Those Cozy TV Critics

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.

Tags: tv
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4 comments about "Those Cozy TV Critics".
  1. Bob Batchelor from Thiel College , November 5, 2013 at 2:20 p.m.
    This is an interesting essay, but I think you have missed out on a television critic that produces what you ask for -- Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/blogs/bastard-machine). Goodman's analysis is innovative and thoughtful. And, he's also branded his work (like some of the others you mentioned), which is a necessity in today's social media culture. It is kind of a low blow to criticize these people for Tweeting each other's stuff, particularly given the pressures on news organizations today. The conversation/interaction with like-minded people is precisely the reason people like Twitter and other social media channels.
  2. Arthur Greenwald from Greenwald Media , November 5, 2013 at 2:21 p.m.
    This is an interesting and well-written column, but the basic premise --- that the world lacks and needs a dominant critical voice --- seems totally out of synch with the complexity of today's video landscape. Paulene Kael and Andrew Sarris worked in an age where it was numerically possible to view the majority of films in current release. The film industry at that time evolved at a glacial pace compared to TV's shifting business models today. As a result, rather than uber-critics, we have a series of specialists commenting on the technology, sociology, economics of television separate and apart from the quality of shows.
  3. Thomas Siebert from WOLFGANG SOLO: Strategic Communications & Benevolent Propaganda , November 5, 2013 at 2:48 p.m.
    Great piece, lots to digest here.

    First thought: For a short time, before he got too bitter, the Washington Post's Pulitzer-prize winner Tom Shales came pretty close to the level of respect (and fear) for television criticism that Kael, Simon, Sarris and the great J. Hoberman once held for film criticism, or Frank Rich for live theater criticism.

    Part of the problem, which is approached here but not directly addressed, is that so much television is just absolute garbage. A total dreck-fest, but few have the guts to say so. Yes, many of the best shows in the history of television have appeared in the past decade, but the sheer mountain of dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator crap has also floated down the increasingly filthy river of modern mass media entertainment.

    It's worth remembering that Kael, Simon, all the best film critics really didn't like much. They ripped movies far more than they praised them, because they considered Film an ART FORM. Very few people consider television any kind of art form. Even the absolutely best stuff like "The Sopranos," "Seinfeld" and "The Wire," you rarely see people using the word "Art" (though I sure would). And even terrific shows like "Homeland" or "Modern Family," are just great entertainment, they're not art. They carry the inherent baggage of the medium, the insistence we at least periodically suspend our disbelief or follow-the-dots of typical sitcom plots.

    Let's remember, too, that many of the film critics sourced here were NOT well-liked by their peers or the studios. By the end of her career (and maybe before the end), Kael was not getting invited to screenings and often sat by herself. In this day of social media, it's much easier to be "liked," both literally and virtually, to promote your brand.

    Also, these critics only reviewed films they thought had merit; they weren't knocking out every opening ever week.

    In the end, I think the biggest reason no TV critic has broken out is the same reason no film critic will ever again hold the same amount of respect as the writers covered here: Because of the Internet, the hive mind now holds sway. it's much easier to go to an aggregation site, or seek our favorite specific writer among hundreds (thousands?), who suits your taste and fancy. In years past, there were only so many national writers and they held greater power and leverage. Now, everybody has national reach. In the same way digital communications has splintered our entertainments, so too has it splintered our criticism.

  4. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications , November 6, 2013 at 5:16 a.m.
    There is a very good reason that there are no new good television critics, its the same the world over which can summed up in one word, 'access'...