Critic's Notebook: The Evolving Role of Criticism in the Peak and Platinum TV Era

Back Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance TV

Here is only a slightly truncated timeline of events that happened to me recently: I started watching (and reviewed) Detectorists, one of television's great gems that most people have never discovered. It left me both filled with joy at its many exceptional charms and depressed that its third season would be its last. I then saw a promo ad for Fox's The Resident, a new hospital drama, that contained, in that brief clip, almost every element that has characterized bad hospital dramas for eons, and I literally hung my head and sighed heavily. Lastly, I went to post something on Twitter and was intrigued to find in my short time there (I'm a Twitter quitter, basically), that two fellow television critics had struck up a conversation about their disdain for writing about bad television in the Peak TV era.

Things were connecting.

As a critic, I find it defeating to spend time on series where it takes almost zero critical faculty to realize they will not be good. This is pretty common when evaluating network shows, particularly dramas. While there are plenty of network comedies that are excellent, the dramas, almost by design (I could make the argument that it's definitely by design), can't measure up to the quality dramas on cable, on streaming platforms and those imported from overseas.

I have no idea if The Resident is any good or not, and I'm loath to pick on a Fox series after some of its junior executives on the comedy side recently showed me exactly how thin their skin was while simultaneously misunderstanding the concept of quality vs. ratings — what if the drama folks are as chippy? So let's take, oh, pretty much any other network and put one of its dramas up against their cable and streaming counterparts.

Whichever show we pick, it's not a fair fight. But, as I said, that's mostly by design. Broadcast networks are in business to appeal to — yes, here it comes — the broadest audience, which has historically also translated to the largest audience (though that's yet another outdated concept the industry is struggling with). So I've never quite understood network execs getting pissy about their shows being compared unfavorably to prestige cable or streaming series. You're not in the prestige business. You're in the popularity business, and your product must reflect that and be familiar and safe enough for widespread appeal, not too difficult to follow, not too challenging, not too bleak. It should be uplifting or aspirational, filled with requited love, justice prevailing and exceptional doctors — and of course, brimming with very good-looking people.

That's what you do, Broadcast Drama Exec. That is your job. Embrace it. Don't get mad if critics are lukewarm or disdainful of your fare. If you want to make Fargo, don't work at a broadcast network.

In case this needs stating as well, there are plenty of dramas on cable, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and imported from around the world that don't make the grade, either. Disappointing television is everywhere — spotlighting network dramas is just to acknowledge a very easy target. Let it be known that subpar television is alive and well everywhere!

And for television critics, trying to review all of those shows, many with name stars, big budgets and promoted extremely well, while also trying to alert the public to better series elsewhere (that are most likely smaller scale, less promoted, in a foreign language, or, to highlight another trend, buried in the vast Netflix ecosystem) is time-consuming and difficult. Plus, the vast majority of TV series offered up for review come with multiple episodes attached — anywhere from three to 10 or more. Different critics have different opinions on how many are necessary to watch before the review, but let's just say it's pretty much always more than two. And while you're writing your reviews, all the other scripted series in existence are churning out episodes, nightly, or popping up in fat stacks on a streaming platform. To keep up with 480-plus scripted series, each with between six and 22 episodes a season, isn't just exhausting, it's impossible. But you have to try, which basically means watching every free moment you have, seven days a week.

And if you prefer, like I do, to not just review television shows but to cover the crazy industry that creates them, there goes more hours.

You can see, in this scenario, how disdainfully a poorly written, ill-conceived or badly acted series will be welcomed.

Which brings us, finally, to the Twitter exchange noted above, where Willa Paskin, Slate's television critic, tweeted: "I know a critic's job more than ever is helping people sort through all the stuff, but (because) of all the stuff I resent having to spend time on bad TV more than ever."

To which Alan Sepinwall, Uproxx's television critic, replied: "Of late, I've taken the approach that if I don't like it — or just don't care — I'll either stop watching, or not write and move onto something I can recommend in favor of, rather than warn against."

