The Golden Age of Television Criticism?

Congratulations to The New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum, who last week won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.  Bravo.  Well-deserved.

Nussbaum’s award came one year after Mary McNamara, the TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, took home the same prize, leading some to express pride that TV criticism (especially by women) has finally come into its own as a respected genre. 

Actually, a look at the list of Pulitzer-winning critics over the last 45 years suggests that chance, rather than newfound respect, was responsible for two TV critics winning back-to-back awards, given that the committee clearly spreads the wealth around among many types of criticism (music, book, architecture, film – even car design). TV was bound to come up eventually.

And yet I think it’s fair to say that TV criticism has never been better.  Not only are there more critics performing at a higher level, but they’re producing so much good criticism that it’s hard to keep up.  There are excellent TV critics at most major newspaper, in most opinion magazines, and across a broad array of online platforms ranging from Slate to Vulture to the Huffington Post to MediaPost.

Of course there were great TV critics in the past.  I’m thinking particularly about The Washington Post’s Tom Shales, the last TV critics before McNamara to win a Pulitzer. He won back in 1988. when I happened to be living in Washington, D.C. One of the great pleasures of living there in the 1980s was reading the Post’s TV team, which included Shales, Lisa de Moraes and John Carmody.  All were prolific, but Shales was especially great at churning out insightful analyses about Presidential speeches, and late-night entertainment, as well as reviews of traditional prime-time programming.

Where Shales covered the whole waterfront of television viewing, today’s critics focus primarily on scripted shows and, to a lesser extent, some reality TV.  In order words, television criticism now largely mirrors film criticism, in that it exists to explain and tease out the greater themes in fictional works of art.

But the television critic’s job is more difficult than a film critic’s. There’s the sheer volume of the content.  A movie might take a couple of hours to watch but a TV season could take from10 to up to 26 hours, spread out over months.

Then there’s the question of when, exactly, you do the review. Do you write about the pilot, knowing that the series will eventually evolve? Do you write at the end of the season, after your readers have already seen the series themselves? In the third season, after it’s a phenomenon?

Some excellent critics, like Alan Sepinwall of Hitwise and other Internet-based critics, have essentially become high-end recappers, covering the season episode-by-episode as it rolls out, like sports reporters covering each game in the season.

Nussbaum, who works for a weekly magazine, is able to take a broader view, dipping in and out of TV shows whenever she wants – sometimes midseason, sometimes early in the season. Her recent profile on Kenya Barris, the creator and showrunner for “black*ish,” demonstrates why she deserved her Pulitzer, teasing out the remarkably subtle strands of racial meaning in that very funny and thoughtful sitcom.

To the extent there’s a most-influential TV critic, it would be Nussbaum, who seems to be first among equals in that group of buddy-buddy critics who attend the Television Critics Association press tour twice a year and tweet praise at each other in between.  She works for the most respected general interest magazine in the country, so has the broadest platform, and the work itself is top notch.

And yet even Nussbaum seems to lack an overarching philosophy about the medium.  She made at least one important contribution to the way we think about television, which is the “bad fan” (i.e. the loyal viewer who mistakes the antihero with the hero), but there is no “Nussbaum doctrine” of TV.

And it’s not just Nussbaum who lacks a collected oeuvre.  I have an entire shelf of books and essays about film theory but nothing comparable from any of the excellent TV critics writing today.  (The book that comes closest is Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised,” about 12 shows that launched the current Golden Age of television, but even this book is more narrative than theory.)

Maybe the problem is that television is so much more ephemeral than film.  It wasn’t until the development of the boxed DVD set, or more recently, the online streaming service, that fans could go back and rewatch their favorite shows. 

And as I mentioned earlier, there’s also the problem of the huge time commitment it requires to watch an entire TV series.  You can watch “Vertigo” in two hours -- but it takes about 50 hours to binge-watch “Mad Men.”

So as grateful as I am for the wide range of daily and weekly television criticism, I’m still waiting for a magnum opus or two that will present grand unifying theories about television and its role in our culture. 

The feminist film critic Molly Haskell wrote “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.” Nussbaum’s a feminist critic.  Maybe she can write “From Lucy Ricardo to Liz Lemon.”  I’d definitely buy that.

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