Critic's Notebook: The Post-Review, Post-Premiere, Post-Finale World of Peak TV

Fargo S03E06 Still - Publicity - H 2017
Chris Large/FX

I tried to take a vacation — well, more accurately, a "staycation" — last week. Pretty much any TV critic can tell you how that went. Badly. Unless you're in the woods, on some distant island or in a foreign country, the remote is too close. The allure of catching up — and all TV critics are behind and scrambling to catch up — is too much.

I work from home so I'm living in my office. If I don't escape that space with, say, an airplane ticket and a destination, then I'm basically at work. So I watched. And watched. And watched.

It still wasn't enough. It's never enough.

But this isn't just about me — there's a bigger issue here concerning all of us: viewers, television creators, television critics and television reporters.

We've been experiencing a landscape shift for years now, trying to grasp enormous changes on the fly. Most of those revolve around Peak TV and the staggering increase in the number of scripted series, but also the surge of available outlets (the rise in fringe cable channels and streaming outlets), the ways television is consumed — when and on what device (TV, laptop, phone) — and the overall effect this all has on the consumer (viewer or critic) and the industry at large.

Here's a short story about that: a lot.

In the last two years, television critics have definitively realized they can't watch everything and there's nobody left even willing to lie about it. Year-end best-of lists are all slapped with an asterisk that basically says, "These are the best shows that I actually saw."

If the critic's conundrum was adjusting to a world where it was frustratingly impossible to watch every (scripted) thing after being able to do just that several seasons prior, for the average viewer it was an overwhelming sense of, well, being overwhelmed. That part, I don't think, we've paid enough attention to. I'm still fascinated by what Peak TV means to the creators and writers who actually make it — this weird combination of increased opportunity, increased paychecks, decreased awareness from the public that you actually made something combined with increased awareness of a frightening new world where some platforms that paid you to make it don't seem entirely keen on promoting it when you're finished, or making it easy to find once they put it out into the ether.

Yes, I'm infinitely fascinated by how f—ed up that situation is.

But getting back to those overwhelmed viewers and looking at it from their perspective reveals the order of magnitude at hand.

We are now in a world where endless choice means that premieres have less value. That has a huge effect on promotional spending. We are now in a world where finales don't have the same impact. That has an effect on those once-popular creator post-mortems and critical wraps. This new world means reviews are evergreen. That means publications need to learn how to resurface formerly date-specific reviews. It means critics can (and should) write about series even well after the finale. It means spoilers are now both infinite and hold less power. There are no seasons because there are no boundaries. Ratings will never be meaningless, but they are now much harder to effectively track and monetize accurately. Everything as we knew it in the television industry is subject to reinterpretation. And that scares the hell out of a lot of people because some in the industry resist change; they have no conceptual understanding of flux or willingness to bend with it.

(Just as an aside here: These are not the things one should be thinking about on an alleged vacation.)

But what I've been hearing about the most from viewers in the last couple of years ties in to most of this. They remain upbeat, interested and engaged. But they are, as stated, overwhelmed by all the offerings. Their metrics for watching or not watching a series have changed dramatically in the last two years especially — and that alone is a huge deal for the industry. Viewers you could formerly count on to watch a certain type of show on a certain network and to judge those shows or relate back data about the experience (what day and time they watched, in what room, on what device, which ads were retained, etc.) — all of that foundational truth is either in flux or has already been flipped, so if you'd like to let out a "Holy hell!" now would be the time.

Think about what TV has given — or, if you prefer, done to — the average viewer. When you lose certain, definable patterns, the game has changed. People don't talk about fall premieres or summer programming so much anymore; they talk about the "TV all the time" phenomenon. They are post-season. Because of DVRs and OTT streaming options, they are post-schedule. Because they are overwhelmed, they are, as mentioned, post-premiere. And, consequently, they are post-finale. Many of the old rules just don't apply.

Now, for me, sitting at home and not vacationing certainly got me thinking even more about this endless array of fascinating issues for the industry. I read fellow critic Dan Fienberg's piece on late-June, early-July being a very small window for people to play catch up on shows they've either missed or recorded and haven't crossed off yet.

I had about 20 shows I wanted to add to it. But I nodded at the shows I hadn't seen yet and want to, badly.

I had already expressed a desire to write less about so many premieres and more about the endings of shows, since one of the scourges of the TV critic game is that we're compelled to write about the start of new and returning series, yet have almost no capacity to see them all through to the end. At home, on my staycation, I was catching up on lost episodes, checking off titles I needed to wrap up.

I was living the post-finale life. Series had ended but I wasn't there yet. I was desperately behind, frantic to catch up. I told a couple of friends — people who absolutely absorb television — that I had finally gotten around last week to finishing my beloved Fargo, plus Veep and Silicon Valley, and had made great progress on others (almost finished with Better Call Saul).

Their comments were helpful salves, but not encouraging for the industry. Two hadn't even started Fargo but were super-excited to get into it. Another was caught up on Saul but hadn't finished either Veep or Silicon Valley and was, to be honest, mostly just filled with shame for not having started The Handmaid's Tale. This echoed what I've heard anecdotally through my Twitter feed and on my podcast and talking TV at parties and events (which is, let's face it, pretty much what I do non-stop — the talking TV part).

No, they said, they hadn't read my critic's notebook on the inherent sadness of the Leftovers and Americans seasons. Because they weren't done watching either series yet. (One had watched only the first two episodes of the first season of The Leftovers.) I think they felt better that someone who gets paid to watch TV can't even keep up.

In turn, I actually felt better as well. Because it's not like people are ignoring TV. They are drowning in it, sure, but they are fighting to keep their heads up and determined to get through uncompleted seasons and start others. Extrapolated out, that's great news for the industry. And I think it validates my point that writing about television in this new world order has an evergreen aspect to it. Yes, there will still be post-mortems from series creators posted right after the finales are over. People who are caught up can read those. And they will still be there, searchable, for whenever everybody else finishes (and yes, I do believe the percentages are rapidly shifting toward the majority of viewers not finishing a series on the actual night of its finale, which cools off lots of critical hot-takes dashed off in old-school earnestness).

But that opens up an opportunity for change — for a mixture of coverage that is there if you finished on time but will also be there — fresh for you — not because you had to search for it a couple weeks later, but because more critics will be writing and revisiting series on a delayed basis, perhaps writing something more meaningful because they've actually had time to think about it.

This business is changing across the board. As for criticism, I think it's an exciting time to be more thoughtful, brought about by an industry-wide inability to be up to date on everything. And I think there's a huge audience for that, composed of people equally delayed in their viewing because they've been overwhelmed and otherwise busy.

That's just my almost-vacation take on things relevant to what I do. How I write and how my peers write about television is definitely changing. It has to — because viewers and their habits have changed. They've shifted with the times, and outdated journalism edicts will as well.

What's even more interesting is to write about the other non-criticism-related elements I touched on here that involve massive changes within the industry.

I'll get to those soon enough. But first: perhaps an actual vacation.