Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Which show do you find the most difficult to write about and why? (This was inspired by a tweet by Alan Sepinwall.)
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx
First, I apologize to the other critics for sticking them with this question, though it’ll be a relief to hear if they have similar blind spots.
But for me… man, is writing about “The Americans” like pulling teeth, in the laundry room, with only some vodka for anesthetic. It’s a great show, and consistently near the top of my best-of lists each season, yet it can take me half a day or more to make significant headway on a review of an individual episode, where with every other show I feel that passionately about, the idea and the writing comes pretty quickly.
I’ve thought about why that is over the years, and I think what it comes down to is that the show is remarkably consistent in both quality and its straightforward storytelling style. There’s subtext and there are complicated themes to individual hours, but Fields, Weisberg, and company tend not to get cute with the dialogue or the direction. What you see is most of what you get, and it’s impeccably crafted and features superb performances, but it can be hard to try to break down an individual episode without it feeling like a basic plot recap. Whereas with a “Mad Men,” there’s all the symbolism to unpack, and with something like “Legion” I can spend half the review discussing this week’s crazy visual choices. With “Americans,” I eventually get there (I hope), but I do way more checking of Twitter, analysis of Knicks’ draft prospects, or just plain staring at the blinking cursor as it taunts me, than I do about anything else I love even half as much.
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
I have two good ones for this category, and they’re both on HBO. “Westworld” was tough for me to write on, because it was difficult to tell if this series was saying anything original, or dressing up a predictable story with lots of plot twists, dazzling special effects and high quality performances from an ace cast. Too often, TV critics are required to pronounce sentence on a series after having seen just three or four episodes in advance – which is a bit like trying to decide if an epic novel is worth your time after reading the first few chapters. I loved so much about “Westworld,” yet it was difficult to escape the nagging feeling it was just pretending to be about bigger ideas it never fully articulated, especially after watching the few episodes HBO provided before its debut. I have a different problem with “Game of Thrones”; reconciling its tremendous quality and epic scope with its explicitly brutal violence. Thankfully, they have stopped using visceral rape and sexual scenes in gratuitous ways. But I remain troubled by the way we as audience members have increasingly accepted visceral scenes of disemboweling and ripping people heads off. Sophisticated and cutting edge as I want to be about my pop culture intake, I can’t help wondering if we’re all losing something when we barely bat an eye at such detailed gore in our most celebrated television shows.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com
“The Leftovers”: I tell people to watch this show all the time because it’s so good and when they ask why it’s so good, I awkwardly stumble through an answer that doesn’t at all do justice to it. The struggle is also real whenever I write about it, because I know nothing I write will adequately capture the brilliant catharsis of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s bleak and hopeful mosaic of grief and the unknowable. So I usually resort to reminding everyone how sweaty Justin Theroux is.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
The shows I find hardest to write about these days are the ones where the trolls come out automatically and don’t read a word you write, so you’re basically just writing so that bots will send you automatic hate emails/comments. Even if I have brilliant things to say about “Girls,” and I’m sure I sometimes have brilliant things to say about “Girls,” it’s mostly just giving some jackhole an excuse to send the “But what about Lena Dunham being a molester?” comment he’s had queued up just for this occasion (or any occasion in which somebody mentioned “Girls” even in passing). The great thing about writing about “Saturday Night Live” these days is that you get both the right wing haters using “bias” when they mean “biased” and you get the obligatory “The show hasn’t been funny since [enter date here]” trolls who have been around for nearly 40 years. What I’m saying is that the shows I find hardest to write about are the ones where I know the effort-to-response ratio is most skewed. But that’s not healthy thinking. If you’re a writer, sometimes you have to be like a literary Ivan Drago. “I write for ME!”
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
It has to be “Legion,” simply for the fact that my knowledge of the source material is slim to none. Every episode I have to consult or research what David Haller is experiencing and what his mythology is, and given the time constraints of so much television thrown at us, it becomes quite hard to “catch up” and become versed in all this X-Men lore.
Comics and their characters were never my thing, but having said that, I am in awe of the actors’ performances and the stunning cinematic level of crafts (the art department, which includes production design and set decoration — oh my word!) so much I am compelled to devour this show.
Of all of these superhero shows, “Legion” stands out to me (“Daredevil” too is extremely compelling and entertaining) am acutely aware of how little I know of the Marvel universe of anti-heroes and heroes, and I am enjoying it immensely, as I am Noah Hawley’s dramatic and visually clever influence as a showrunner.
As a viewer, I really feel the anxiety of that “disconnect” that mental illness wreaks, it’s palpable with “Legion.” There’s quite a sad underscoring to “Legion,” too. I’ve never seen anything like it on television.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
After years away, I’ve been watching “The Walking Dead” this season on a regular basis. This is in part because it’s helpful to have seen the episode when editing our freelancer’s reviews, but I’ve also found myself casually enjoying the show a great deal. That said, the thought of trying to write something substantial about it terrifies me. It’s not just the number of characters I’m barely familiar with and the dense mythology that I’d have to cram into my brain — it’s the fact that while I’m intrigued by what the show is doing this season, the exact appeal of the series has always eluded me to some degree. Seriously, the most popular show on television? Until I understand the exact blend of science and magic that’s led us to this point, “Walking Dead” will always leave me just a little bit flustered.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I got death threats from unhappy fans of “The 100” after running a Q&A with executive producer Jason Rothenberg about his decision to kill Lexa. It was an ugly situation that brought out a side of me I don’t enjoy and has made covering the show a challenge. I never meant to anger anyone by simply doing my job and honestly, I felt their pain — she was a great character and it could have been dealt with better. And as a gay man, I get the uproar over TV’s horrid track record of killing LGBTQ characters. But the response to what some felt was a biased interview was so vicious (as were some of my replies on Twitter) that it still brings up bad memories and stirs up some shame in how I handled it all. This is a show I enjoy immensely and loved interacting with the fans before the shit went down. Now, I approach with caution when I should be having fun.
Sonia Saraiya (@soniasaraiya), Variety
Ugh, this answer makes me dislike myself already, but over the last few weeks as people have been talking about the second season, I have discovered just how difficult I find it to write about “Love,” on Netflix, starring Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs. The best way I can describe it is that the show makes me feel frustrated and sad about everything, and though I cannot help but acknowledge its power, I feel too cross and manipulated to write anything good about it. This is especially true of shows that tweak something that sits very close to home; in this case, I think I’m terrified that I’m even a little bit like those two leads. Usually, I think/hope, when I really have to write about a show, I get to a point where I can move past those stubborn initial reactions. But I haven’t had to write about “Love” in a long while, so I haven’t really bothered to get over my current complete reaction, which is just, um, “ugh.”
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Big Little Lies” (3 votes)
Other contenders: ”Baskets” (two votes), “The Americans,” “American Crime,” “Black-ish,” “Legion” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.