A proposal for my fellow TV critics and for those who care deeply about the medium: Let's give the "TV shows are just like books" analogy a rest.
It's time we expanded our vision and stopped being so self-conscious and easily cowed when it comes to writing about television on a day-to-day basis.
It's not that the book analogy doesn't have some value. But, as a group, we've oversubscribed to that theory to the point that it's limiting our worldview. Yes, as David Simon, the creator of "The Wire," pointed out last week, there are limitations to what an in-progress review of a television show can do. No critic worth reading disputes that, and there is an ongoing debate within the critical community on the worth and the value of episodic reviews.
But is there worth and value to a critic writing with some frequency about an artist's output at many points in that artist's career? Absolutely. That's one of the main points of the job. And when we think of the television creator as an artist (not something we're trained to do, given how generally self-hating the television industry is), the whole discussion changes.
Could an art critic write a 2,000 word essay about a single painting? One installation? One sculpture? Of course.
Could a theater critic write a valuable piece contextualizing and assessing a one-act play? Of course; that kind of essay is not just worthy, it's expected.
Could a dance writer critique a ballet that was only 10 minutes long? Of course. So why can't we critique pieces of television that are 40-plus minutes long?
In part, it's because we're trained by our culture not to value television. We're trained not to take it seriously. "It's only TV!" goes the refrain. "The Wire" might be one of the best narratives any medium has ever produced, but even the man who created it doesn't see how individual sections of it might be worthy of discussion, contextualization and simple appreciation.
Last week, there was an online kerfuffle involving Simon, who appeared to say in an interview with The New York Times that people shouldn't have assessed the value of "The Wire" until it was over. He later did a long interview with critic Alan Sepinwall, in which a more nuanced view came to the fore. The entire interview is worth reading, and, for what it's worth, I agree with several of Simon's points, which I'll get into in a minute.
But in that Sepinwall interview, Simon brought out the old book analogy, the one that goes something like this (and I'm paraphrasing the analogy, which I've seen dozens of times, not Simon's particular remarks): "Would you review every chapter of a book as you read it, or would you wait until you'd finished the book?" In this analogy, only the latter action makes sense.
But the analogy doesn't really hold up, because an episode of television can stand on its own, as a complete work. To assert otherwise is to denigrate one of the medium's finest accomplishments.
Once more, with feeling: An episode is not a chapter of a book. Generally speaking, individual book chapters are not meant to stand on their own. But an episode of television has a great deal of validity as an individual work, and there's nothing wrong with treating it like the discrete unit that it can be and often is.
An episode of television can, of course, fit into the larger overall structure of a season or a show as a whole, but one of the great things about television is that one installment -- of even a half-hour show -- can have a beginning, a middle and an end. An episode can take the audience and the characters somewhere. It can tell a story that reverberates in our hearts and minds for days, weeks or years. Just think about "The Suitcase" from Season 4 of "Mad Men": It was, of course, more powerful if you knew a lot about Don Draper and Peggy Olson, but even if a viewer only knew the bare outlines of their relationship and concerns, it worked as a self-contained drama.
We can all probably think of dozens of examples of episodes that had an enormous impact on us, and weren't just great hours of TV, but represented sea changes for the shows in question. And I'm frankly tired of the intimation (from Simon and others) that the discussion of episodes, or parts of seasons, or even a single element of individual episodes -- as Tom and Lorenzo do so masterfully with their weekly Mad Style essays -- is somehow missing the point.
It is not.
It's not the only kind of critique that matters, of course. I'm one of the people that thinks that, as things currently stand, television criticism as a whole often can't see the forest for the episodic trees, and I would very much welcome more big-picture criticism. But exploring the ways in which a program, a character, a particular story thread or a show's aesthetic evolves over time is one of the most important things active participants in the television community (critics, fans, commenters) can do.
So let's retire the book metaphor, at least for a while. Those of us who write about television day-to-day shouldn't be ashamed of what we do -- and let's face it, we write about TV, so somewhere in the backs of our minds, the idea lurks that what we're doing isn't serious. As a group, we're fairly easy to shame.
But let's embrace and even celebrate the idea that writing about an ongoing television show well before it's over, with some frequency, is just one way to pay homage to something that is -- yes, it's true! -- a serious art form. And a good review of an exceptional hour of TV is as worthy of acclaim as a solidly written, insightful book review or a thoughtful essay about an important painting.
Now, having said all that, does the world absolutely need the sheer volume of episodic reviews that flood the internet every week? Eh, probably not, and as a critic, I generally favor checking in on a show a few times per season rather than writing about a program every week. I don't think that we need to wait until a program has ended its run to assess that show, but speaking for myself, the weekly rotation can become a bit of a grind. I like to write about a show when a season begins, when it ends, and maybe once or twice in between.
Though I don't go as far as Simon in this regard, I do think it can be more respectful toward a creators' aims to assess the execution of a show's goals every so often, rather than week-to-week. Having said that, there are many critics who do that kind of thing very well, and I myself am writing weekly reviews of "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," because those shows offer critics a huge amount of material to play with. With some shows, and I don't think I'm alone in this, I simply need to do a weekly brain dump of all my thoughts and reactions (that certainly was the case with "Lost" and the final season of "Battlestar Galactica"). It's either a weekly review or far too much thought-spewing the next morning on Twitter, and nobody wants that.
