Are modern TV critics stuck on a hamster wheel? Recapping themselves into “becoming either burned out or a hack”? Turning into “fan-cum-critics” too smitten with stars and showrunners?
Matt Zoller Seitz (left) addresses how TV journalists are, like almost everybody else these days, reinventing themselves in a lively and thoughtful column at Vulture.
Seitz is the TV critic for New York magazine and is now editor-in-chief at RogerEbert.com. His Vulture column is welcome right from the headline: “There Has Never Been a Better Time for TV Criticism.” Critics and positive spin are generally not used in the same sentence much these days.
In the article, he pays particular attention to the rise of recapping, a practice HitFix reviewer Alan Sepinwall has turned into a one-man publishing house. How Sepinwall or Huffington Post’s Mo Ryan or Grantland’s Andy Greenwald or even Seitz himself are able to spin so much observation and insight into these instant show essays is like a magic trick to me. (I’m worn out just linking to them.) It is a wonder more critics haven’t had their pants burst into flames like Dick Van Dyke’s car just from having a laptop constantly scorching their lap tops.
I’ve recapped shows like Survivor for years, dating back to my Toronto Sun days, when the practice was called “overnighting.” Now these detailed, scene-by-scene replays are the ultimate spoilers, detailing what just happened on shows such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men or even The Newsroom or Girls.
For me, instant TV drama recaps seem a bit odd and obsessive. They’re like, and I say this with love, Coles Notes for nerds. Just watch the damn show, develop your own takeaway, maybe go outside once in a while. Rest your eyes.
Have to admit I cheered a little inside earlier this month when Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan told critics at the L.A. press tour he never reads anything about himself or his show on-line. “I know that it would be a rabbit hole that I would disappear down,” he told us. He went on to say he was grateful for all the press attention, giving credit to critics for embracing his series early.
|Sepinwall’s book, which I just bought
from Alan while on press tour. There
were no handling charges because he
handed it to me. Alan just wrote four
recaps while I was typing this caption
I get why some folks like having a critic deconstruct an episode immediately after it airs, and I’ve even linked to people like Tim Goodman after a Mad Men finale. There are times when somebody else just nails it, and you can only point readers his or her way and say, “wish I wrote that.”
Recapping reality shows, however, is more fun for me. It’s like doing stand up comedy to a room full of haters. I get to rip into The Bachelorette or Dancing with the Stars, tell some jokes and press send. It’s the opposite of getting somebody smitten to do it. A few weeks later, a cheque arrives.
So, no, I’ve never been opposed to getting paid to watch television. For some of these shows, that’s the only way I would watch.
Writing two-, three-or five-thousand word instant essays on Breaking Bad is something I think I’d either want a lot more money than anyone is offering to do or at least some sort of credit towards a university grad school degree. The extra money would go straight to buying the required nightly dose of highly caffeinated beverages.
What I also appreciated in the article was how Seitz tips his hat to those who went before, people like John J. O’Connor and John Leonard (so effective, for years, on air on CBS’s Sunday Morning), Tom Shales (now at RogerEbert.com), Ed Bark, Steve Reddicliffe and others in America, Clive James in the U.K. Ken Tucker is a wonderful writer/reviewer and is referenced throughout the piece thanks to a book review he wrote which helped sparked Seitz’s whole thesis, along with this Wall Street Journal story by John Jurgensen.
People forget, too, that TV Guide used to be a writer`s magazine, with Peter Bogdonovich, Erich Segal and many others popping in each week as contributors. (Same in Canada, where Pierre Berton and Clyde Gilmore took on assignments.) I used to marvel at how, in the ’60s and ’70s, TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory (best byline name ever) could boil a show down to its essence in five paragraphs. Matt Roush later was just as lively and effective in that same tiny one-page review space. You knew whether or not the show was worth your time in the two minutes it took to reads their knowing take.
USA Today`s Robert Bianco gets it done daily with edge and wit in 50 or 100 words. These guys are and were way ahead of the 140 character Twitter standard of conveying a lot in a small space.
The Globe and Mail`s John Doyle, to single out just one Canadian example, is also a master at getting a point across in a few well-chosen words.
I`ll stop here, because I`d be mocking myself to ramble on further–I can’t believe I’m recapping this article–but read Seitz. He does a great job getting this whole critics’ today conversation started.