Friday, October 21, 2011

Reviewing TV Reviewing

They say we're in a golden age of television, with more quality programs on the air than at any time in the history of the medium. As a corollary, largely overlooked, is that we've come into a golden age of TV criticism. Much of this has to do with there being so many shows around that are actually worth the time and effort to critique. However, the changing habits of the viewing audience in recent years and the rise of the internet have also been major factors.

Let's take the example of the recent fourth season of "Breaking Bad." Media sites like the AV Club and HitFix, offered weekly reviews and analysis of each episode as it aired, along with interviews and wrap-up pieces after the season finale. This never could have been done in a print publication, simply for lack of physical column inches. I think the closest I've seen to such an intensive, ongoing critique of a show in print, is back when Howard Rosenbaum of the LA Times devoted several installments of his weekly television column to chronicling the final season of "Seinfeld." And that was an exception, made for a show that was one of the highest rated network programs of the day. If a paper wanted to highlight a particular series, like "The X-Files," usually a feature story would be written about it. The closest you got to episode reviews were the weekly recommendations in various critics' columns. Or if a show was popular enough, someone might publish a book about it, with multiple pages devoted each individual episode. I own a few of the old "X-Files" guides that did this.

These days, ongoing episode-by-episode analysis is becoming the norm, written by critics who assume that the reader is following along episode-by-episode with them. They develop ongoing viewing relationships with particular programs, better capturing the way that television serials impact the audience over successive weeks. Episodes are rated against each other, and evaluated in the context of the season in which it airs. TV is a very different medium than film, and it is appropriate that the method of critique should likewise be different in structure and approach. However, prior to the 1990s, you rarely had television shows that were dense or distinctive enough to justify doing this. Now, shows like "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" essentially offer up two-thirds of a feature film every week, comparable to anything that you could see in theaters. Some media observers have argued that television has in many ways surpassed film as the most culturally relevant media of our times. Creative talent now go back and forth between the two worlds without any eyebrows raised, which was never true in the past.

Another major change is that TV critics now spend less time catering to the mainstream. In the past, critics tended to talk about less popular programs in terms of introducing them or promoting them to a wider audience. But now, thanks to cable and the internet, that wider television audience has fractured into countless different segments. More interesting, oddball shows tend to stick around longer than they used to, thanks to the attention of viewers who may be smaller in number, but also tend to be far more devoted. "Chuck" is a good example, rescued from cancellation season after season, despite lackluster ratings, by fans who ran save-our-show campaigns targeted at specific sponsors. And these are the fans that most of the in-depth episode reviews are written for. It's become more acceptable to be niche. Sites like the AV Club devote countless webpages of analysis to a multitude of nerdy shows with tiny audiences, that add up to big ones.

The reviews themselves have gotten more interesting as a result, no longer simple episode summaries or post-season wrap-ups. The best ones almost seem like ongoing conversations, charting a series' ups and downs, highs and lows. In addition to analysis, television reviews spend considerable time on predictions and conjecture, making them great starting points for discussions. The fourth episode of "Community" generated a lot of buzz last week for pulling off a spectacular multiple-timeline story. It also ended three weeks of nervous speculation that the show was playing it too safe this year, and possibly losing its touch. There was a lot of grumbling about the slower pace of this season of "Breaking Bad" too, and then everyone reversed course during the hair-raising second half of the year.

However it doesn't feel like everyone in the media is quite on the same page yet. Most sites and publications still stick to the older format of acknowledging a television show only when it becomes particularly prominent in the media, or only following one or two particularly high profile shows through a full season. Few beyond the AV Club and Television Without Pity are willing to commit so many resources to so many different shows. Considering the number of programs going at any one time, this is understandable. However, I think the new style of ongoing, multiple-installment reviews is where television criticism is headed. In the future I expect I'll try my hand at them myself, instead of the pilot reviews and periodic check-ins I've been doing to date.

Maybe next year, when "Breaking Bad" rolls around again.

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