What Should Critics Look for When Analyzing TV Shows?

The New Yorker is now in the business of analyzing the process of, erm, analyzing, and the result is this latest foray into that particular area, which we here at TVWriter™ find absolutely fascinating in an overthinker’s ultimate overthinking sort of way:

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by Emily Nussbaum

A few days ago, the critic Matt Seitz wrote a valuable, provocative, and deliciously finger-jabbing manifesto, arguing that TV and film critics concentrate too much on plot and character and theme and don’t write enough about visual craft. This is true. It’s certainly been true at times in my own television criticism, although I could defensively point to counterexamples as well, as one does when jabbed. The challenge Seitz sets forth is particularly timely this year, because there’s been an amazing influx of film directors into television—and this cohort has begun, slowly but surely, to warp the medium’s writer-on-top traditions. On shows ranging from Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” to Mike White’s “Enlightened” and Brian Fuller’s “Hannibal,” creators have been breaking the rules of what TV is “supposed” to look like.

Here’s Seitz’s nut graf:

Form is not just an academic side dish to the main course of content. We critics of film and TV have a duty to help viewers understand how form and and content interact, and how content is expressed through form. The film or TV critic who refuses to write about form in any serious way abdicates that duty, and abets visual illiteracy.

Hello, Cinéasty!

Seitz is right, of course: filmed images and editing and music should be described with specificity—leaving them out entirely is wrong. There are a few things that trouble me about his argument, however, and the main one is that Seitz, who has reviewed both movies and television, draws no distinction between the two. As annoying as this subject is to discuss—if I get another request to debate “Is TV the New Movies?” I’m going to sweep papers off my desk like a furious lawyer on a CBS procedural—it’s a key question.

Certainly, television has plenty in common with movies: it’s filmed with cameras, it’s performed by actors, and it follows a script. And, as I said, TV shows get more “cinematic,” to use a somewhat hand-waving category, every year. But TV is not movies. It’s an episodic art form. Scripted television shows are often, although not always, produced collaboratively, for a variety of pragmatic reasons—and these pragmatic reasons inflect the artistic results, just as they do in Hollywood film production. (There’s a newer model of solo creation, but that’s no simple thing, either: it can be fantastic, as with “Louie,” or a real problem, as with “Newsroom.” Next season, “True Detective” will be filmed by multiple directors, and I’m curious how that will affect people’s responses to the show.) Andy Greenwald, of Grantland, once summarized these practical issues to me with a simple koan: directors go to movies for art and to TV for money; writers do the opposite. That’s changing, but it’s a historical pattern, and it’s the reason visual craft needs to be understood within television’s unique context.

Television also plays with a distinct set of genres (sitcoms, procedurals, and soap operas among them), each with its own history and set of aesthetic values. But, mostly, TV is long and movies are short; TV takes place over not just hours but seasons and years. A movie can sustain a mood for two hours on exceptional craft, but that’s not the primary approach of most current TV and, really, it doesn’t need to be. There’s a reason that television has been so fruitful for writers, creatively, and it’s that episodic, seasonally created series showcase writers’ strengths: rich characters, long plot arcs, smart dialogue, and thematic complexity. Television nurtures storytelling—to use another annoying modern buzzword. As Teo Bugbee put it the other night on Twitter, “I’m definitely happy to see TV expand as a medium, but I think it’s important to make a distinction btw TV & film, & not to hold one to the other’s standards.”

My response to this issue isn’t entirely abstract and intellectual. Some of it stems from a primal emotional experience, what historians (or, at least, people who used to post to Television Without Pity) might recall as the Great HBO/WB Schism of 1999. That was a year when I was not yet a professional TV critic, just a woman, standing in front of a television show, begging everyone to love it. Every week, I watched “The Sopranos” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; I was an avid fan of both, convinced that David Chase and Joss Whedon were turning television into something radical and groundbreaking, the former by deconstructing the mob genre (as well as capitalism and psychotherapy), the latter by forging a mythic, feminist-inflected meld of horror, comedy, and teen drama. Yet only one of the shows was being written about, seemingly on a near-daily basis, by the Times. At cocktail parties, I spent a lot of time evangelizing for “Buffy,” jabbing my own finger. Mysteriously, many of my targets were resistant, even when ranted at by a woman holding a vodka gimlet.

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