Are today’s critics sitting too close to the screen?

Chuck: saved by Sepinwall?

Interesting story in Salon this week suggesting fellow TV critic Alan Sepinwall and others are changing the conversation when it comes to TV criticism. Sepinwall, formerly at the New Jersey Leader-Post and now at HitFix.com, has for years issued lightening fast analysis of weekly episodes of everything from The Sopranos to How I Met Your Mother over at his addictive column “What’s Alan Watching.” He reviewed four more shows just as I was typing that last sentence.
Sepinwall has build a large and loyal following of readers who look for his take on their favourite episodes. Other critics, notably Tim Goodman (formerly with the San Francisco Chronicle but now feeding The Bastard Machine at The Hollywood Reporter), are also known for taking an episode of Mad Men or The Wire and deconstructing it for the masses.
I take my hat off to these guys. Now and then I’ll see an episode of Glee and have to weigh in, pro or con, here at TV Feeds My Family but to do this every week following up to 15 shows like Sepinwall? First of all, I’d have to watch 15 shows a week.
What’s Slate’s Josh Levin and others (notably Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik, who is quoted in the piece and flagged the original article on Twitter) are beginning to ask, however, is at what point does this level of serial responsiveness turn a critic into a “fan-in-chief.” Or, as Levin asks, “Is it possible that today’s TV writers are sitting too close to the screen?”
Levin suggests that if you are writing every week about, say, Chuck, you can be perceived as having crossed over from critic to advocate. He cites former NBC programmer Ben Silverman as having actually credited Sepinwall with helping to keep that series on the air.
I think Silverman (and Levin) give critics too much credit. About 200 of us wrote every week that viewers should all be watching Arrested Development. It all came off as so much “eat your vegetables” and the series never cracked TV’s Top-50.
What’s missing from Levin’s piece is an analysis of the migration of players like Sepinwall and Goodman from Old Media to New and what that says about voices, criticism, dialogue and the television business. That, to me, is the exciting and most promising part. I used to “overnight” episodes of Survivor for years at The Toronto Sun but nobody could click on a comment button holding their “ink on dead trees” edition (although I did get a few death threat phone calls and, later, on-line attacks). Sepinwall’s thoughts can generate dozens of quick retorts from around the world tagged in minutes right onto the end of his article. He may be driving the bus, but it’s a full bus and it’s not always full of fans. Often, the chatter in the back is as illuminating at the original post. (Although, you know, there’s always a few drunks on the bus).
This may be all too much inside baseball for people coming here to read about Barbra Steisand hiding all of Will Smith’s prodigious offspring under her crazy dress at Sunday’s Grammys but if you’ve read this far, head over to Salon for Levin’s interesting take on this whole deal. Then, head on over to What’s Alan Watching and read Sepinwall’s well measured response to the Salon piece. He can see how some might see the line blurring between critic and advocate but argues the whole point of subjective criticism is that the critic’s specific point of view is where the disscussion begins, dammit.
Addressing the whole blurring the line thing, Alan beats himself up a little for a quick cameo he did on Community. People please, we’re in the fun business, everybody relax. If Bill Lawrence called an asked if I wanted to deliver wine on Cougar Town I’d be on the next plane.
And, yes, by all means, comment below. I’m off to take a rest.

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