In his final Time post before decamping for his new job at the New York Times, James Poniewozik muses on how the job has changed over his 16 years at the publication. The Internet has enormously changed what it means to be a critic — Poniewozik was at Time when his editors asked him to start a blog, and when they stopped using the word “blog” because it was no longer distinct from what the rest of the magazine did — but more than that, it’s the sheer amount of TV that’s changed. “Since 1999,” he writes, “the number of scripted series on cable has increased 1000%, and no, I did not add an extra zero there.” It’s an observation we heard again and again out of the just-completed Television Critics Association summer press tour, where FX’s Jon Landgraf proposed that the number of scripted series has grown so large as to be unsustainable. But Poniewozik also touches on why TV and TV criticism has become so central to American cultural life, which it always has been, and intellectual discourse, which is a much more recent development.
Having too much material in a great job is a high-class problem. But it does mean, as a simple practical matter, that even a critic paid to watch TV can’t watch every episode of everything, any more than you can. Once a film critic sees a movie or a music critic hears an album, it’s done: there are not 13 more hours of Age of Ultron coming out. TV, God bless it, never ends.
Which means that for TV critics above all, a dialogue with readers is essential. As a critic, you’re a generalist, sampling widely and drawing connections across a broad medium. But you will never know as much about any particular show as its dedicated fans do. I rely on you, in the comments and in social media, to be my eyes and ears — not just to let me know when I made a typo or wrote something stupid, but to let me know what I’m missing. (And doing this job means accepting that you will always miss a lot.)
In 2015, “accepting that you will always miss a lot” is a universal condition. There are more movies and TV than anyone could watch, more music than anyone could listen to, more noteworthy books than anyone could read — even critics who get paid to spend much of their time doing just that. TV tells us that stories go on for years, not hours; that they don’t always end when expect or when their tellers planned them to; and even, with more and more seemingly dead shows being yanked from the grave, that stories don’t end so much as stop — and then maybe start up again. TV criticism is open-ended by nature, an ongoing conversations that readers now expect to be a part of, which is why it’s where some of the most interesting writing of the day is taking place, and a model for other kinds of critics to study and learn from.