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WARNING: TV Critic Discussing TV Critics Discussing TV Criticism

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Over at Slate, Josh Levin writes a piece (in which I’m quoted) about HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, and how his style of TV blogging—reviewing weekly episodes of dozens of shows—has changed TV criticism, and readers’ expectations of it:

At its best, new-school TV writing is brainy and inquisitive, thoughtful commentary borne out of a fanatical attention to detail. But hypervigilant criticism, written by obsessive fans for obsessive fans, isn’t necessarily an unmitigated force for good. Is it possible that today’s TV writers are sitting too close to the screen?

It’s a worthwhile piece, and while I don’t agree with all its implications, it reflects some of my feelings about my own job here. In particular: when TV blogs focus above all on reviewing (or “recapping,” a word some people consider a synonym but in my mind means plot summary with occasional comments) episodes, are we skewing the forest-trees ratio of our work?

I do a fair amount of individual episode-reviewing, but looking over a sample of my blog posts, those make up maybe a third of my posts overall. To me, reviewing is only one part of a critics’ job, and not necessarily the most essential: saying whether something is good or bad is less important to me than seeing how narratives on TV work, what ideas are embedded in them and what they reflect in the world outside themselves.

Reviewing TV episodes is one way of doing that, but only one, and though I commit enough of that here, I’m tempted to step back from it, because as I said to Levin, I also think there’s a value in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture—so to speak—and that’s probably more interesting to me. I think there’s a lot of value in the weekly reviews that Sepinwall (and many other bloggers and sites) do nowadays. But I also think there’s tremendous value in a TV blogger like Jaime Weinman at MacLean’s—who almost never reviews episodes, but applies his encyclopedic knowledge of TV history toward putting today’s shows and TV-biz news into context.

It’s not an either/or, of course, which is why I do both here. (And Sepinwall and others do plenty besides weekly reviews as well.) And weekly reviews are as much valuable, or more, as a starting point for discussions in the comments as they are for the critics’ analysis themselves. But while Levin may paint the issue a little too broadly, he makes a good point that review/recap style criticism tends to make the critic into the Fan-in-Chief—someone who focuses mostly on shows he or she really likes, gathering a community of like-minded readers.

Recently, for instance, Sepinwall wrote that he was going to stop reviewing Modern Family as often, because he caught so much heat from its fans whenever he criticized an episode. I’m noting this not to pick on him, but because I know exactly what he’s talking about. And if that’s the case, it’s a shame: I’d much rather read Alan Sepinwall intelligently take apart the flaws in Modern Family—even though I may like it overall better than he does—than find a like-minded cheering section run by someone who’s not as good a critic but shares my opinions more closely. And while it’s good to see critics engaging as fans—as opposed to sour-faced, knee-jerk wet blankets—I would hope Alan’s readers (or anyone else’s) would appreciate him enough to value him even when he pisses them off.

Overall, the piece is really about issues that anyone in media has to deal with these days: how to drive traffic and get attention without making it the sole reason you write anything, and how to build a community without pandering to it. After all, the major thing that drives online criticism now, more than online critics, is the audience and commenters, and the dynamics among all of them.

In that spirit, um: what do you think of the piece?