Last weekend I was invited down to Austin to appear on a panel titled “The New Criticism?: Academia, Journalism, and Digital Critics” as part of Flow Conference 2010, a biannual meeting of TV-focused academics from around the world, sponsored by The University Of Texas’ on-line forum/journal FlowTV. Because of work obligations, I wasn’t able to check out as much of the conference as I would’ve liked. I attended an evening program in which we screened the first episode of the now-cancelled Fox series Lone Star and had a Q&A with the show’s creator Kyle Killen, and then I sat on my panel the following morning, had a few meals in between with people I’d previously only corresponded with on-line, and rested up for an early flight back home. For more details on the Lone Star event (which was supposed to be a screening of the show’s third episode, before the cancellation changed those plans), I refer you to the detailed report on Myles McNutt’s Cultural Learnings blog. For more details on the panel, I refer you to this page where you can download my response paper and those of my fellow panelists.
But spending a day conversing with so many smart, tele-literate folks—including Horace Newcomb, director of the Peabody Awards and one of the pioneers of academic TV studies—got me thinking about a few topics I’d already been kicking around in my head. Now I’d like to kick them around with you.
1. Lone Star: A victim of good luck?
Listening to Killen talk about what happened to his show, it struck me how impossible the television business can be. Killen came to the four major networks with a pitch for an updating of the classic primetime soap genre, with a cable-style anti-hero—a con man with two families—and according to Killen, all the nets were interested. Fox promised the greatest measure of creative control, and supported the show with a big push at the upfronts and a persistent promotional campaign, to the extent that Lone Star had some of the best critical buzz and advertiser interest of any show heading into the new fall season. But with great expectations come greater consequences. When the ratings for the first two episodes were so low, Fox was in the position of having to cover their guarantees to the sponsors, meaning that Lone Star was costing the network far too much money to keep on the air.
Would Killen have been better off if all the networks had passed and he’d taken Lone Star to FX or TNT? I honestly don’t know. While Lone Star’s four million viewers would be a blockbuster number on cable, a good percentage of the audience was tuning in I’m sure because of Fox’s promotion. Without that larger viewer-awareness that a network is able to provide, I doubt that Lone Star would’ve done much better than the average novice cabler. (The excellent Terriers, for example, draws around a half-million viewers a week, and its reviews are every bit as strong as Lone Star’s.)
Also, not to speak ill of the dead, but I don’t think that Lone Star was really all that extraordinary. Don’t get me wrong: I liked the show, and was looking forward to seeing how the story developed. But the second episode struck me as decidedly weaker than the pilot, and even watching the pilot again at Flow reminded me that Lone Star had significant flaws: an implausible character choice or two, some corny emotional beats, and a protagonist who was a little too sweet even for a show about a villain trying to reform. I’ve heard Lone Star described as “a cable show stuck on a network,” but it never struck me as all that edgy the way “cable shows” tend to be (outside of the USA action block, of course). It was maybe too betwixt and between.
2. Is it time for the networks to rethink premiere week?
Actually, maybe I should expand that and ask whether it’s time for the networks to rethink the whole way they make television. I’ve thought for a while that TV should start taking some storytelling cues from comic books, where serialized narratives are divided into shorter story arcs. The closest we come to that on TV is with shows like Fringe and Terriers, where a longer story weaves around a case-of-the-week format, which is theoretically supposed to be both new-viewer-friendly and appealing to die-hard fans. (In practice, this only seems to work with shows like House, where the cases take precedence over the master-plot.) Still, I wonder if viewers would be more willing to try out a serialized drama if they knew they were going to get a more immediate payoff for their investment of time. Make, say, six episodes with a self-contained story, commit to airing all six, and then if those go well, renew for another arc. (Sort of like a combination of the cable model and the British television model.) Because listening to Kyle Killen talk about the way he and his team were writing Lone Star, it sounds like they had contingencies if they only ran for a half-season and contingencies if they were picked up for “the back nine,” and to me that sounds like a recipe for wheel-spinning if you’re working on a tightly serialized show. There’s got to be a better way to run this railroad—one that’s more satisfying both to creators and viewers.
