It was a sweet year to be a TV critic. Some of us have been shouting into the wind for years, but finally and yet somewhat miraculously, television is being acknowledged as a legitimate and ascendant art form.
Books were published, panels held, praises sung by people who were not TV critics. And how could it be otherwise? A thousand flowers of original content bloomed from providers mainstream (Netflix, Amazon), snooty (Sundance Channel, IFC) and in-between (History, Hallmark). Television-related events regularly rocked the nation — the death of James Gandolfini, the end of “Breaking Bad,” “The Red Wedding” episode of “Game of Thrones.” “Orphan Black” took sci-fi (and multiple-character performance) to a new level, “Orange Is the New Black” redefined the nature of comedy, and “Scandal” repurposed Twitter as a marketing platform.
Still, as any wallflower-turned-prom-queen knows, popularity comes at a price, which, occasionally, involves pigs’ blood.
No other art form has benefited and suffered from the Internet as much as television.
The same digital leaps that allowed people to find, binge and catch up on shows also increased the way in which we could respond to them, often with great emotion. Recapping, in which critics and bloggers comment on certain shows episode by episode, went from snappy summaries to masters’ theses of analysis. Plot developments, performances, casting, dialogue are celebrated and picked apart, the merits and career failings of writers and actors cataloged, network heads personally taken to task.
Twitter sped up the process. What began as a way for geographically diverse fans to connect while watching their favorite show, i.e. “Scandal’s” gladiator community, turned too often into a churning real-time mess of mindless over-enthusiasm and snark. Even “Homeland” couldn’t seem to go an episode without someone slapping up a Five Reasons to Stop Watching post.
As this new Instant Response commentary gained in ubiquity and ferocity, a sense of competition set in. Some of the critics and bloggers are of course competing for page views and Twitter followers, and extreme reactions make more of a splash than modulated ones.
But even among those not getting paid to express their opinions, television commentary has taken on aspects of a blood sport; show runners and actors are called out for what is perceived as a weak episode or a bad narrative decision in a way that must feel familiar to Kobe and LeBron.
Teams form in the digital universe, of lovers and haters and now hate-lovers (viewers who watch shows simply to complain about them), with everyone keeping an eye peeled for the chance to triumphantly declare a show dead or on the road to recovery.
While this offers struggling shows a chance to find an outspoken champion who might inspire a sudden wave of love, it also means that no matter how solid a show is, it is only one episode from becoming a conversational hockey puck.
Never mind slow-starting shows like “Seinfeld” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it’s difficult to imagine “The Sopranos” or “The Wire” thriving in such an environment.
Unfortunately in the rush to talk about TV, too many people seem to have forgotten that they’re talking about, well, TV.
Not “just TV,” a phrase that denotes some sort of intrinsic mediocrity. But television as a particular form that needs to be judged on its own terms. Even the most “cinematic” show, celebrated for its Oscar-winning writer-director-actor, is not a series of 12 or 22 hourlong movies each of which is to be analyzed as a free-standing work.
Alone among their peers, television writers must balance two separate and occasionally conflicting organizing structures. Each episode has its own rhythm and pacing, but so too does the entire season, at least on a good show.
So sometimes an episode that seems slow or weak or indecisive is intentionally creating a lull or shifting a mood. As difficult as it seems in this “where’s the next one” world, sometimes you honest to God just have to wait to see what happens next; it’s difficult to judge a story until it’s finally been all told.
Of course even the most rabid tear-down of a show carries its own irony: You can’t complain about a show you’re not watching.