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How TV Recaps Forged an Ethical Community

How TV Recaps Forged an Ethical Community

We’ve all heard the term “Golden Age of Television,” which posits that we’ve entered an era where television shows have grown more ambitious, more prestigious, and more universally recognized as a major art form rather than just a passing entertainment. What really makes for a golden age, however, is the conversation provoked by the art form. With that in mind, The Guardian’s Lili Loofbourow has coined a new age: The Bronze Age of Television Criticism. 

Loofbourow writes that television has become the common text among the American public as their skepticism and lack of trust in traditional news has gone through the roof. Few can agree on which coverage of Michael Brown’s death to trust, as “there are several different angles from which to tell a ‘true’ story, and that the public trusts none of them.” Television doesn’t have that mediation problem:

Television, by contrast, is refreshingly concrete. We all have direct access to the same information, and so we can discuss what constitutes consent untroubled by hypotheticals about whether Cersei was drinking or changed her mind the next day. The fact that “Game of Thrones is fiction means, ironically enough, that it feels unmediated. We aren’t reliant on a mythical agenda-wielding intermediary (a journalist, say, or a woman) and can instead witness the event in question “directly”. 

Furthermore, Loofbourow posed a question to followers on Twitter: “If you read TV criticism after watching an episode of a show you like, why do you do that?” Some cited intellectual curiosity or the need for help articulating one’s feelings.

But the main reason people gave was social: an urge to confirm that one’s lonely experience of the show was shared. To check that one is still consuming one’s culture correctly, to collaborate, and (this was a big one) to feel sane, normal, emotionally and ethically less alone…The TV recap grew up into the TV essay, and it has led to a new style of TV consumption that’s analytical, aesthetic, active and social. We may still be couch potatoes, but we’re interested couch potatoes, invested in finding not just entertainment but meaning and community in the viewing experience – and the conversation about that experience.

The idea of television turning the viewing masses into a community is not a new one, though it has certainly grown in the digital age from a water-cooler situation to one giant, culture-wide conversation. The viewing public has taken an active part in debate over aesthetics and storytelling. What’s most notable, however, is that popular television shows have not only supplanted the news (and, Loofbourow argues, commonly-held western religious beliefs) as the common text, but also as the primary cultural text for conversations about ethics. Loofbourow cites a key example of how TV fans watched the now-infamous scene of Cersei Lannister’s rape and disagreed with the show’s creators about what happened.

When showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss and director Alex Graves claimed, after the episode aired, that it was not a rape, it changed nothing for viewers. As presented, the scene showed a rape, and – insofar as the public interpretation of that scene could be measured – a rape it remained. That’s fascinating. That fans’ and critics’ interpretation of what happened departed so dramatically from the director’s – and that the difference persisted even after the creators weighed in – testifies to how robust these analytical communities have become.

Television can become the center of debates about ethics and consent, Loofbourow argues, because it seems frivolous compared to real-life worries. The recaps have become “sermons” to help us understand and converse, but they don’t feel like sermons. This, ironically, makes us more active cultural and ethical debaters.

“Game of Thrones” is the primary example in Loofbourow’s piece, but any number of other shows will do here. Loofbourow briefly mentions the 1,000+ A.V. Club article on “True Detective” and how the show became as much of a battleground for the ethical debate about the treatment of women in popular culture as it was about whether or not that long-take scene was breathtaking or distracting. While plenty of commenters on different sites claimed it was little more than white-knighting (some just dismissive, some brazenly sexist), there was still an open conversation about how sure-handed of the show’s autocritical treatment of misogynists was, and whether or not it eventually became the thing it was ostensibly criticizing. Some said yes, some said no, but most agreed that the show could probably benefit next season by including female characters who weren’t there entirely to have sex or die.

The debate during recaps goes beyond violent shows as well. Comment sections for “Girls” sometimes (OK, often) spiral into misogyny, but they also spark vibrant conversations about privilege, narcissism, and how whether or not the show handles its own autocricism well or not. “The Mindy Project’s” recent episode “I Slipped” brought up questions of consent. A recent episode of “Black-ish” covered whether or not it was OK to punish a child with spanking, and both TV critics and commenters found a way to talk about it as it related to race and class. 

Should we lament that these conversations aren’t happening outside of the television criticism sphere (except in highly polarized shouting matches)? Definitely, but they are happening, and that’s important. Now if only we can shape that into caring beyond the realm of fiction.

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