But back to the main topic: Even if the networks adopt the “nested mini-series” model, it won’t do any good if viewers never get a chance to sample the shows in question, and as it stands, with so much new TV debuting at the same time—and so many old favorites returning as well—it’s hard for even the most skilled TiVo-programmer to keep up. Is it fair to say that viewers rejected Lone Star when so few of them even watched it? Fox’s heavy promotion did its best to raise awareness, but who was watching Fox over the summer?
As I mentioned on this week’s AV Talk, I’d like to see the networks go back to staggering their debuts a little more thoughtfully, perhaps by bringing back their returning shows first, for a week or two, so that they can pitch their new product to their existing, much larger audience.
3. Is Twitter creating a chummy bubble?
I live in a fairly conservative state (a “red state,” some would would say, though since our governor, both our senators and three-fourths of our congressmen are Democrats, I’m not sure the term is entirely apt) and on the letters-to-the-editor page of our local newspaper, we occasionally see letters from people who offer as proof that President Obama stole the 2008 election this old chestnut: “I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” I sometimes wonder if Twitter creates a similar misperception about the how popular a television show should be, i.e. “My Twitter feed is full of people who love Terriers, so its Nielsen numbers must be wrong.” (This brings up another topic, both about the problems with data-collection in the entertainment business and the problems with interpreting the data, but I think I’ll table that for some future blog post.)
Moreover, I follow Terriers producer Shawn Ryan on Twitter, and he—as he should—promotes the show by re-tweeting positive comments. I’m a fan of the show and want it to do well, so sometimes I post positive Terriers comments on Twitter, and then those get re-tweeted by other fans and critics and even some writers on the show. Again, it all creates a perception of positivity that turns into shocked disbelief when the weekly numbers come out.
I also worry a little that this new on-line world—where I can send comments directly to a TV producer and he can post links to my coverage of his show—creates a scenario in which the old standards of journalistic objectivity begin to fade. Though I don’t worry about it too much, for a couple of reasons. First off, a conscientious critic will express an honest opinion about he or she sees, even if its work created by someone with whom the critic has had friendly interactions. Second off, I don’t know what “an honest opinion” means, really. We all have biases, predilections, outside interests and tastes, do we not? As long as we’re upfront about them and make our case the best we can, I don’t know that the final “like or dislike?” matters that much. To me, that’s always the least important part of any piece of criticism. I think it’s necessary—as a conversation-starter if nothing else—but the reasoning and analysis and the quality of the writing is what draws me in to a critic’s work, not whether or not I agree with the opinion.
Which brings me to the final question/thought:
4. What should a TV review be?
I don’t want to get too navel-gaze-y here (though it may be too late), but at Flow I raised some questions and heard some useful perspective on what people are looking for from episodic TV reviews. An advance review is one thing—it’s no different from an advance movie review or a book review, really, in which the critic presumes that the reader hasn’t yet encountered the work firsthand—but one of the reasons that websites are adding TV critics at the same time that they’re shedding movie and book critics is that a weekly review of a TV series can become a conversation with a show’s regular viewers.
Scott Tobias and I did a Crosstalk earlier this year that touched on this topic, so I won’t rehash it in depth, but in brief, my feeling is that a weekly TV review exists first just as place for fans to post their comments, whether they read the review or not. I also think that a reasonably thorough recap of what happened in an episode is important, both so that readers can come back to a review much later and be reminded of what happened and because (as I learned at Flow) there are people who use recaps to keep up with shows they don’t actually watch.
Do any of you read recaps for shows you’re not watching? If so, why? And if you watch the show, do you tend to read the complete recap/review, or do you just scroll down to the parts where the writer offers analysis and opinion? (Or do you ignore the review all together and just head straight for the comment section?)