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Maureen Ryan

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How to Be a TV Critic

Posted: 12/14/11 12:00 AM ET

You learn two things as soon as you become a television critic: First, everyone thinks you have an awesome job. Second, almost everyone thinks they can do your job.

The first assumption is absolutely correct. But when people tell me they want my job, I nod politely and smile, even though a little voice in the back of my mind says, "Really?"

Don't get me wrong, writing about television and interviewing the people who make it is, for the most part, tremendously enjoyable, and I understand why so many people want to do it. I certainly love what I do, and, having been AOL's TV critic since the fall of 2010 (and the Chicago Tribune's before that), I look forward to continuing in that role for Huffington Post TV.

But let's face it, no job is wonderful 100 percent of the time. What follows, then, are a few caveats that may be of interest to those who think that this life consists of reclining on the couch, bon bons in one hand, TV remote in the other. (I wish! The reality is, I'm much more likely to be found in my garage, on my trusty treadmill, logging miles while watching TV on my laptop, in an attempt to avoid the couch potato shape that usually comes with the job).

I'm certainly not trying to wring pity from you; I don't want or deserve it and I'm fully aware of how lucky I am. Think of this piece as a mere public-service announcement for all the aspiring TV critics out there.

Here's what you'll want to know if you want to write about TV full-time:

1. You will watch a lot of bad TV.
I'm betting you think of watching TV as your reward at the end of a long day. But if covering TV is your job, you'll have less time to channel surf and kick back with your favorites. You'll spend a fair amount of your screen time on junk or on television that fails to be awesome in one way or another.

To be well-versed in the field I cover, I try to watch most of the new scripted fare that comes down the pike, and the truth is, a good percentage of new shows are bad. That's not a knock on television; that's just an acknowledgement of the common-sense rule that 80 to 90 percent of anything in any entertainment medium is derivative, boring or inept.

But even shows that aren't great out of the gate sometimes bear sticking with. If I hadn't kept sampling Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation and Community, I might never have known how amazing they became. So between the iffy new shows and the returning programs with growing pains, the percentage of problematic fare in your daily TV diet is bound to be fairly high.

2. Some days, the Internet is not your friend.
I can still recall the thrill I felt when the first comments began popping up on the earliest incarnation of my Chicago Tribune blog a decade ago. That thrill was diminished a little when the second commenter observed that my column picture made me look like Carrot Top.

I came of age in commenting culture, and, Carrot Top references aside, the interactivity of online criticism is one of its greatest selling points. Most commenters are a joy to read, and even if we don't agree about everything, it's a treat to scroll through a variety of takes on the same piece of entertainment. I love it when commenters or people on Twitter make astute observations I'd never thought of.

And I get that people have strong opinions. I do too. I enjoy the give and take of Web dialogue, and the aspersions occasionally cast on my intelligence don't usually sting, unless the commenter assumes I'm too dumb to understand what a particular writer, creator or actor was trying to do. (What if I understood the artistic goal, but just have a different take on whether it was achieved successfully?)

When everybody assumes that everyone else is debating in good faith and we discuss things civilly, it's a joy to be part of those conversations. When people believe I have a secret agenda in favor of a particular writer, character, network or actor; when they assume that I believe something other than what I've written; and when they think I've put forward thoughts or opinions that I don't actually believe merely to rile people up, that's when comment areas become less fun.

Still, I find reassurance in two truths: First, the great commenters always outweigh the not-great commenters, and I thank WiFi every day that they exist. Second, there's no point in me altering what I do with my hairstyle, since many people will invariably find it questionable.

3. The people who make television won't always react well to what you've written.
Here's a truth you may find surprising: Most creative types want to be critiqued. That's not to say they enjoy hearing negative things about their work, but I'm continually amazed at how willing creators and writers are to interact with people -- fans and critics -- who don't necessarily have purely positive things to say about their shows. In interviews, showrunners are often brutally frank about what did and didn't work about their shows (sometimes, they'll even bring up flaws or problems I hadn't thought of), and I can count on one hand the number of times creative types have cut off contact with me due to the content of my reviews or features.

Still, it won't surprise you to learn that people in the entertainment industry have egos and don't always take well-intentioned criticism in the spirit in which it was written. That's not always fun, but it's especially frustrating when writer/creators misconstrue your critique and employ what I call the Straw Man Defense. If showrunners are going to take on the critics who devote a lot of time to covering their shows, all I ask is that they A) address the substance of what civil critics and thoughtful fans say, rather than ignoring substantial arguments and rebutting points that aren't relevant, and B) take critics to task publicly; that kind of brouhaha only raises our profiles and tends to send more traffic to our sites.

4. A good portion of your waking hours will consist of TV triage.
It's an apparently simple question that can be quite difficult to answer: What should I watch? The reality show that everyone has been talking about? The prestige drama that will probably be nominated for awards? The veteran program I'm unlikely to write about but is simply fun to watch? The buzzworthy show that hasn't clicked with me yet? The mainstream hit in its second season? There's simply no way to watch everything, not without a steady supply of Walter White's blue meth, and I'd prefer to stick to tea, coffee and insomnia, thanks. But that's one reason social media is so crucial these days: People on my Twitter feed kept talking about Awkward. and Happy Endings, and I ended up being very glad that I gave both of them a chance.

Still, to do this job, you must resign yourself to the fact that, despite the advance DVDs the networks send and despite the existence of Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and DVRs, you will never, ever be truly caught up on all the shows you want to keep up with. But that's OK; acceptance comes slowly, though it's never fully possible for me to submerge my DVR guilt.

5. You will get your heart broken. A lot.
If you love television, you'll fall head over heels for shows that get low ratings. It's a fact. You will tell yourself not to get your hopes up for a Terriers or a Men of a Certain Age, but you will. Despite your best intentions, the rational part of your brain will reject the idea that these lovingly crafted gems could go away. But they will go away. And you'll be sad, because if you're doing this job right, you'll put part of your heart and soul into your work and watching something great die too soon can drag your spirit down.

Yet it's all worth it. Sometimes fighting for shows works: Witness the five-year runs of Friday Night Lights and Chuck and the unlikely (but welcome) return of Arrested Development. And whatever bad TV I had to sit through, the last decade also brought us The Shield, Veronica Mars, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Deadwood, Parks and Recreation, Party Down and so many other great shows.

No wonder new critics are joining the fray every day. Whatever the hitches, this job is a lot of damned fun. And that's what you really need to know: Many days, it's not that hard to ignore all of the above.

 

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