Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In defense of TV critics

The nation’s TV critics are here in Los Angeles for their bi-annual convention. My heart goes out to them. Three weeks of hourly seminars listening to actors and showrunners from new series gassing off on why their shows are so great, all the while knowing that 90% of them won’t survive and a few will not make it to Halloween. (In fairness, it’s no picnic for the showrunners and actors either – sitting on stage looking out at a sea of bored expressionless faces. Think Chris Rock performing for the Macon County Elks Club.)

But TV critics have a tough job that is only getting tougher. And lest you think I’m sucking up, I have no show for them to judge. They can review my blog and wardrobe and that’s about it.

The demands on them are greater and their security is not much better than the shows they critique. Newspapers are the UPN of media.

TV critics used to write for established newspapers founded before even Cher was born. They’d review new pilots, movies-of-the-week, do a few articles about the state of the industry, interview Tony Danza, and occasionally do follow-up pieces on series – usually when the show they called a stinkburger became the breakout hit of the season. There were primarily four networks. The fall and mid-seasons were clearly defined. Tony Danza always got a show so they could replay that interview every season.

Life was good.

Now many of them work for websites and start-ups. Unlike newspapers, these venues demand voluminous amounts of content. It’s not enough to review a pilot. Some critics like Alan Sepinwall from HitFix (pictured: left)  and Maureen Ryan from the Huffington Post (pictured: below) now critique every episode of dozens of shows. I can’t imagine watching every episode of THE CARRIE DIARIES much less analyzing them every week.

And these aren’t just blurbs or paragraphs. Sepinwall and Ryan write long term paper-length critiques. Law schools don’t give out that much homework.

That’s the tip of the iceberg though because they have to WATCH all this crap. Every year I get Emmy screeners and it’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the DVD’s just keep coming. Shows I’ve never heard of. Networks I’ve never heard of. How can anybody keep track of all this material? And yet, they have to watch it all and then some. Studies have shown that most people even get bored with porn if they watch too much of it. Imagine having to wade through THE JACKSONS: AN AMERICAN DREAM.

So if you’re in LA and sometime in the next few weeks you see a shell of a person sitting alone at a Starbucks, rocking back and forth, coffee dribbling out of his mouth, mumbling “TODDLERS AND TIARAS, season eight” over and over, show a little kindness. Remind him that BREAKING BAD is returning soon and SMASH has been cancelled. Another angel will get his wings. 

33 comments:

Hamid said...

"THE JACKSONS: AN AMERICAN DREAM"

Ha ha! I once stumbled on that while channel surfing and didn't last more than 2 minutes before having to change channel. Touched by an Angel was another stomach turning piece of crapola.

Talking of new shows, I'm not sure how I feel about the news that Robin Williams is returning to TV for a new sitcom. There's still a lot of affection for Mork & Mindy, and though I personally was never a huge fan of it, it's going to be compared to it.

Kbene said...

You forgot to post that you and your esteemed partner will be on Stu's show today!

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

At least Sepinwall and Ryan, etc. are reviewing TV because they love TV. The previous generation of critics (exemplified in my mind by Tom Shales) always seemed like they were pissed off at having to review TV, because it meant they weren't good enough to be reviewing movies or theater.

Bob Sassone said...

I wrote a piece during last year's TCA summer get together, about where TV criticism is right now. Some critics weren't happy about it:

http://sassone.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/and-now-a-few-words-about-tv-critics/

Anonymous said...

I love reading Mad Men reviews and always did that first thing on Monday morning after watching the show Sunday night. I don't know how they do it. Do the critics receive plot summaries from the shows or anything like that? Julie, Burlington, Iowa

Michael Hill said...

Now and then, in between the screeners and interviews, a critic gets to go off the ranch and, say, interview a sitcom writer who is about to come to said critic's hometown as a baseball announcer. Those were the days....

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Another thorn in their crown is that blog/Web critics are often doing more work (since they often have to source video/images to illustrate their articles and come up with headlines, etc) for less money than they used to get, owing to the fact that all these sites are competing with so many others.

