There’s an article on Slate today by Josh Levin with the headline “Alan Sepinwall changed the nature of television criticism. But can you be both a rabid fan and a thoughtful reviewer?” At the risk of being accused of false modesty, I think the most interesting part of the story isn’t specifically about me, but the questions it raises about the nature of the style of reviewing that I’ve become known for.(*)
(*) I should say, though, that whatever level of credit you want to give me for popularizing this type of episode-by-episode reviewing, I didn’t invent it, in either of my iterations as an Internet writer. When I started doing the “NYPD Blue” recap/reviews in college, I was inspired by the writing Timothy W. Lynch had done on the “Star Trek” spin-offs for the Usenet “Trek” groups. And during my long time in the jungles of print journalism, I began spending a lot of time reading both the recaps and discussions at Television Without Pity. Seeing that kind of robust discussion and community had as much to do with me starting up the original blog as the success of my “Sopranos” morning-after pieces did.
One of the things I wrestle with – and did even in my “NYPD Blue” days – is the question of being able to see the forest for the trees. If you’re focusing on every episode as its own thing, can you always see the big picture of a series? Usually, I feel that I can – especially since I write quite a bit more than the episodic reviews, and therefore try to take a longer view of the shows I like at least 1 or 2 times per season – but I also know there are times with certain shows where I feel like I get too bogged down in small week-to-week details. At the same time, doing it this way tends to promote more discussion – I’ve always felt that this blog is at least as valuable for what you guys have to say as what I do – than periodic posts, and that discussion does sometimes help me see the big picture in a way I couldn’t if I was just watching without this weekly outlet.
James Poniewozik, who was also quoted in the piece, had his own thoughts on that question, and also commented on something else Levin’s piece brings up, which is the notion of being a critic vs. a cheerleader.
A complaint I get tagged with sometimes is that a review “wasn’t objective,” which seems to miss the whole point of the subjective artform of criticism. We all bring our own tastes and biases to the entertainment we consume. Sometimes, a work is good enough to overcome a bias against it (as “Downton Abbey” mostly was for me), but mostly we like what we like. I find myself more tuned into Bill Lawrence’s sense of humor, for instance, than Bill Prady’s. I love “Chuck,” while some critics are apathetic towards it; similarly, I hated “Episodes” while many of my colleagues adored it.
But because what I do involves expressing an opinion, and because I sometimes do it passionately – particularly in circumstances where I’ve argued to save shows like “Chuck” or “Terriers” – I can see how some might feel the line gets blurred between “critic” and “advocate.” And that sometimes leads to confusion – if not outright hostility – from readers if I seem to them to be on the wrong side of that line. There are some people who feel I’m too in the tank for “Chuck” or “Community,”(**) while at the same time there are others who feel I’m consistently too hard on “Modern Family.” On that one, the amount and level of vitriol eventually rose to the point where I decided it wasn’t worth the bother. I write about more shows than I realistically have time for as it is, and if my coverage of a particular show – one that I like but don’t love – is angering so many people so consistently, better to reorient that time to something I still enjoy writing about. That doesn’t mean I won’t write about shows I don’t like in the future, or about shows where I clearly disagree with the bulk of the commenters, but that was a particular situation where I felt things had gone too far.
(**) I certainly didn’t help my case on the latter by consenting to be a background extra in a scene while I was visiting the set for an interview, and in hindsight I kind of regret having done it because of the extreme blurring of the line that it caused. However, I am sometimes accused of showering love on certain shows because I get to interview the people who work on them, get to hang around the set, moderate Comic-Con panels or whatever, when in fact the opposite is true: I go and do these extra things because I was drawn to a particular show in the first place. I loved “Community,” and then I wanted to interview Dan Harmon. It’s not about access, as I’ve been covering TV long enough, and am prominent enough, that I could do set visits or interviews with the creative teams of pretty much any show I want to. It’s about, as always, time, and the shows I spend extra time on are the ones I already loved.
Anyway, because this is what I do for a living, these are the sorts of things I think about daily, if not hourly, and so it was really interesting to see my thoughts and the thoughts of a few others like Poniewozik and Noel Murray in the same place. I do what I do, and that’s not going to change in a sweeping way anytime soon. But as you’re the people who actually come and read me every day, I’m interested in your own thoughts on the subject. Do you feel like you get more value out of episode-by-episode discussions, or those times when I take a step back to take a broader view of a show? Do you find you get more out of a review when you agree with the critic, or when you strongly disagree? Etc.
Like I always ask, what does everybody else think?