Alan Sepinwall: He changed TV criticism. But can you be a rabid fan and a thoughtful reviewer?

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Feb. 14 2011 7:08 AM

The TV Guide

Alan Sepinwall changed the nature of television criticism. But can you be both a rabid fan and a thoughtful reviewer?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Alan Sepinwall started writing about television in 1993, as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. He stank at it. In 2004, Sepinwall characterized his early work thusly: "Misspellings, bad grammar and, even worse, observations that make me cringe and wonder exactly when (or if) I stopped being such a dumbass." He soon outgrew his dumbass ways. By the end of his undergrad years, Sepinwall had parlayed his role as the leading NYPD Blue fanboy of the newsgroup era into a gig as the Newark Star-Ledger's TV critic. "[W]ithout Blue," he wrote in 2004, "I wouldn't have the career or the life that I currently do."

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Television, and television writing, have transformed since Dennis Franz's bare butt launched Sepinwall's career. Upon NYPD Blue's early '90s debut, it was heralded as one of the best shows ever made. In comparison with The Sopranos, The Wire, and even Lost, David Milch and Steven Bochco's cops-and-perps procedural now looks prehistoric. Today's more ambitious shows demand more ambitious commentary. In 2002, Sepinwall wrote his first post-episode Sopranos breakdown. This was a new form, a hybrid of the inside-joke-laden episode recaps pioneered by Dawson's Wrap (which later expanded under the name Mighty Big TV, then was re-renamed Television Without Pity) and the NYPD Blue disquisitions from Sepinwall's dorm-room days. If you wanted to understand the subtext and symbolism of HBO's epic mob series—the long-ago motivation for one of Tony's murders, the meaning of an end-of-episode quacking sound—you had to read Sepinwall's sprawling write-ups.

After 14 years at the Star-Ledger, Sepinwall left the paper in 2010 to blog for HitFix.com. The style of TV criticism he helped invent is now ascendant. Gawker, New York's Vulture, and the Onion's A.V. Club employ teams of recappers to parse the previous night's dramas, sitcoms, and reality fare. Slate supplements Troy Patterson's criticism with weekly dialogues on shows like Lost, Mad Men, and Friday Night Lights. Sepinwall, though, is the acknowledged king of the form. As the A.V. Club's Steve Heisler explained last year, "he's an inspiration to TV critics throughout the country. His recaps appear online in record time, typically bursting with incisive commentary and wit." Sepinwall's output is also legendary: He's currently reviewing between 10 and 15 shows each week, which he says is "a fairly light schedule for me." (Advance screeners help on that score.)

Sepinwall. Click image to expand.
Alan Sepinwall
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Sepinwall-style criticism has obvious strengths. Week-to-week coverage reflects how people actually watch their favorite shows—we rehash the best lines, parse the meaning of weighty moments, and anticipate plot twists. At its best, new-school TV writing is brainy and inquisitive, thoughtful commentary borne out of a fanatical attention to detail. But hypervigilant criticism, written by obsessive fans for obsessive fans, isn't necessarily an unmitigated force for good. Is it possible that today's TV writers are sitting too close to the screen?

Television criticism used to be like restaurant criticism: A writer would sample a few episodes and then issue an informed recommendation. Today, it's more akin to visiting the same restaurant every week, then reporting back on the mood of the wait staff, the condition of the silverware, and what dishes might appear on the new fall menu. In a fantastic A.V. Club dialogue about the state of TV criticism, Noel Murray argues that since weekly critics "aren't primarily engaged in telling people whether they should or shouldn't watch a show … we get to kick around symbolism, character development, and real-world connections to what's on the screen." Rather than tell you what to watch, Sepinwall, Murray, and Time's James Poniewozik, among many others, validate your interest in the shows you're already watching.

Poniewozik, who blogs for Time at Tuned In, says serial dramas like Mad Men and Lost reward weekly coverage more than procedurals (man, I can't believe they solved another one!). Sepinwall agrees. "I like NCIS … [but] I would have nothing to write about it on a weekly basis," he says, referring to CBS' monstrously popular series. "For what I do, there's not enough meat there." Sitcoms can also be a challenge—Sepinwall admits that his 30 Rock reviews have sometimes been just lists of punchlines. Still, contemporary comedies like The Office, Community and How I Met Your Mother give critics a lot more to chew on—recurring jokes, obscure pop-culture references, occasional character development—than, say, Golden Girls.

No matter the series in question, a typical episode review combines traditional criticism, plot recap, what-will-happen-next punditry, and unadulterated fanboy-ism. There's no single formula for how best to combine these four elements. Gawker's Gossip Girl recaps seem aimed at a readership that watches the show as a guilty pleasure—the recaps make sport of the show's ludicrous plots, then score the characters on their behavior (-1 for Eric when he "[g]ets his hair ruffled by Nate like he's some sort of fey chipmunk"). Murray, who has covered Boardwalk Empire, Lost, and Mad Men for the A.V. Club, believes a "fairly thorough recap is essential" to jog readers' memories about what they've seen.

Murray sees his role as part critic—what worked, what didn't work—and part conversation starter, soliciting opinions from readers on whether a kiss on Boardwalk Empire was genuinely felt or politically motivated. Sepinwall's pieces, too, don't read as straight reviews. A 1,300-word blog post on a recent Friday Night Lights episode doesn't offer a straight-ahead rundown of key moments or a clear-eyed assessment of the show's strengths and weaknesses. Instead, it's an impressionistic take on how a much-beloved show made him feel. "Loved the cut from the team doing the war chant on the Riggins lawn to them doing it before the quarterfinal game," he writes. "Easy way to pump me up." When Sepinwall does critique FNL—assistant coach, he says, is "the job that the writers give to characters they don't know what to do with"—his observations are buttressed by years of careful attention. He's not afraid to reveal his ardor, though, lamenting that the show will "rip my heart out a time or 12 in those [last two] episodes. Dammit. I wouldn't be mad if I didn't care, and boy have they made me care over the years."

For the week-to-week critic, fandom is an occupational requirement. "You wouldn't commit yourself to writing 24 weekly reviews of a series unless you like it," says Murray. TV writing has always had a strain of advocacy, with critics frequently campaigning on behalf of low-rated fare. One of the first shows Sepinwall championed was 1996's Paul Haggis-helmed drama EZ Streets; it was quickly cancelled. Sepinwall's campaign to rescue Chuck—boosted by social media, his own increasing influence, and the efforts  of fellow critics like Maureen Ryan—was more successful. In an open letter to NBC executives, Sepinwall argued that the network could rake in cash by expanding the show's existing product-placement deals. "If blatant pimping is the price of continued existence," he wrote, Chuck's writers and fans "are more than happy to pay it."

The show was ultimately renewed, and NBC's Ben Silverman credited Sepinwall (and Subway) for the show's survival. While critical distance can be overrated—I'd prefer to read Sepinwall on Friday Night Lights than a writer who doesn't care about the show—his role in the "Save Chuck" movement, as well as a cameo appearance on Community, mark him as something other than an objective viewer.

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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