What We Talk About When We Talk About TV

true-detective-header1 I've written tens of thousands of words of episodic TV reviews and recaps, and I think they've almost all been a waste.

It took me a while to arrive at this conclusion. Years ago, probably 2005-2006, I would occasionally check out Television Without Pity, and their multi-page, highly detailed episode recaps cast such a shadow that I aped the format (as others did elsewhere) when I started writing about Lost. I would talk about story and mysteries and theories, but I also recapped every bit of each episode. They took hours to write, but when it came time to write up the series finale, I pulled back and talked on a broader level about storytelling, production, what we want and expect from televised narratives, and more. It was a kind of awakening: I'd wasted what had to be a total of days of my life transcribing plot details for people who'd already seen that particular episode, when I should've been thinking more critically about what was happening and why.

As I moved onto other shows and outlets, I worked to write reviews, not recaps: to try and find a hook within each 22- or 44-minute episode of whatever was in front of me and write critically about it. Sometimes this was possible, like when I wrote about Community or Breaking Bad. Other times, it was fruitless, like when I wrote about American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. (For reality show write-ups, I was actually tasked with being extra snarky and sarcastic and "jokey," which quickly grew exhausting. The tone of the final products veered between self-loathing and fatigue; they're not even usable in my mind as clips, and I don't send them out.) But I still felt like I was wasting everyone's time. It's impossible to break down the meaning or importance of a fragment of a story, and writing about a highly serialized drama like Breaking Bad only got harder to do as the seasons went on. Every episodic review's through-line must, by necessity, be one of two things:

1. "That was neat, and I have no idea where things are going"; or 2. "That was confusing, and I have no idea where things are going."

I tried to find a way out of the problem as I wrote about "Breaking Bad," but I couldn't do it. Most of my reviews circled back to "Well, that was good, and it underscored the same themes that have been developing for five years now, which I've discussed ad nauseam, so … yeah, see you next week." Criticism can only function when you're able to look at a work in toto, or at the very least on a more comprehensive level than an individual episode, which is why no one writes reviews of the middle 20 minutes of a movie or the first 12 chapters of a book. Writing about a particular episode of a TV series can be a great way to illuminate the show's themes and execution, but those discussions are only possible when you can put the episode in the context of the show itself: when you can talk about how the show got to that episode and where it went after, or why that episode was such an anomaly, etc. I think I made some good points in some of those pieces, but usually only in the ones about the season premieres and finales.

This usually holds for comedies, too, even though they're usually less serialized. It's incredibly easy and tempting to dig into the meatier comedies — Girls, Louie, etc. — and pull each episode apart, but you also run the risk of missing the bigger stylistic picture. Girls follows a pretty regular season-long plot structure, with each year building on the one before it, while Louie, though more fragmented, also gains power from being viewed in the aggregate. What's more, any attempt to review a series, whether drama or comedy, based on just the pilot or first few episodes will inevitably come up short. It takes more time to get a handle on a series because they grow and change in the telling. It's not until a season's over that you can really look back and see what's happened, what mattered, and the skill with which it was done.

Additionally, many series, comedy or drama, often find themselves breaking down into season-long stories within longer ones that span a series. Some shows have been incredibly direct about this: Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced a new major villain and themes every season, while The Wire similarly moved to broader stories every year. In this way, it's possible to perform valid criticism and analysis on the season level, even in the midst of a show's run, because seasons are often intended to hang together as a package.

Part of the reason critics fall into the trap of blindered, weekly TV reviews has to do with the way TV disrupts the usual division between viewer and critic. A film is a single thing, and critics and regular viewers approach a film the same way: by watching it from start to finish and forming opinions about it. TV, though, spools out its story a little bit at a time, relying on weekly teases and shocks to keep viewers coming back for more. As critics, we often find ourselves defaulting to the viewer experience (ride the wave one episode at a time) when, to actually write engagingly or to properly address the show on a larger scale, we need to lean toward a more truly critical experience: examining the work as a whole, or as discrete seasonal chapters within that whole.

It makes sense, then, that it was the series finale of Lost that started pushing me in this direction. Finally, after six seasons and an almost innumerable amount of plot lines, the story proper had been brought to a close. It was possible to talk not just about that episode but about what the show was trying to do all along, and about how successfully it managed to do it. I'd spent years recapping while spinning my wheels, because there was nothing else to do. Here, though, I could actually think about the meaning of televised story and what it looked like in the specific context of this sci-fi/mystery show. It was the beginning of a more challenging but more rewarding way of doing things. When I watched True Detective earlier this year, I found myself excited at the end of each episode to see where the next one would lead. But I also didn't want to write anything about the show before the season ended. It would've been too easy to jump down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and miss what turned out to be a somber, compelling story about two self-destructive obsessives coupled by fate. Similarly, when I found myself exploring The Newsroom a few years ago, specifically within the context of creator Aaron Sorkin's broader body of work, I knew I wouldn't be able to begin making any kind of argument without at least seeing the entire first season.

In their own way, though, those old recaps weren't a total waste: I had to write them to realize I didn't want to write any more of them. One of the great things about being a critic is pushing yourself to constantly check and shape your worldview, and I never would have arrived at this particular belief without walking the long road to get here. But I've had to turn my back on them, and assignments like them, because I don't think they're good for the viewer or the critic. They teach us to pay attention to everything except what matters. And I want to hold the work in my hands and try to understand it; I don't want to tear it apart and find nothing but bloody pieces.