Love (and TV criticism) in the time of Peak TV in America

WARNING: This entire post will be very inside baseball as I talk you through the process of how I’ll be choosing what to write about, and how often, as the fall TV season begins. If you don’t care and just want to get opinions on stuff, come back later today for Ask Alan and, hopefully, a review of The Good Place.

The 2016-17 TV season officially begins on Monday, with the return of big hits like The Big Bang Theory and The Voice, as well as the debuts of high-profile new series like CBS’ Kevin Can Wait with Kevin James and NBC’s The Good Place with Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.

A year ago at this time, I was struggling to find enough shows to fill out my traditional list of a dozen new series I was intrigued by. Many of the ones I chose were either canceled (The Grinder), disappointments (Colbert’s Late Show), or both (The Muppets), though some others on the list (Jessica Jones, Master of None, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which got relegated to also-ran status because I hadn’t yet seen a full pilot) were not only excellent, but will stick around a while.

This year, I easily blew past a dozen and listed 20 new shows I was excited about on some level, and since I made that list, I’ve found another new show (Amazon’s terrific UK dramedy Fleabag) to love. On top of those, some great veteran series will be returning just over the next few weeks, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Transparent, Black-ish, Bob’s Burgers, and more. This is both a marvelous time of the year to be a TV critic, and a frightening one, because where on earth is all the time going to come from?

Last fall, I explained that I was dialing back on the number of shows I reviewed weekly. Part of this was a way to acknowledge the changing nature of both the TV business and TV criticism, and by covering fewer shows every episode, I was able to watch and write about more shows overall in an age when there are simply more shows to choose from, and more pleas from my readers to help them decide what to actually make time for in Peak TV in America.

But part of it was also that there wasn’t a whole lot I felt inspired to cover that exhaustively in September of 2015. That’s not the case now, and I’m still figuring out what to do and how best to balance what interests me writing-wise, and what’s realistic, schedule-wise. Donald Glover and Pamela Adlon are doing so many interesting things with, respectively, Atlanta and Better Things, for instance, that I imagine I could easily write long essays on both each week; it’s just hard to find the time to do that right when there are so many new shows to screen, evaluate, and either recommend or warn you away from. And then there’s always the issue of how best to cover a Netflix or Amazon show that releases all its episodes at once.

There’s a lot to juggle, and I’m still figuring it all out, but here are some ways I’m going to try to approach things:

Not every new show will be reviewed in full, or at all. For the last few years, I’ve been resorting to capsule reviews for the new fall shows I don’t have a strong feeling about one way or the other. I may still do some of those, but in other cases I’m just going to skip them altogether, and revisit if/when I have a more concrete and interesting opinion. Or in some cases I may pass on an initial review and go straight to the spoiler review/recap, like NBC’s This Is Us, where there are so many things I’d rather not even hint at in advance that it’s not worth writing about at all in that form.

Part of my rule of thumb here is also going to be finding things where my opinion is either desired or necessary. With all due respect to Kevin James, I imagine nobody is particularly eager to get my take on Kevin Can Wait unless it was “It’s nothing like what you expect it to be!” (It is exactly like you expect it to be, which will be welcoming news for some, a warning for others.) I’m looking for things that need or deserve championing, or things where my opinion is more elaborate than “Meh.”

I’ll try to be more varied in my episodic reviews. Again, I’d love to be doing the new FX shows weekly, and maybe I’ll consider that when we get out of this fall crush. But for now what I’m going to aim to do is to do more varied check-ins, whether it’s the last episode I saw in a batch of screeners, a format-breaker, or just something that felt really good or really bad.

There will still be some regular members of the rotation. Brooklyn Nine-Nine rarely demands a ton of commentary, but it gives me pleasure to write about even briefly, so that’s sticking around. You’re the Worst and Halt and Catch Fire are already in the rotation, though I may have to skip an episode here and there over the next few weeks just to survive the fall deluge (which will include Wednesday’s Mr. Robot season finale). The Good Place (look for that review later today or early Monday) is trying to do a lot of things at once, and is also serialized enough that it seems to lend itself well to weekly coverage the way I do it slightly more than the new FX shows, so I’m going to give that a go, at least at first. And depending on how I feel about Westworld once I finally go through those screeners, I imagine that will be a good candidate, as many of HBO’s Sunday dramas have been. Once we get past the next few weeks, I’ll have a better handle both on what I have time for and what feels like a good candidate. As I’ve often said, the choice of what to cover weekly and what not to isn’t about relative quality, but about what interests me in covering that way, what I have time for (and what I can get advance screeners of), etc.

The two-pronged approach to the streaming shows will stick around. After fumbling around for a while on how best to cover the Netflix and Amazon shows, I’ve landed on a method that seems to work better than the others I’ve tried: some kind of advance piece before it debuts (a review for the new shows, maybe an interview for the returning ones where my overall feelings are largely the same), and then a spoiler-filled piece on the whole season to run sometime the following week, or whenever I’ve finished. Sometimes, that will involve episode-by-episode capsule reviews in one post, like how I did Orange Is the New Black season 4; at others, it will be just me making specific observations or asking questions about the season as a whole, as I did with Stranger Things. And, again, not everything will be covered, or covered right away; Netflix hasn’t provided screeners for its Joe Swanberg anthology comedy Easy, which debuts in a week, so if I get to that at all, it’ll be a long time from now.

All this is subject to change. Again, this is my busiest time of year, and it feels busier than ever thanks to the volume of shows coming in from all sides. The goal is always to cover as much I can, as best I can, but it’s now literally impossible for any one TV critic to cover everything – even just all the good shows – in this environment. So I’ll bounce around and improvise, and maybe a few weeks from now I’ll want to tear this post to shreds and try a completely different gameplan.

That’s enough housekeeping for now. Back to watching Luke Cage screeners and figuring out what I’m in the mood to write next…