to those in the glory days.

To my mind, two factors are contributing to a rapid advance in television criticism: 

1. Critics are just rising to the occasion. Though I’ll always appreciate the stylistic diversity and singularity of film—explained by it being a medium where the director is king (or queen)—if we’re talking strictly from a standpoint of nuts-and-bolts storytelling, television has it all over film right now. Serialized shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and countless others have seized on TV’s potential for expansive, character-driven, novelistic sagas that are just not possible within the confines of a two-hour movie. And so the challenge of unpacking shows that rich in detail is something a lot of good writers have naturally taken up. 

2. The modern phenomenon of websites that cover shows on a week-by-week, episode-by-episode basis has allowed writers the chance to go deep into the minute details that a conventional review would not have the space to evoke without worrying about spoilers or getting bogged down in minutiae. Just as importantly, readers are all experiencing an episode at once, rather than at disparate times in theaters or OnDemand or DVD. Everyone comes to the table completely in sync, having just had the same experience at the same time, and there are tremendous analytical possibilities in that—crowd-sourcing as criticism. I know that if I circulate a handful of my favorite blogs the day after a show airs, I’m likely to come away with a much better understanding of what I witnessed the night before. And isn’t that what good criticism does?

But I’m not quite willing to say that TV writing is more rewarding for me than film, because it’s loaded with damnable frustrations. Writing about the same show every week can be rewarding, for all the reasons I mention above, but the problem with burrowing into a series episode-by-episode is obvious: You lose sight of the big picture. Complaints you have about one slow-to-develop subplot or thinly sketched character may be rendered embarrassingly shortsighted by a payoff that’s delivered five or six episodes down the line. Observations—or worse, predictions—you make are often revealed to be flat-out wrong. And some shows are more persuasive in pieces than they might be as a whole, when you have the benefit of perspective. Treme is a perfect example of this: Every episode resonates with great music, a journalistic sense of place, and mostly magnetic characters, but overall, I have some nagging concerns about it being too repetitive and lacking in dramatic oomph. But when you’re writing about a show every week, and it keeps churning out hours as strong as Treme, it’s harder to identify where it isn’t working on the whole. (As a side note, I’m grateful that TV creators of even heavily serialized shows have an instinct for making episodes cohesive as single units. David Chase and Matthew Weiner are especially good in this regard.) 

Still, as the author of a 5,500-word Lost finale post that attracted more than 2,500 comments, you’re far deeper into the TV-reviewing game than I could ever claim to be. How do you see the form evolving for writers and readers alike?

Noel: I think you’ve nailed it, actually, on two fronts. You mentioned that Lost review, but at the risk of false modesty, just about anybody could’ve posted their thoughts on the Lost finale on our site and drawn thousands of comments. I think we critics help drive the conversation for those who actually read us, but to some extent, we’re just providing a space where a show’s fans—and detractors—can weigh in. As you mention, television critics are in a unique situation, in that we can talk about a show in full, for and with people who’ve already seen it. And often it doesn’t matter a whit what we say, because there will always be people who click on our reviews just so they can scroll down to the comment section. 

And honestly, that doesn’t bother me, because it’s just a byproduct of the popularity of television, which is the rising tide floating all of our boats at the moment. While our film-critic pals have been seeing their word-counts shrink and their jobs disappear, websites have been adding TV blogs left and right. And this kind of writing about television is still in its relative infancy, which to me is exciting, because it means we get to figure out how it should be done. Some of the new breed of TV bloggers are recap-heavy; others are focused on finding things to mock. I think you and I and most of the people who write for TV Club are taking our cues from Alan Sepinwall, who more or less pioneered the combination of gut reactions, plot summary, and analysis that many TV bloggers follow. 

But you’re right, there isn’t much of a tradition out there yet. You won’t find books of TV criticism by the venerable old newspaper and magazine reviewers (like Tom Shales, for example) in anywhere near the quantity that you can find books reprinting film and music criticism. On the TV side, the books available out there tend to be either fan-driven “guides” or expensive academic texts. One major exception? Harlan Ellison’s two Glass Teat collections, which are more valuable for their cultural insights than their criticism, but which still offer a detailed, personal take on what the television business was up to in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Anyone who wants to write about TV on a regular basis should give them a look—and should build up a decent collection of those fan-guides and academic works too, for that matter.

If you ask me how I’d like to see TV criticism and fandom evolve, the answer is that I’d like to see more people committed to the medium and to criticism. We should all keep up with the growing ranks of strong TV critics and academics (like Sepinwall, James Poniewozik, Maureen Ryan, Nancy Franklin, Emily Nussbaum, Dan Kois, Linda Holmes, Heather Havrilesky, Daniel Fienberg, Kliph Nesteroff, Jamie Weinman, Myles McNutt, Jason Mittell, Tim Goodman, our own Todd VanDerWerff, and many others that I’m going to kick myself for forgetting), and read good movie, music, theater, food, game, and book critics, too. We should study drama and the visual arts. And for Philo T. Farnsworth’s sake, we should learn something about the history of this art form. The TV dramas on the air right now might be as good as any the medium has ever produced, but they weren’t produced in a vacuum. Some are building on the backs of earlier television; some are consciously rejecting it. Many of us who write about television—you and I included—didn’t start out planning to be TV critics, so we haven’t studied the medium as intently as we may have studied film or literature.

As a result, too many people who write about television—fans as well as critics—consider modern television only in the context of what’s happened since The Sopranos, and thus are unduly critical when a television series falls back on convention, or when the flaws inherent in the business itself affect the direction of a show. But I’d argue that it’s vital to appreciate the finer qualities of a three-camera-with-laugh-track sitcom and a case-of-the-week procedural in order to better appreciate the single-camera comedies and serialized dramas that are all the rage. I’d never argue against serialized dramas—I agree with you that serialized TV is responsible for a large chunk of the best pop culture of recent years—but I do feel that a steady diet of the serialized has gotten in the way of some viewers’ ability to enjoy the simple pleasure of spending a half-hour or an hour in the company of likeable characters in an inviting setting. For some, TV has become too much about “moving the story forward,” as though what’s on the last page of a book is all that’s ever mattered. I think if TV buffs had a grounding in the classics of the medium the way film buffs do, they might be a little more patient, and a little more alive to the values of performance, mood, and style.

Television has been remarkably good over the past decade, as you noted. The likes of The Wire, Lost, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, and Breaking Bad will likely be studied well into the future, the way the best movies and books are now. As the people who register the earliest opinions on these shows, we ought to be as diligent as we can about documenting them, and putting them into their proper context. We should also be willing to go back when we can, watch again, and revise. Mostly though, we should try to understand what TV does well, and give that its due.