Talking about television is not ruining television

When you run in certain circles online or follow a bunch of people in the same field on Twitter, certain events or pieces become “things.” Over the last 36 hours, the “thing” has been Ryan McGee’s piece about The Sopranos and the HBO model’s impact on television narrative. McGee’s well-reasoned and detailed piece created a bit of a stir among TVitterati and spurred Time’s James Poniewozik and scholar Jason Mittell to concoct similarly well-reasoned and detailed responses. Although the three thinkers had different perspectives on that matter, their respective points were logical, diverse and intelligent, an discursive environment I think most of us have grown accustomed to over the last few years.

Which is why it is so disappointing for me that the conversation has now turned to something else. Today, Atlantic writer Richard Lawson suggested that McGee, Poniewozik and any other “TV nerds” “need to stop taking TV so damn seriously.”

I don’t want to spend much time discussing the tone of Lawson’s piece, which I (and many others, based on today’s Twitter chatter) find as snarky and a bit demeaning, but the tonal issues I have happen to further impact an argument I don’t particularly agree with either. Lawson makes a fantastic point about the sheer amount of television and television “criticism” (however you want to define the term is up to you) out there on the internet. No, we likely don’t need 981 3,000-word reviews of Breaking Bad or worse, 541 recaps of The Bachelor that simply tell the reader exactly what happened with no analysis or opinion whatsoever. I also think that Lawson does an okay job of positioning his argument as light-hearted and letting the reader know that he isn’t one of those people who continues to disregard television as an “important” artistic medium. And I especially agree that we need to consider writing about things like Unforgettable or The Finder.

But amid his handful of great points, Lawson’s primary thesis remains troublesome, and ultimately, undercuts any of those solid arguments. From my perspective, the idea that we (critics, quasi-critics, those who love criticism, whomever) are talking about television too much or thinking about it too much is ridiculous. Again, in his opening sentence, Lawson refers to McGee and Poniewozik, gentlemen who are more or less his peers, as “nerds.” I’m guessing that Lawson never intended to be malicious with that usage, but the connotation of the word, combined with his general tone and the argument itself all evoke a certain level of disregard for the medium, the field of criticism and those writers.

We know that the internet is the catalyst in the explosion of television criticism on the internet. You could argue that the internet criticism era just happens to coincide with a certain “golden age” of television quality. However, you could also argue that the way television criticism has shifted online has gone a long way in helping legitimize television as an art form in ways the medium wasn’t thought of 20 years ago. There are certainly other issues at play in why television and television criticism have both been “legitimized,” but it’s hard to ignore the connections between the rise of the cable drama and the rise of The A.V. Club’s TV Club or Sepinwall’s Blogspot.

To suggest that well-reasoned pieces of media criticism like those from McGee and Poniewozik are “ruining” television makes me sad. We should always be thinking about the media, no matter how much it is shifting, and we should always want to make observations about the media’s influence/impact/reflection on audiences, industries or what have you.* 10 years ago, a piece like McGee’s or responses like those from Poniewozik and Mittell wouldn’t have been published in places that a sizable audience could see. While Lawson might see those kinds of conversations as “taking television too seriously,” I see them as part of a larger discussion that provokes, stimulates and interrogates deeper thinking about a medium that has – and will continue to – struggle with its place as the supposed “idiot box.” The amount of discussions being had about television might “rage on and on for weeks” and sometimes certain points feel like they are getting beat into the ground a bit. However, I would much rather be in a situation where some think critics are talking about television too much than not enough.

* For me, talking about television is so interesting because of its constant presence. Being able to evaluate immediately, then re-evaluate and then re-re-evaluate is something that makes the internet great, right?

Perhaps the connection between the prestige cable drama and internet criticism is too entrenched. And maybe the field of television criticism still tends to ignore traditionally popular and middlebrow content. However, the intense focus on a certain “type” of programming doesn’t necessarily mean that focus is useless and/or misguided. Discussing only cable dramas reinforces cultural hierarchies and tastes, but assumptions about networks, series or any cultural text for that matter exist for some reason. Critics put a lot of value and think quite a bit about HBO dramas because HBO has more or less earned that reputation. The reason we bicker over The Walking Dead and The Killing is because we thought AMC had similarly gained that cultural clout. The fact that most of us were wrong or surprised or continue to argue over it doesn’t mean that the function of those discussions is meaningless. Those networks and those series want to be taken seriously. Critics aren’t wrong for obliging and it’s not as if they are reading into things that aren’t there at all.

Lawson wants to move away from cultural assumptions about HBO, FX, Showtime and AMC prestige dramas and focus on something like Holmes on Holmes. That’s my dream! But shifting the focus to non-prestige cable dramas doesn’t mean not talking about television, it just means talking about a different kind of television, but still in a serious manner. I would love nothing more than to see Todd VanDerWerff or Noel Murray write 4,000 words about Holmes. But if they did, wouldn’t they still be taking it seriously? Would it still be starting a discourse about a still-in-progress cultural artifact that could change within the week? Would those essays over-analyze Holmes on Holmes? What even dictates over-analysis? Maybe the field of television criticism relies too much on HBO or other cable networks for much of its content, but even if the focus changes, I’m not sure the approach would. *

*Plus, Lawson’s suggestion omits the fact that places like AVC have tried to rectify that with drop-in coverage and sometimes weekly coverage of fairly straight-forward procedurals.

Ultimately, I see “talking” about television as one of the best things to ever happen to television. And wanting to do so shouldn’t make you a nerd, or shouldn’t mean that you take something too seriously or belabor a point too often. We need to be smarter. We need to discuss more. Even suggesting otherwise makes me feel as if we’re returning to a mode of thinking that asks us to simply shut our brains off and enjoy the idiot box. Television deserves better than that. 

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