Tired of TV write-ups

Far be it from me to criticize people for analyzing television. I’ve written two books on the topic and plan to write a third. Yet there’s something about internet television criticism that exhausts me, above all the episode-by-episode “write-ups.” (Let’s leave aside the pure “recap” posts that simply summarize the episode — those are just sad.)

Now I participated in such a project for season four of Mad Men, and if the offer of a paying write-up position had come up at certain crucial moments, I would surely have served as a professional writer-upper. Indeed, TV write-ups are seemingly the only steady internet writing job available for culture workers, and I don’t begrudge anyone that. Nevertheless, I find something questionable about the whole enterprise.

The Breaking Bad finale is a good example here. Almost everyone seems to agree that Breaking Bad is a finely-wrought piece of art that has built up a compelling story over a period of several years. It is a complex work that has prompted widely divergent reactions — in fact, it deserves to be debated and discussed for years to come. And the most appropriate reaction is for us all to rush to pass judgment on the ending.

The fact that the judgment has generally been positive in this case is a small blessing, at least. More trying was the write-up culture around season six of Mad Men. Admittedly, this was a difficult season to watch in a lot of ways — much less pleasurable and accessible than previous seasons. No one would deny this. But writer-uppers have to find something to say other than “I wish I hadn’t agreed to do write-ups for this,” and so they dress up their negative reaction with certain types of ideological policing. This season of Mad Men is bad because Peggy’s sidelined (even though she’s not). It’s bad because Joan’s plot was left hanging (unlike the men’s plots, which were all rigorously tied up). It’s bad because it doesn’t portray enough black people, or else it’s bad because it’s portraying black people in a certain way.

At no point was it clarified whether any of these criticisms made sense in terms of what the Mad Men writers were trying to do. Indeed, the themes of the season — though widely derided as “heavy-handed” — did not come in for serious analysis. The simple fact of returning to recurring themes was cited as evidence of exhaustion or inadequacy. The flashbacks were criticized basically for being flashbacks. I am aware that I am much more devoted to Mad Men than most, yet it seems hard to deny the “literary” or “artistic” ambitions of the show — and in many ways, the writers have earned our trust. I can verify that the show gets richer and more interesting after multiple rewatchings. And yet it came of age in an era of petty sniping.

Obviously this is a bit of an overgeneralization. There were a lot of good and insightful blog posts on last season of Mad Men. I learned a lot from the Dear Television crew in particular. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely when they’re good and insightful that TV write-ups exhaust me the most. And that’s because I assume the authors themselves are exhausted after writing a substantial essay — all for the enjoyment of an audience that has hardly digested the episode themselves.

Even if they wrote it literally word-for-word the same, I’d feel better about it if the write-ups were published shortly before the next episode rather than immediately after the one they’re written over. It would be a way of helping to refresh one’s memory, of restoring the kind of continuity between the episodes that the “quality-TV” genre demands.

But that would never work, because there would always be someone else to write up the insta-reaction. The late writer-upper could only pray to be ignored, but even that wouldn’t work. There’d always be someone to come along, sarcastically accusing them of thinking they’re so smart and have such deep thoughts that all the other faster, younger, more with-it writer-uppers can’t possibly attain. Must be nice to have such a long time to think about it, huh? You privileged dick. You just publish your write-ups late because you can’t stand to hear all the rich, diverse voices on the internet who are now empowered to skim your post and write shit that is ostensibly in response but doesn’t even really make sense?

God, I don’t know. I’m sorry. I withdraw everything, and I withdraw myself. Go back to what you were doing. Seriously. I know you don’t need my permission. No — yes, I know. I know. Please. Just —

4 thoughts on “Tired of TV write-ups

  1. This problem, the ‘insta-reaction’, seems to have inspired the AV Club’s recent expansion into ‘TV Review’ pieces (as opposed to ‘review’), where they write pieces that reflect on whole seasons, on a season so far, or on whatever number of episodes they were sent on screeners before the show airs. (Though the review section in itself, it should be said, rarely suffers from the things you point toward.)

  2. It’s odd that episodic TV criticism really seems to have become the hegemonic way of commenting on TV in a time period where TV shows are structurally less episodic and are less likely to be watched one episode at a time. Even Dear Television, which is the best episodic review site I know, often feels like its stretching to identify themes within a particular episode, to treat what is really part of a work as a unified artistic whole.

  3. “Even if they wrote it literally word-for-word the same, I’d feel better about it if the write-ups were published shortly before the next episode rather than immediately after the one they’re written over. It would be a way of helping to refresh one’s memory, of restoring the kind of continuity between the episodes that the “quality-TV” genre demands.”

    Part of the issue here is the modern need to be the “first” to articulate an authoritative or “interesting” (and, increasingly, socially shareable) interpretation of a cultural moment.

    I’ve noticed a lot of these “recaps” in another community, namely fantasy books. As someone who left the academe because I felt there was too much overinterpretation and too much of myself in readings, I noticed that some (though not all) Internet discussions are recaps and collaborative rereadings, that for the most part grant an audience to re-engage with recollections of their favorite moments of the book–but stop there. So, when a blogger does engage in any sort of more robust analysis it usually dives too deep and reader engagement drops off significantly.

    I think it is difficult to find the happy middle between specialised, acadmeic readings and the kind that regularly appear on the Internet. I think we can engage in more sophistcated discussions of our favourite TV and literature (and that authors and creators wold encourage this), but at the moment I’m just not sure how.

    Anyways, I enjoyed this post and look forward to reading more. I’m all for withdrawal and brooding because when we articulate after a period of such inward dwelling is usually when it appears in its best form. Perhaps its just a function of not sitting on the thought for too long, and not saying it too immediately.

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