Whether weekly reviews are valuable depends on who's writing them, and if the writer is passionate and interested in what he or she is writing about, then they tend to be worth reading. Speaking personally, I've found that, at times, my weekly reviews ended up giving primacy and importance to things I don't care about that much, which is why I've otherwise given up episodic reviews. I've too frequently found that in weekly reviews, I'd write about the structure of the episode, because, well, it's there. If I didn't have anything especially insightful to say, I could write about how what happened in the hour fit into other things that had happened in the past and other things that might happen in future. I found that fallback position -- writing about structure rather than offering real insight -- was as grating for me as it probably was for readers, because, honestly, who cares? At the end of the day, I care about structure, but the way I care about the beams supporting my house: I'd like them to not fall in on me, but otherwise, I generally ignore them.
I feel much more comfortable writing about television in ways that (I hope) honor both its intellectual ambitions and its emotional, visceral impact. Though I value the serialized pleasures of television as much as anyone, I really enjoy writing about the effect that arcs, scenes, episodes and characters have on us. And strangely enough, despite having created indelible characters and memorable individual episodes, I am guessing those kinds of achievements don't particularly matter to Simon. That's OK; they can still matter to us.
Simon did make some valid points about the larger intellectual and social issues of "The Wire" getting lost in the discussions that has grown up around the show since its demise. Nobody loves #WireQuoteDay more than me, but I steer clear of the well-intentioned TV-related bracketology that springs up every March. To me, that does tend to trivialize what various shows (not just "The Wire") were about and the impact they had. It's possible to incite a deep discussion of the social and political implications of "The Wire," but it's probably easier to construct a chart to determine whether Omar was, in fact, more awesome than Stringer.
Still, in a couple of different ways, I think Simon doesn't quite understand how television is consumed. Ryan McGee wrote an essay recently that kicked off an interesting debate about the worth and value of individual episodes of television. Speaking for myself, I tend to think that HBO has gone a little too far in a direction that Simon helped shape: In the drama realm, the network tends to make 10- and 12-hour movies these days, and it has tended to devalue the individual episode itself. I understand the trend; the way people consume things these days means that they're often watching in season-long binges.
But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. One of the great things about the debut season of "Homeland" is that each episode worked on its own on a character level and a story level, and each fit together to tell a surprising and ambitious overall story as well. One of the great accomplishments of an episode titled "The Weekend" was that it was an utterly absorbing one-act play that also slotted beautifully into the larger narrative. Meredith Stiehm should be applauded for both those accomplishments.
And what about the fact that the glorious unpredictability and even messiness of TV can make it more of a roller-coaster ride -- one that viewers, if we're lucky, can feel deeply thrilled by some weeks? Sure, maybe the creators and fans of "Lost" had an overly enmeshed relationship, but watching the people making that show go for broke, even as they obliquely or directly addressed fan feedback, made for one hell of an emotionally vivid experience. Please, gods of television, don't condemn us to 12 episodes each year of well-modulated, completely consistent above-averageness (i.e., "Boardwalk Empire").
I have another area of respectful disagreement with Simon, and that has to do with the ultimate impact of his show. As I said, I don't think coming up with some of the most memorable characters on television was ever part of Simon's master plan. He simply wanted to construct a narrative that was as realistic as possible, and in doing so, he and his writers and cast gave us Bubbles and Omar, McNulty and Bunk. As vivid as they were, I don't think Simon's goal was to get us to care about their individual dilemmas -- the characters mattered to him, but they were more or less a means of delivering the narrative. Apparently to Simon, the depth of our devotion to them is an unforeseen and not particularly useful byproduct.
Still, they're what have stayed with us, and I understand why. Talking about television on an intellectual level is all fine well and good, and I'm just one of many people attempting to play in that sandbox. But the truly lasting stories are the ones that make us care about the people at the center of the saga.
What I remember about my favorite shows a few years after they ended are moments: Al Swearengen looking out over his balcony on "Deadwood," Randy's face at the end of the fourth season of "The Wire," the Old Man going around the horn one last time on "Battlestar Galactica" or Shane Vendrell's last few scenes on "The Shield."
Isn't that how it should be? Isn't that an achievement that any show should be proud of -- moments that don't just stay with an audience, but actually alter how they look at life afterward?
Intellectual takeaways, however impressive, tend to fade into foggy generalities over time. Just to resurrect a book analogy (momentarily, I promise!), a couple years ago, I read Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series of novels. What he was doing with form and style in those books made the whole thing a field day for an inquisitive critic. Had books been my area of speciality, I could have easily written long essays about -- get this! -- individual chapters within some of those books.
But what King did with form, aesthetics and the metaphysical aspects of the narrative has blurred in my memory over time. What I remember most clearly are the parts that made me cry.
Maybe I'm just an old sentimentalist, which isn't something you can't accuse Simon of being. He's certainly welcome to have his own view of his accomplishments in the television realm; his are certainly as valid as anyone's.
But I tend to find that the characters, the moments, the episodes, the lines, and most of all, the feeling a show created -- all of that is what stays with me. To celebrate and to write about those things is the best fucking part of this job.
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