Critic's Notebook: Amid Peak TV Glut, Critics Now Must Also Be Curators

People don't watch TV or even read about it in the same way they used to, so catering to an overwhelmed audience is paramount.
Courtesy of Photofest
'The Sopranos'

The year is ending and very soon TV critics everywhere will be filing their best-of-2018 lists, a ritual I've taken almost too seriously for, well, ever. I love it. I think it's a valuable and helpful service and also fairly fun (but sometimes maddening) to do.

But in 2018 I have a pronounced "meh" about the list I'm compiling. Not because I'm over it. Not because the collection of shows are somehow fewer or worse — God no. It's because I do it all the time now, this list-making. In fact, as a critic, I think waiting until the end of the year is less service than disservice. The ever-changing role of criticism, something I've written about extensively, continues to evolve, and it's my belief that the best role a critic can play in 2018 and beyond is curator.

While the review isn't dead, it's decidedly less important — although it's relatively new state of being is evergreen (something I wrote about in the summer of 2017). In that column, I said the premiere and the finale of a series have much less value than they have ever had, which was true then and more true now. People are not watching at the same time. Unified viewing patterns are long gone. A review in 2018 (and beyond) is less a clarion call than a flare in the dark.

The new reality of television (and television criticism), is that seasons and premiere dates are pretty meaningless. This Peak TV glut of shows — where so many of them are excellent and worthwhile — has long since drowned the average viewer. They are perpetually behind. And they live in a world of streaming services and on-demand options that make it OK to be behind. People are finding series from two years ago today. Others are waiting for today's buzzed-about series to not only finish its season so they can binge it (assuming it didn't drop a full season all at once on a streaming platform in the first place), but also to hear if there's a second season in the works before they bother watching. Viewers have so many options now that almost nothing, excepting live sports or major breaking news coverage, is going to motivate them to watch live. Something new — a premiere! — honestly, who the fuck cares? Add it to the pile of things to watch later.

So if I write a review about something brand new on FX, let's say, a much smaller percentage of readers than at any previous time will act on it immediately. That's not a bad thing, it's just the new thing.

Viewers are adapting in ways I'm not sure the industry fully grasps. They've already figured out which streaming platform the content from the linear channel they cord-cut eight months ago will eventually wind up. "I'll watch that new FX series when the full season eventually shows up on Hulu," the savvy modern viewer might say. There's an app for tracking such things. Hell, you don't even need an app — try Googling the name of a TV series (any TV series). There's a relatively new "available on" result that's more accurate and up to date than any app I use.

When I enthusiastically reviewed Epix series Get Shorty in August 2017, most people didn't know what Epix was and weren't going to subscribe. Did they feel like they were missing something good? Maybe, but they were also behind on tons of other great things. And guess what — the first season of Get Shorty is on Netflix now. And people know what that is. 

Peak TV affords people the luxury of waiting. Reviews still help. They will always be there when someone is ready to read about, let me coyly say, the first season oThe A Word and also the second season of The A Word. So that's nice. But what I've come to believe is infinitely more helpful than telling someone what's going to premiere in a week on HBO is a curated list of series they might have missed in the last five or six years (yes, really) and that they can watch right now. Or maybe just one series, revisited, that got lost — and here it is, resurfaced, not just with a link to the original review (although that could be helpful, sure) but a fresh reasoning — taking into consideration all that's come after — on why they should still seek it out. 

Another effect of Peak TV is that viewers aren't just looking forward anymore. Most of them are looking backward, at what they missed. I think this is a fundamental shift in viewing patterns that old-school journalistic thinking in regard to reviews hasn't properly addressed.

So I've become, rather aggressively of late, a list-maker. It's more than just some kind of added-value PSA. It's an opportunity.

I've always seen the value of aggregating disparate series and having fun with them. I started my Power Rankings! back in 2009. And even though they take much more effort to compile regularly now, given the Peak TV glut, that kind of in-season best-of competition has always had a certain kind of populist allure (plus I love writing them).

But I found out this year — and wrote about the anecdotal discovery — that what connects most with people these days is more and different kinds of curated lists or suggestions. So I started the Hidden Gems and TV Time recurring series for The Hollywood Reporter (the first resurfacing favorite overlooked shows and the second a three-tiered list of recommended shows based on how much time someone has in their lives to actually watch). 

It's imperative that habits change as patterns change in any industry, and criticism is no different. I've written about the evolving role of criticism in the Platinum Age of TV, the post-review, post-premiere, post-finale world of evergreen criticism and even whether the advent of hyper-minutia criticism made it harder to create great television. It's important to figure out how and why the ground is shifting.

But I definitely think some kind of trusted curation is the future. Criticism can't just be about the new anymore. It has to be about the missed and the lost and, more than ever, the essential.