Saturday, 19 February 2011

Television Criticism: An Intellectual Goldmine

Television is my sanctuary.

It used to be when I was a kid too. Television used to keep me occupied and take me away from my misery. Every time I had the desire to kick the football, television would rescue me and take me away to a safe place. Up until the past few weeks I used to think I treated television differently as an adult.

The one thing that is perhaps more enjoyable than watching television these days is reading about it. You might find this strange. It all started when I discovered The TV Club. These guys know their shit. They critically analyse TV shows and talk about their writing, their place within the pop cultural landscape, as well as criticise and applaud creative decisions in equal measure. In particular Todd Van Der Werff and Noel Murray do most of the heavy lifting on the site and remain two of the smartest TV writers on the planet.

It was through The TV Club that I discovered the doyen of TV critics, Alan Sepinwall. The man is a god and such a skilled writer, but importantly he is a fan of the television he watches. He almost single-handedly saved Chuck, regularly talks up shows that are under the critical radar and infuses his considerable knowledge of the television industry into his commentary. Sepinwall is so good at what he does that he has more or less started a trend of the intellectual and geeky TV critic, and it is a trend I love.

This week was a big one in this small community because the Sepinwallian style of criticism entered the mainstream. A very good essay in Slate chronicled the rise of Sepinwall quite accurately and used his example to ask the question of whether a professional TV critic can be too biased. Are critics allowed to be fans of the shows they cover? If they are, does this cloud their judgement? From an outsiders perspective these might seem like rather pointless arguments, but this is the kind of shit I love when thinking about the impact that pop culture has on my life.

Not unexpectedly the Slate article created a self-referential firestorm in the critical community. First Sepinwall responded to the claims made in the article not unreasonably. Then Sepinwellian disciple and pop cultural academic Myles McNutt offered his typically analytical and verbose perspective (which I always love). This was then followed by a series of podcasts discussing the implications of the Slate article. First from Ver Der Werff and his wife Libby Hill and then from Murray, McNutt, Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee: each detailing different perspectives on television criticism and its future. Is all this an over reaction to one essay? Probably, but I was in my element. Even as an outsider to the critical posse, I feel like I’m one of them.

Maybe it is because I watch so much television in all my spare time. The first thing I do upon finishing an episode of one my favourite programs is to go read the reviews of the many people cited above. Throughout the day I also follow their respective Twitter accounts. Television viewing for me has been transformed from a passive exercise to an intellectual experience, and that makes television so much more than an escape.

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