The TV Guide
Alan Sepinwall changed the nature of television criticism. But can you be both a rabid fan and a thoughtful reviewer?
More than any critic, Sepinwall reminds me of his frequent podcast companion, ESPN.com's Sports Guy Bill Simmons. We read television recaps for the same reason we read about last night's game. We want to relive what we've seen through the eyes of an expert—someone who recognizes a callback to Season 2 or spots a parallel with the 1967 Red Sox. Sepinwall's episode reviews are akin to Simmons' running game diaries. Both men are unmindful of word counts, piling on minutiae for their comrades in compulsiveness, and both dispense their knowledge without sacrificing the passion that marks them as fans rather than jaded pros. At the end of his reviews, Sepinwall explicitly opens up the floor to his eager commenters—he is a fellow enthusiast, not a guru who imparts wisdom from an exalted perch.
One unavoidable consequence of writing for the Web is that you get led around by television's most rabid fan bases. The A.V. Club's recaps of Terriers, which was cancelled after one season due to low ratings, reliably generated scores more comments than reviews of The Good Wife—a show with a larger but less-engaged audience. And given that episode reviews are mostly of interest to hardcore fans, honey-soaked praise attracts more readers than vinegar-y condemnation. Blog readers, Sepinwall says, "want you to be a cheerleader for what they're a cheerleader for." Indeed, my colleague Jack Shafer's Lost-hating rants made him a pariah among the readers of Slate's TV Club. "I stopped by here after every show just to see if anyone had anything interesting to say about it," wrote one commenter, "but I hung out at [Entertainment Weekly] where I found Doc Jensen's unabashed enthusiasm far more entertaining and enlightening than these sour, shallow critiques." (If a show is absolute dreck, however, hate can be therapeutic for all parties. "Toward the end of Heroes … [the recappers would] just lay into it, and the readers enjoyed that," Murray says.)
In TV criticism, as in sports, mid-season analysis is also a game of incomplete information. Assessing a TV series episode by episode, Murray told me, is a bit like "reviewing a book chapter by chapter, or reviewing a movie every 15 minutes." By the opening credits of next week's show, this week's deeply held convictions may well be obsolete.
Of course, having your preconceptions upended is part of the fun of following a favorite series. But instant disposability is not a quality associated with great criticism. While Sepinwall's post-episode Sopranos columns are detail-rich documents of a particular moment in time, you'll learn more about the series by reading Emily Nussbaum's bravura epitaph for the show. Having watched the series from beginning to end, Nussbaum separates telling moments from trivia and offers a rich assessment of what the show meant and how it subverted viewers' expectations.
It's tough to see the sweep of a series when you're looking at each individual episode through a microscope. Loaded with mysteries and obscure symbols, Lost was seemingly ideal fodder for regular, zoomed-in coverage. Sepinwall, Murray, Slate's TV Club, and dozens more dissertated on the show every week, with each post racking up comments as readers chimed in with their own theories. Upon its conclusion, Lost revealed weekly reviewing's biggest weakness. When all too many of the show's dramas—What's the deal with the island and pregnant women? Why is Walt so special?—amounted to nothing, it felt as if the ever-diligent critics had abetted Lost's flim-flammery. The show's close readers, it turned out, had been too distracted by the polar bear and the four-toed statue to notice that the whole was less than the sum of its parts. "I would not trade the last six years for anything," Sepinwall said on Bill Simmons' post-Lost-finale podcast, "but as a show I don't think it holds together as much as we were all hoping it would."
Every TV critic I spoke with said they hoped week-to-week coverage would be additive and complementary—that it wouldn't make sweeping assessments of TV series obsolete. "There are a lot of really bright critics who I read online who I hope can keep doing bigger picture, more aerial view kind of essays that might not be justified in sheer terms of traffic," Poniewozik says. There have never been as many smart people having as many smart discussions about television. At the same time, weekly TV criticism is ephemeral—a lively conversation that's forgotten as soon as the next week's show rolls around. With each new episode comes the opportunity to re-evaluate everything that came before it. And as soon as it's over, we're dying to hear what Alan Sepinwall has to say.
Read responses to this piece from Alan Sepinwall and James Poniewozik, as well as Josh Levin's follow-up "Brow Beat" post on TV criticism, fandom, and subjectivity.
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