The reviewable appliance
Last week, I quoted the critic Renata Adler, who wrote back in the early eighties: “Television…is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played.” Which only indicates how much has changed over the last thirty years, which have seen television not only validated as a reviewable medium, but transformed into maybe the single most widely reviewed art form in existence. Part of this is due to an increase in the quality of the shows themselves: by now, it’s a cliché to say that we’re living in a golden age of television, but that doesn’t make it any less true, until there are almost too many great shows for any one viewer to absorb. As John Landgraf of FX said last year, in a quote that was widely shared in media circles, mostly because it expresses how many of us feel: “There is simply too much television.” There are something like four hundred original scripted series airing these days—which is remarkable in itself, given how often critics have tolled the death knell for scripted content in the face of reality programming—and many are good to excellent. If we’ve learned to respect television as a medium that rewards close scrutiny, it’s largely because there are more worthwhile shows than ever before, and many deserve to be unpacked at length.
There’s also a sense in which shows have consciously risen to that challenge, taking advantage of the fact that there are so many venues for reviews and discussion. I never felt that I’d truly watched an episode of Mad Men until I’d watched Matthew Weiner’s weekly commentary and read the writeup on The A.V. Club, and I suspect that Weiner felt enabled to go for that level of density because the tools for talking about it were there. (To take another example: Mad Style, the fantastic blog maintained by Tom and Lorenzo, came into being because of the incredible work of costume designer Jane Bryant, but Bryant herself seemed to be make certain choices because she knew that they would be noticed and dissected.) The Simpsons is often called the first VCR show—it allowed itself to go for rapid freeze-frame jokes and sign gags because viewers could pause to catch every detail—but these days, we’re more likely to rely on recaps and screen grabs to process shows that are too rich to be fully grasped on a single viewing. I’m occasionally embarrassed when I click on a review and read about a piece of obvious symbolism that I missed the first time around, but you could also argue that I’ve outsourced that part of my brain to the hive mind, knowing that I can take advantage of countless other pairs of eyes.
But the fact that television inspires millions of words of coverage every day can’t be entirely separated from Adler’s description of it an appliance. For reasons that don’t have anything to do with television itself, the cycle of pop culture coverage—like that of every form of news—has continued to accelerate, with readers expecting nonstop content on demand: I’ll refresh a site a dozen times a day to see what has been posted in the meantime. Under those circumstances, reviewers and their editors naturally need a regular stream of material to be discussed, and television fits the bill beautifully. There’s a lot of it, it generates fresh grist for the mill on a daily basis, and it has an existing audience that can be enticed into reading about their favorite shows online. (This just takes a model that had long been used for sports and applies it to entertainment: the idea that every episode of Pretty Little Liars deserves a full writeup isn’t that much more ridiculous than devoting a few hundred words to every baseball game.) One utility piggybacks on the other, and it results in a symbiotic relationship: the shows start to focus on generating social media chatter, which, if not exactly a replacement for ratings, at least becomes an argument for keeping marginal shows like Community alive. And before long, the show itself is on Hulu or Yahoo.
None of this is inherently good or bad, although I’m often irked by the pressure to provide instant hot takes about the latest twist on a hit series, with think pieces covering other think pieces until the snake has eaten its own tail. (The most recent example was the “death” of Glenn on The Walking Dead, a show I don’t even watch, but which I found impossible to escape for three weeks last November.) There’s also an uncomfortable sense in which a television show can become an adjunct to its own media coverage: I found reading about Game of Thrones far more entertaining over the last season than watching the show itself. It’s all too easy to use the glut of detailed reviews as a substitute for the act of viewing: I haven’t watched Halt and Catch Fire, for instance, but I feel as if I have an opinion about it, based solely on the information I’ve picked up by osmosis from the review sites I visit. I sometimes worry that critics and fans have become so adept at live-tweeting episodes that they barely look at the screen, and the concept of hate-watching, of which I’ve been guilty myself, wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have plenty of ways to publicly express our contempt. It’s a slippery slope from there to losing the ability to enjoy good storytelling for its own sake. And we need to be aware of this. Because we’re lucky to be living in an era of so much great television—and we ought to treat it as something more than a source of hot and cold running reviews.