It’s been a while [save those two weekends a few months ago where @drumonastick and I consumed ~80 LOST episodes] since I’ve had a decent day of TV watching, but after completely ruining my weekend with the World Cup, alcohol and not sleeping in my own bed, I sat slouched in anticipation of some new TV blood.
And now, a summary of said “new” blood. Yes, I say “new”, because two of the three shows are old, but I haven’t had the chance to get into ’em.
Community – Started very poorly, and the main dude and dudette are for the most part, terribly yawnworthy, but Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase and Danny Pudi are becoming increasingly funnier, with the Mexican Halloween episode taking the show to a new level. One thing I particularly like about Community is the fine job it does with its race-based humour
Modern Family – Only two episodes in, but I’m already in love with most of the characters, and some fine zingers already!
Rubicon – This is a new conspiracy thriller on AMC [the fine folks that bring us Mad Men and Breaking Bad], and only the pilot is out as of now, but can count me in for the ride
All of this of course has nothing to do with the real point of this post, but I thought I’d tell you a little about my weekend, and well, I’m not sure where this is going anymore, but let me try and reset the focus to this fantastic discussion by Noel and Scott of The AV Club, on how the culture of TV and TV-watching has changed. It was filled with paragraphs of glorious sentiment that I vehemently agree and disagree with, so I’m just going to pull some of that out.
…you’ve often been horrified when I tell you that I’ve taken an interest in one of your favorite shows and have started to watch it mid-season. For me, this is no big deal. I’ve been dropping into TV shows my whole life, and I find it hard to believe that there’s any show I’d be unable to get a handle on after an episode or two. This is especially true in the age of the Internet; it isn’t too hard to get a quick character sketch or a “story so far” plot synopsis. But you seem to think that it’s unacceptable to watch a TV series any other way than to start with season one, episode one—even if the general consensus is that the show took a while to find its footing.
No! You can’t! Especially not for serialized dramas. The emotional pay-offs—and to some extent, plot reveals—that come with you starting with a show from season 1, episode 1 are what I watch these shows for, and the pay-offs are infinitely grander, when the investment is made from Day One.
…one of the things that complicates TV criticism is the ways in which we watch. Following a show week-in, week-out is a different experience than catching up with it later. I’m not discounting your opinion of FNL’s first season by any means, but I think your emotional investment was higher, not just because you watched from the beginning, but because you came in on the show’s ground floor, more or less. As I recall, you didn’t start watching on the night it debuted, but watched a mini-marathon of the first few weeks’ worth of episodes, then watched the rest of the season week-by-week. Anyway, you discovered the show early, and were part of its first wave of champions. By the time I got around to FNL, I’d already heard how good it was, so I was judging it against high expectations. And I ultimately watched the second half of the first season on DVD over the course of about three days, so I got to see some of the disappointingly conventional payoffs of the first season’s storylines in mere hours, while you had to wait weeks, and could thus let the world of Dillon, Texas and your perception of the show’s overall quality expand in your mind.
It’s what I said, just in a much more eloquent manner! And applies doubly to something like LOST, where hours on end are spent theorizing the characters fates and the mythological significance of every action and frame.
To my mind, two factors are contributing to a rapid advance in television criticism:
1. Critics are just rising to the occasion. Though I’ll always appreciate the stylistic diversity and singularity of film—explained by it being a medium where the director is king (or queen)—if we’re talking strictly from a standpoint of nuts-and-bolts storytelling, television has it all over film right now. Serialized shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and countless others have seized on TV’s potential for expansive, character-driven, novelistic sagas that are just not possible within the confines of a two-hour movie. And so the challenge of unpacking shows that rich in detail is something a lot of good writers have naturally taken up.
2. The modern phenomenon of websites that cover shows on a week-by-week, episode-by-episode basis has allowed writers the chance to go deep into the minute details that a conventional review would not have the space to evoke without worrying about spoilers or getting bogged down in minutiae. Just as importantly, readers are all experiencing an episode at once, rather than at disparate times in theaters or OnDemand or DVD. Everyone comes to the table completely in sync, having just had the same experience at the same time, and there are tremendous analytical possibilities in that—crowd-sourcing as criticism. I know that if I circulate a handful of my favorite blogs the day after a show airs, I’m likely to come away with a much better understanding of what I witnessed the night before. And isn’t that what good criticism does?
Again, I’m bringing it back to LOST, and the amazing discussion that slowly gathered on social media and the 17 posts on here throughout this season, and the strong sense of validation this faux TV critic got out of it.
Television has been remarkably good over the past decade, as you noted. The likes of The Wire, Lost, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, and Breaking Bad will likely be studied well into the future, the way the best movies and books are now. As the people who register the earliest opinions on these shows, we ought to be as diligent as we can about documenting them, and putting them into their proper context. We should also be willing to go back when we can, watch again, and revise. Mostly though, we should try to understand what TV does well, and give that its due.