A few weeks ago, the A.V. Club’s TV Editor, Todd VanDerWerff, talked to Criticwire about his decision to establish a place for long-form criticism alongside the site’ copious recaps. “The move toward episodic criticism has been a good thing for TV criticism on the whole,” he explained, “but it’s started to run roughshod over the way TV criticism used to work: reviews and recommendations of new programs of note, as well as occasional columns that pulled back and took a long view of a program at that point in its run.
At “Dear Television,” an epistolary blog that has of late migrated to the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ website, Ann Helen Petersen expresses similar concerns in an article subtitled “The Problem of Episodic Criticism,” by way of what turns out not to be a review of the fifth episode of the first season of Masters of Sex.
“I want to talk about Masters of Sex,” she begins,
But if I do, then most of you will stop reading — and it’s not so much because you’re spoiler-phobic as much as you don’t care, or at least not at this point. The reasons are legion: You don’t have cable. You have plans to watch it when it comes out on Netflix. You watched the pilot and have meant to catch up but haven’t. If you’re not at the precise point in the series as I am, who wants to read 1500 words about it?
The problem, as Petersen frames it — a not-unproblematic framing, to which we shall return — is that episodic, day-after (or, more often, night-of) reviews have become “the new normal,” and that recaps are, by nature, concerned with the what and the how of a given episode — although because Petersen is an academic, she says day-after criticism “mires readers in the narrative’s diegetic labyrinths.”
It isn’t just that recaps (a word Petersen uses sparingly) favor the micro over the macro, the plot twist or the potential catchphrase over the arc of a season or a show, to say nothing of the larger cultural issues involves, but that they by nature speak only to a show’s current viewers, and not its potential ones.
[W]riting about a specific show, especially a specific episode of a show, or a show that’s midway through its season, dramatically reduces your potential audience. People read reviews of books, movies, and albums all the time without having watched them, but no one reads a review of Chapter 17, or the second act of the play, or track eight, unless you actively love that piece of art.
To borrow a distinction from VanDerWerff, reviews ask “Should I watch this?” while recaps ask “What did I just watch?”
It needs pointing out that although creators like David Simon have pushed the idea that shows should be evaluated by the season rather than the episode, this is an entirely recent phenomenon, and, even as shows grow more comfortable with aggressively continuity-driven storylines, it doesn’t apply to many, even most of them. It also ignores the fact that, notwithstanding the rise of binge-watching and Netflix Originals, that the vast majority of narrative TV is meted out in weekly episodic form. With apologies to David Simon, if an episode of a show doesn’t work on its own, it doesn’t work. If you’re looking for a novelistic analogue, try Charles Dickens, whose novels were published in serial form before being collected between bound covers. No one reads Nicholas Nickelby in fits and starts now, but you can bet that if Dickens had published a lackluster chapter with the promise that it would all make sense next week, it would have been straight back to Grub Street.
Petersen’s essay relies slippery definition of the word “audience,” which here applies to reader- rather than viewership. She argues that the audiences for episodic criticism is limited to current viewers, and that freestanding overviews thus appeal to a wider audience; as evidence, she unpersuasively cites the disparate Facebook shares between a Homeland review on an unidentified site and Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker piece on Sex and the City, a comparison that falls apart if you so much as look at it sideways.
What Petersen’s really talking about is the potential audience for a given piece. “The best criticism,” she says, “uses the art object as a launching pad towards topics bigger and broader.” Leaving aside the fact that some of “the best criticism” can be grounded in intense close readings as well as broad-stroke cultural observations, I mostly agree. Criticism should aspire to what I think of as The Big Tent, which is to say, the largest number of people that can be reached without compromise. Critics, at least those who work in the mass media, are advocated by nature: We want more people to watch — or read or listen to — to the things we love, partly because we want those things to survive, but also because culture is only truly alive when it meets with an attentive audience. That, incidentally, goes for criticism as well.
The vast proliferation of episode-driven reviews belies any notion that they’re limiting their audience (and Criticwire has the Breaking Bad traffic to prove it). The nature of digital publishing is such that, even if I haven’t watched the first five episodes of Masters of Sex, if and when I do, the reviews will be there for the clicking — as would Petersen’s have been, if she’d written one. What’s more, the best recappers use their weekly reviews to do just what Petersen asks, exploring ongoing themes, situating shows within the cultural at large, and so forth, and at a collective length that would make most editors gag. Not all shows, or even most, merit weekly discussion, and even those that do can and should be discussed at greater length and with broader scope. Recaps aren’t killing TV criticism, but they shouldn’t dominate it either.