So long ago that pilots were still being sent out on videocassettes, I *once* received a tape of a show pilot. Mystified about why it had been sent to me, since I didn't write about television, I tossed it to one side and didn't get around to watching it for some time.

It was a tape of the first few episodes of THE SOPRANOS.

wg

Ken Levine said...

Michael,

Yes, I remember your review of ALMOST PERFECT. Something to the effect that "Ken Levine is as good a writer as he was bad as a play-by-play announcer." And this was four years after I had left Baltimore. I don't remember all reviews, but I do recall reading that one going, "What the fuck?!"

Cap'n Bob said...

Anyone's better than Judith Crist or Cleveland Amory.

Pete Grossman said...

A few years back I accompanied a friend who was a big time movie critic to her screenings for the day. After the second mediocre movie (a third was to be viewed that evening), I told her I was done. "You have no stamina," she said.

Michael Hill said...

Ken,
That's slander, Ken!
For the record, I left the TV beat in 1992 and when Almost Perfect was on the air was the Johannesburg bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun. Maybe that was the other Michael Hill who worked for the Washington Post.
mh

KatePowers said...

If you're a fan of hour-long drama, I highly recommend Emily Nussbaum (currently at the NYer, previously NY mag and elsewhere.) Crazy smart/thoughtful, but absolutely NOT snobbish in her tastes. She's pointed me to so many things I have since come to adore.

(Full disclosure: I am always going to be in the tank for a critic who's liked everything I've ever worked on, but still... she's the real deal.)

Ken Levine said...

There were two Michael Hills? If so, I apologize. I've been steamed at the wrong critic for all these years. The Michael Hill I knew hung out with me in Baltimore.

chalmers said...

Emily Nussbaum had an interesting story in the most recent New Yorker defending the importance of “Sex and the City” to HBO and the new Golden Era of Television. Between the two wretched movies and the shredded syndicated reruns, people now point to the show as a negative example along the lines of “Don’t worry, it’s not like ‘SATC.’ ”

The show was well-written and while the bawdy talk was essential (as proven by the E! reruns), that alone doesn’t keep viewers renewing their HBO year after year. Nussbaum makes the point that when conflicts arose on the show, either internally or between two characters, there weren’t easily identifiable right and wrong sides.

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2013/07/29/130729crte_television_nussbaum

Michael Hill said...

There were two Michael Hills. At one time the Washington Post Michael Hill was president of the Television Critics Association and your Baltimore buddy was vice president. And not only was I not reviewing shows in 1995, I liked your O's announcing! Wish you were here now. Good exciting team. And, as you know, a great ballpark.

Mac said...

That's (internet) democracy, I suppose. Everyone's a critic now, although I think there'll always be a place for the good ones. By "good ones" I mean the truly insightful, televisual geniuses who gave my show a good review. The others were all idiots, they deserve to get sacked.

BigTed said...

The big difference between online reviews and the old days of dinosaur print newspapers is reader comments. A lot of viewers want to see a review of an episode right after they watch it, then give their own perspective. Forum-based sites like Television Without Pity understand this; so do critics like Sepinwall, who may get hundreds of comments about a complex show like "Mad Men." (Although by the time he gets done analyzing an episode, there's not much left to say.)

Mike said...

@Mac: Your show? For the UK? Or a joke for the comment? Pray tell.

Mac said...

@Mike

My show in the UK. It got a run on BBC America, then died and went to hell. It got some nice reviews in the US actually, for such an obscure show - much better than it got in the UK.

Hamid said...

Off topic but Spike Lee is being interviewed on BBC Newsnight in a few minutes to defend his use of Kickstarter! It should be interesting.

Mike said...

@Mac: I'm curious but you're reticient to name the show. I enjoyed Mongrels if that helps. (I won't have seen it but I will watch out for it.)
Getting a programme made is an achievement.
Someone else's experience.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

KatePowers: I get recommendations for shows that are really interesting from three places: here, the WELL, and The New Yorker. You're right about Nussbaum.

wg

Phillip B said...

