Gather ’round, aspiring writers about TV writing, we at TVWriter™ are proud to bring you this truly intellectual discussion about the kind of thing we do right here every day (till we get a gig writing actual TV, in which case, “Whoa, Nellie!”)
by Linda Holmes
It was years ago that TV critic Alan Sepinwall said something to me that I’ve remembered ever since and that he doesn’t remember saying: that writing about television was shifting its focus from what is said before shows are on to what is said after shows are on. It made sense to me, since my career writing about TV started with writing recaps of shows I used an actual VCR to record. With tapes. I didn’t get screeners, I didn’t get advances — I just taped things, and then I wrote about them. I think now, that shift is so obvious that it’s taken for granted.
This came up again recently when Quentin Tarantino sat down for a long and searching interview with New York Magazine. After he expressed, among many other things, his affection for the departed HBO drama The Newsroom, interviewer Lane Brown mentioned the show’s mixed reviews. Tarantino’s response, in addition to wondering whether anyone reads TV criticism, included: “TV critics review the pilot. Pilots of shows suck.”
There’s plenty of room to debate whether anyone reads TV criticism anymore (or any other criticism, for that matter), but the other part of the response suggests it’s maybe been a while since Tarantino did. (In fairness, he’s busy.) While looking at pilots is certainly part of what lots of critics do and a bad enough pilot, or particularly an actively off-putting or offensive pilot, can get your show written off if it’s bad enough, criticism of television has long since become — particularly in the case of anything with any ambition — much more about the visit and revisit and re-revisit. There are shows that don’t get that treatment, but The Newsroom did. Whether you think its reviews were fair or unfair, they were not, in the main, the result of nobody reviewing anything after the pilot.
Writing about TV is in a weird place, for some of the same reasons TV itself is. “Here’s a new show; they sent it to me in advance; here are some thoughts including whether it’s good or not” is still part of the picture, just like the traditional fall rollout of broadcast network shows is still part of the cycle of TV. But just like delivery has changed and content has changed, writing has changed, too. And that traditional vision, in which your task is to generate a single review of a new show based on a pilot and then perhaps to do a remembrance when it ends, is entirely incomplete.
As shows have gotten more serialized and more complicated, and as online writing has provided a lot more space, the practice of writing about every single episode of a show has gotten more common. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have been proving grounds for people who built audiences by breaking down metaphors, commenting on form, dissecting story directions, and generally working alongside viewers who want a more thoughtful experience out of watching television.
Of course, even that has gotten trickier to do. Early in this series, we talked about how the full-drop model, in which seasons of shows are released all at once, complicates public conversation. It complicates criticism, too (in a way that, were it true that TV critics just review pilots, it wouldn’t). Just now, The New York Times is posting two-a-day reviews of the episodes of the new Netflix show Narcos, because … it’s as good a method as any.
Well, wait. Technically, those aren’t reviews; they’re recaps, and if you want to get a weird and surprisingly boisterous argument going that’s of interest to a tiny number of people, get the TV critics of your acquaintance to reach agreement on how different those things are and how you tell them apart. (Spoiler alert: they won’t.) For me, recaps are a little more driven by the structure of the episode and the commentary follows that structure, while reviews are structured more like traditional cultural criticism. But there are countless gray areas and countless writers where “recap” and “review” both seem like reasonable labels to attach to their work. Of course, I came up writing 15-page scene-by-scene epics about episodes of Survivor that didn’t publish for four days, which is the kind of thing that simply wouldn’t/couldn’t happen now. At the time, people sort of went with it. You will now typically be asked at least once why a piece is so long if it runs past about 500 words, and the actual answer I would have given then – which was “…For pleasure?” – would not suffice….