Both Sepinwall and Paskin are thoughtful and well-regarded, and it's not surprising that their secondary thoughts on the subject swung toward guilt. "I feel conflicted about certain high profile (is that even really a thing anymore) releases," Paskin wrote. "And I wonder if there was less if I would find more interesting explanations of my dislike for them."

Sepinwall: "I get that. And when I still write negative reviews these days, it tends to be for those things that are so high profile I can't just let a non-review be my statement."

Oh, I feel these two. I hear them, loudly. And my guess is many other overwhelmed critics do as well. Of course, there can be guilt, on the one hand, worrying about abdicating responsibility and not even attempting to review series that are just plain bad (and there are ever so many of those). But on the other hand, the theory that not all series deserve to be reviewed is one I believe in. And no critic only wants to write positive reviews. But a lot of us, as Sepinwall articulates, will be checking in on higher-profile series, or new offerings from prestige outlets, that will inevitably fall short (plenty of those, too), so there would clearly be negative reviews on the balance sheet at year's end.

And that's important. The argument here isn't "only positive reviews!"

What's frustrating to a lot of critics and something I've felt (and written about) regularly, is that too much time gets sucked up by mediocre or bad series while lesser-known series of tremendous merit (that readers/viewers would love to discover) get lost and go wanting. That's what I was feeling when I wrote about Detectorists.

If you look at the series that made my top 10 for 2017 (of a list that spanned 46 shows), a good argument could be made that most people watched only one or two with any regularity (certainly HBO's Game of Thrones at No. 8, probably PBS' Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War at No. 3 — possibly FX's Better Things at No. 7). In fact it was this perceived niche-ness that prompted an annoyed junior executive at Fox, mad about a bad review I'd written of a sitcom on the network, to proclaim that show would probably get better ratings than all of my pet series except Game of Thrones, which of course spectacularly missed the point about best as opposed to most popular — but then that's how network people are programmed to think.

Viewers only care about ratings if they believe a show they love will die because it has low numbers. What they want is a show — well, multiple shows — that will enthrall them, entertain them, make them laugh, connect with their emotional state on that given day, transport them, make them think, etc. In the Platinum Age of television people are being told by friends, co-workers or cousins about countless fascinating shows out there. They are overhearing people in cafes and bars mentioning a disparate collection of must-see series, and they can't keep track of the sheer number of suggestions. How are they going to watch all of these series in the limited free time they have in their lives?

That is the current, wonderful and sublime world of television right now. It's why I constantly have people tell me that no, they haven't seen all 46 series on my Best TV of 2017 list, and certainly not The A Word on Sundance TV (No. 2), Patriot on Amazon (No. 6), Get Shorty on Epix (No. 9) and can I please tell them what the hell Sundance Now is (it's a streaming service) so they can find out what the hell Back is (it's my No. 4, and a brilliant comedy).

Viewers super-excited about the bountiful gifts of this amazing time in the TV industry are a good thing. People desperately trying to understand their streaming options or how to manipulate skinny bundles just to be able to watch some obscure gem (like Detectorists) are great for content providers in the industry, great for content creators, great for magazines and websites like THR, etc.

Zeal is infinitely better than indifference.

So, explain to me how telling them regularly about shows that suck — other than deterring them from watching and wasting time, which can also be done by not reviewing said shows — serves them better than using that time to direct them to this seemingly endless list of worthy series?

Seriously, it's like Kryptonite to watch bad television and then review it, telling readers that Show X offers no surprises in its boring familiarity except how terribly it's all executed, when I could be telling them that they've never seen anything quite like Back or Guerilla or It's the End of the F***ing World.

Shifting away from time spent reviewing bad television will be, I believe, a growing trend (music and book critics have had to face this onslaught issue years before film or TV critics, though each discipline is unique in how they handle it). I've already written that the current way of reviewing TV is outdated and not in line with how people, overwhelmed with choices and falling behind, are absorbing and experiencing television content. But change is difficult and often slow. Paying less, if any, attention to unworthy TV might be the unavoidable next step in the evolution, however.

It's a little bit of advocacy journalism (or at least advocacy criticism); a strand of public service. It might, in this Peak TV world — which is showing no signs of retraction — be the future, and the most useful idea for readers.