(The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael)
Television is arguably the country’s dominant art form, but it has yet to spawn a really great critic who can make sense of it all. Oh, there are lots of good television writers, but no authoritative cultural thinker to compare with the likes of such great mid-century film critics as Andre Bazin, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, John Simon or Stanley Kauffman. As Kenneth Tucker, himself a respected TV reviewer, admits: “Unlike film or rock criticism, television criticism has never yielded a significant body of work—or at least an acknowledged one enshrined with any permanence in book form.”
This is pretty surprising, given the role that television plays in shaping our desires, defining our sense of what’s “normal,” and driving the entire consumer products industry. But instead of the profound intellectuals who devoted their lives to philosophizing about film, today’s best TV critics are the video equivalent of Roger Ebert: crowd-pleasing, prolific, entertaining and middle-brow.
Again, not to disparage the many excellent writers who churn out superb commentaries day after day. I’m a big fan of Hitwise’s Alan Sepinwall, The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, NPR’s Linda Holmes, MediaPost’s own Ed Martin and many others. And to the extent there’s a Queen Bee, it would be The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, who recently developed the ground-breaking concept of the “bad fan,” (the enthusiastic viewer who doesn’t understand the real point of the show and may think, for example, that Walter White is an actual hero, instead of the clear anti-hero he is meant to be.) But even Nussbaum, as excellent as she is, doesn’t exert the same influence that Kael did 40 years ago in those same pages.
Part of the problem for any television writer is the medium itself. There’s so much content that trying to make sense of it is like trying to review a gushing fire hose at full throttle. Film, theatre and book reviewers are not expected to turn in a commentary before they’ve finished the work they’re reviewing, yet TV critics have to opine after seeing just a handful of series episodes. Theoretically they could wait until the end of a season to review the whole arc of the year, but viewers don’t want to wait 13 or 22 episodes to find out what their favorite reviewers think.
The way many critics deal with the challenge of television’s immediacy is through recapping. To keep on top of thought-provoking shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” they write long recaps (which have now evolved into interpretative summaries) as soon as the show is over. Given how quickly they are written, recaps can be remarkably insightful, but it’s inevitable that speed and quantity will be enemies of thoughtfulness and perspective. As Ken Tucker argues, “recapping is ultimately a mug’s game—there is no way to maintain that kind of writing without becoming either burned out or a hack.” (On the other hand, for a full-throttled defense of recapping, see Matt Zoller Seitz on Vulture.com.)
Finally there’s the niceness factor. The critics all seem to be sympathetic, understanding people, the sort of folks who would be great to have as best buddies — but they rarely tear into a bad TV show with gusto. Worse, they’re all chummy-chummy with each other. The stories are legion of novelists who threw drinks in each others’ faces at cocktail parties because of offense taken over a bad review. And Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael had a famous feud over the “auteur theory” of film criticism. There’s no equivalent phenomenon in TV criticism.
I don’t know what happens when TV writers get together at the industry’s various press tours, but I have a hunch there’s a “cool kids” section of the room where the best critics hang out and crack jokes before heading to the bar. You can see it in their subsequent Twitter exchanges, in which they constantly retweet or promote each other:
- Here’s Sepinwall on Linda Holmes’ “Money See” blog: “This is unsurprisingly strong: @nprmonkeysee on ‘Survivor’ sexism.”
- And here’s Linda Holmes returning the love to Sepinwall: “Good piece from @sepinwall. http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/how-much-good-tv-is-too-much … Related to musings I’ve made, too.”
- And Andy Greenwald likes BOTH of them: “I’ve been pulled from active HOMELAND duty but I agree w/ @sepinwall (http://bit.ly/1ayCWKP ) & @nprmonkeysee.”
I’m glad the TV writers like each other, but I worry about a certain amount of group think. There’s a surprising consensus in criticland about what’s good and what’s not. After all the palling around at press tour and on Twitter, the writers are starting to sound and think the same. What we really need is a nasty feud that could be fought out in the public square. If only the sparks would fly, we might get some good groundbreaking criticism.