James Gandolfini's will was recently filed for probate, and it received bad reviews.

http://www.miamiprobate.com/blog/2013/07/gandolfini-will-described-as-catastrophe.shtml

It never ends....

Jim said...

I really miss the days when Sepinwall was *our* TV critic, at the Newark Star-Ledger. No one dissected the previous night's "Sopranos" like he did.

Hamid said...

Ken, a Friday question: What's your view on the use of a laughter track in sitcoms? I recently caught an episode of Anger Management and I was both surprised and distracted by the use of an awful laughter track, surprised because I thought they stopped being used years ago. It gave it a really cheesy and low brow feel, regardless of whether any lines were actually funny or not, given the incessant and indiscriminate use of the track, so had to switch over.

Mac said...

@Mike
Ha! Mongrels was great. I did a little work on the development of the pilot but I can't claim to have any input into what it eventually became. I'd love to have been more involved - it was a funny show. Real shame it didn't find an audience. My show was called Saxondale, if you're ever in South Korea it might be on your hotel TV, as I recently got a whopping £0.74 royalty cheque from there. Thanks for the link, that's a grim story but unfortunately it's not uncommon.

Michael said...

Friday question:

How much job security is there for a staff writer on a successful show? Are they pretty much guaranteed to keep working on the show as long as they want unless they screw up or are the producers constantly looking to replace some writers each year to keep things fresh?

Johnny Walker said...

I miss quality journalism. My only hope is that mainstream journalism will sink so badly into the gutters that people will eventually happily pay for something of consistent quality and integrity.

Recently, when I've glanced at a newspaper here in London, I feel we're getting close to that.

And with the digital dark age we're in now (where the "Information Super Highway" has become swamped with a deluge of opinion, misinformation and wilful ignorance) the Internet seems ripe for restructuring at worst, or ready for a new marketplace for quality reference/news/opinion at best.

Mike said...

@Mac: Wow, Saxondale! Of course, I saw it. It was good!
I'm a Motörheadbanger from the seventies. The programme spoke to my people. Sadly, I can confirm that the awkward relations with the neighbours are authentic.
I recall Saxondale's intimidation by the secretary as a strong point. I'll have to watch what I post, now I know there's a professional in the house.
(Cribbing off the Wiki page, I saw Focus, Wishbone Ash & the Groundhogs on tour together a couple of years ago. So who has the extensive knowledge of TS McPhee's discography, eh? You know you're not allowed to edit the pages yourself?)

Mac said...

Thanks @Mike, that's kind of you to say. I wasn't editing the wiki page (honest!), but I'm well up to speed on these bands - Wishbone Ash were the first pro band I ever saw, then UFO, Gillan, Saxon, Krokus etc etc with a healthy dose of prog; Yes, ELP etc So I didn't have to do any research for the music, it was all in my collection! That Ash/Focus/Groundhogs gig would have been a belter.
Vicky was the evil secretary, she was fun to write. I'd loved to have done more but it just didn't get the ratings. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Cheers.

Storm said...

KROKUSSSSSS! Dude... Krokus RULES!

Your Pal,

Storm

Anonymous said...

Sorry to comment anonymously - I tried under my Google login and it's not working, for some reason!

I'm a fan of Mo Ryan's writing, and Sepinwall too.

But I'll say that most critics, including Ryan and Sepinwall, gave up the idea of reviewing every show, or even most of them, a long time ago.

Ryan reviewed a far wider range of shows at the Chicago Tribune than she does online. I suspect it's because her employer is more interested in that content generating clicks, and so only the "hot shows" are covered.

I assume that's why there's a 2000 word review of "Mad Men" every week.

TV critics have taken it on the chin. There are far fewer than there used to be. Some lost their jobs or lost their status as staffers (Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette comes to mind - he was a staffer and is now a freelancer.)

I'm a blogger myself, and deeply appreciate an informed blog like yours, Ken, but for every one blogger who knows whereof he/she speaks, there are three more who are talking out of their...well, you know.