On TV Critics, Fandom, and Subjectivity

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 15 2011 5:28 PM

On TV Critics, Fandom, and Subjectivity

On Monday, Slate published my essay on Alan Sepinwall and the changing nature of TV criticism . While celebrating the rise of episode reviewers, I also wondered about the comingling of criticism and fandom. This is an inevitable consequence of the form as Noel Murray of the Onion 's A.V. Club told me, "You wouldn't commit yourself to writing 24 weekly reviews of a series unless you like it." Still, it's worth pondering where to draw the line between writing about TV and cheerleading for it. Should Sepinwall have suggested that NBC stuff Chuck with product placements to keep it on the air? Should he have made a cameo appearance on Community , a show he reviews each week?

In their thoughtful, gracious responses to my story, Time 's James Poniewozik and Myles McNutt (a pop-culture scholar who currently reviews The Office for the A.V. Club) seemed to interpret these questions as my calling for critical objectivity. The "idea [in the Slate piece] that criticism should not be 'subjective' seemed odd," Poniewozik said in a comment below his blog post. "As many have pointed out, the idea of being 'objective' as a critic is ludicrous," McNutt wrote.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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It's hard to disagree with Poniewozik and McNutt on this point, and I never did. When I wrote that Sepinwall's Chuck campaign and Community appearance "mark him as something other than an objective viewer," I wasn't arguing that his TV writing suffered because he was too opinionated. In the next paragraph, I compare Sepinwall favorably to ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, noting that "both dispense their knowledge without sacrificing the passion that marks them as fans rather than jaded pros."

It's possible to think Sepinwall is a fantastic critic which I do while also pointing out that some of his behavior wouldn't be kosher if he operated under the guidelines of the New York Times ethics policy . McNutt argues that "Alan Sepinwall does not say good things about Community because he wants to be in a scene, or because he was in a scene." While I agree that there was no quid pro quo here, the ethical issues that journalists face are a whole lot grayer than that. Isn't it possible that a critic who appears on a show or spearheads the effort to keep a series on the air will, consciously or unconsciously, have a harder time criticizing that series if it loses its way?

Indeed, McNutt goes on to say that "Sepinwall's Chuck coverage has given me pause this year." He wonders if perhaps Sepinwall is writing to please the many Chuck fans that populate HitFix.com's comment sections. It's a reasonable concern, and one Poniewozik echoes in mentioning that Sepinwall stopped writing about Modern Family "because he caught so much heat from its fans whenever he criticized an episode." Poniewozik is spot on when he says, "I'd much rather read Alan Sepinwall intelligently take apart the flaws in Modern Family ... than find a like-minded cheering section run by someone who's not as good a critic."

We trust that our favorite critics will say what they believe, that they will not be swayed by outside influence. Comment sections and social media which places show runners like Dan Harmon and Shawn Ryan one click away from the writers tasked with evaluating their work make it impossible for TV writers to shield themselves from popular opinion or the people they cover. There's a difference, though, between conceding that times have changed and believing that conflicts don't matter.

In his own reply to my essay, Sepinwall says that he "kind of regret[s]" his Community cameo "because of the extreme blurring of the line that it caused." I'd agree with that statement. Still, I hope Sepinwall continues to advocate vigorously for the shows he loves and continues to call them out when they don't live up to his high standards.

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