The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff on the State of TV Criticism

Why the A.V. Club Added "TV Reviews" to Its Recaps
The .V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff on the State of TV Criticism

Readers of the A.V. Club’s television coverage may have noticed a strange new presence among the site’s well-read weekly recaps: they’re calling them “TV Reviews.” TV reviews used to consist of a print critic weighing in on a given show once or maybe twice a season, but now more often than not it means turning out hundreds or thousands or words a week, sometimes within an hour or two after the closing credits roll.

The A.V. Club’s TV Editor Todd VanDerWerff, who also contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Grantland and Salon, decided it was time to buck the trend, carving out a niche for long-form pieces that look beyond the plusses and minuses of a single episode to examine its greater potential and its place in the culture — an especially useful service as network pilots give way to series that may bear little resemblance to them. (Disclosure: I am a longtime contributor to the A.V. Club, although I’ve never covered TV for them.) With VanDerWerff’s reviews of new shows The Millers and Sean Saves the World joining his season-long consideration of The Bridge, VanDerWerff graciously agreed to answer a few questions for Criticwire via email to discuss the changing state of TV criticism and whether or not we’ve reached “peak recap.”

What’s behind the decision to add occasional, more far-reaching reviews to the A.V. Club’s weekly recaps? How do you see the two forms interacting on the site?

I suspect weekly reviews of select TV shows will be around with us for so long as the medium exists. I’ve been predicting the end of episodic reviews for a while now, but the numbers just don’t bear that out anymore. The number of readers we get at TV Club continues to go up and up and up, and I know anecdotally from other people who run sites that do weekly reviews that the same holds true for them. It’s an expensive proposition and always has been, but I think we may have reached a tipping point where the benefits outweigh the cost consistently enough to suggest this as a workable model. After all: How many sites were doing a weekly Breaking Bad review or recap? Almost all of them.

The way we’ve been selling “review” versus “recap” is “Should I watch this?” versus “What did I just watch?” The move toward episodic criticism has been a good thing for TV criticism on the whole, I think, 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. Episodic analysis is fantastic, but it can miss the forest for the trees far too often. As an example: Plenty of people would argue I was too easy on the second season of Homeland because I was too “close” to the material, in terms of looking at the story as a series of episodic chapters of a larger whole. But I would argue the opposite is also true of Homeland and a great many shows: Reviewing episodes on a weekly basis tends to exacerbate and play up flaws that are there but maybe aren’t as significant within the whole as we think they are. The truth is often best seen by pulling back and looking at the forest, rather than the trees, where it’s easier to get a sense of the story as a whole.

As far as doing reviews of significant debuts: We’ve always done this in TV Club, but it was often confusing and hard to understand for our readers, who were used to post-episode analysis and worried when we posted our Mad Men, season six review early, for instance, that we had randomly posted a spoiler-filled analysis of the season premiere, when nothing could have been further from the truth. (Also, Matt Weiner would have had my head.) We’ve also had the awkward experience of trying to make the “review as consumer recommendation” model try to fit into our pre-existing “review as critical analysis” model. To return to that Mad Men review: It worked as a way to let readers know my thoughts on the premiere, but it didn’t really work as a way for me to discuss the episode after the fact. For boring, technical reasons, The A.V. Club just isn’t set up to do that sort of thing. So in brainstorming a solution to this problem (which we have been since 2011), we figured just splitting the two types of reviews into two separate sections would be the best way to approach the question. Design-wise, we haven’t quite solved the question yet, but our readers seem to have responded well to the idea of having the two different sections (and it’s finally gotten us on Metacritic).

From your point of view, how is the business of TV writing changing? How is this reflected at the A.V. Club?

I think TV reviewing is loosening up. As I said before, I used to predict the episodic criticism model would go away entirely — it was too expensive to pursue, it sometimes got in too close to truly appreciate a work, it tended to burn people out very quickly, etc. — but I no longer really think that way. I suspect it will contract (we’re already covering about 20 fewer shows than we were last fall, which was 20 fewer shows than the fall of 2011), but it’s going to be a reality of the way TV is covered going forward, even for things like Netflix shows. Our Arrested Development and Orange Is the New Black weekly reviews both did very well over the summer, which suggests people are still hungry to read about this sort of thing, even if it’s of a show they can consume at their own pace. (More evidence of this: Some of our most-read TV Club articles in the last few weeks have been reviews of Breaking Bad from its second, third, and fourth seasons.) 

But episodic criticism, which has seemed like the be-all and end-all to a lot of readers, especially, is also giving way to a format that allows for greater freedom of coverage. I really admire the way that sites like Grantland and Vulture, in addition to us, are finding new ways and new angles to look at TV, by taking the sort of massive staff coverage that would have resulted in a bunch of recaps even a year ago and, instead, using it to attack TV in a variety of ways. Sometimes, that means spending a week coming up with every possible thought your staff has on the Breaking Bad finale. But sometimes, it means one person is doing an episodic review of Homeland, another is checking in on where The Middle is at in its fifth season, somebody else has caught up with Please Like Me and is writing a thinkpiece about it, and still another is watching those Sean Saves the World screeners for a more traditional “should you watch this?” review. 

Plus, the way we write about TV is opening up to allow more possibilities. Alyssa Rosenberg writes about political angles for most shows, while Joanna Robinson turns her own weekly reviews into oft-cheeky top 10 lists, complete with animated .GIFs. At our own site, we’ve got writers who run the gamut, from Sonia Saraiya, who pulls in lots and lots of outside texts to write about TV, to Myles McNutt, who approaches things from a more academic perspective, to Zack Handlen and Genevieve Valentine, who write more novelistic takes on what they’ve just watched. (I’d love to single out all of my writers, but that’s probably a poor use of our time.) And then pulling away from that, we’ve got things like Scott Eric Kaufman’s Internet Film School, which takes a look at TV (and film) not via its writing or performances but via its formal, directorial elements, something that’s woefully underwritten about in TV criticism. Though I continue to think the A.V. Club has the best TV writing staff out there, it’s an exciting time to be reading TV criticism, with lots and lots of different voices jockeying for attention, and the best ones rising to the top faster and faster. And that’s to say nothing of stalwarts like Alan Sepinwall, Jaime Weinman, Mo Ryan, Matt Zoller Seitz, Andy Greenwald, and Willa Paskin, all of whom are daily must-reads for me and all of whom have subtly shifted their writing in the last year (at least so far as I can tell) to refocus on bigger picture questions.

I continue to believe every show on TV can and should be covered weekly, provided the correct writer is reviewing it, and TV Club has proved this time and again. (Community and Parks & Recreation, both shows that other sites were slow to get on the weekly review train for, are among our most-read articles, week in and week out.) But I think it’s exciting to realize that’s not the only way to think about the question of how to cover TV. The medium is a vast beast, particularly with the arrival of streaming services as content providers. It’s only going to get bigger, so keeping options open isn’t just a good call; it’s probably necessary.

Is this simply a matter of us having reached peak recap, or are there other changes at work that affect what people look for in TV coverage?

I think we reached peak recap in 2011. There are still sites out there that review every single episode of every single show (usually with a legion of unpaid bloggers), and I continue to think we unnecessarily limit ourselves in terms of what shows “should” be reviewed in a weekly format. (We’ve had surprisingly good luck with CBS procedurals like Person of Interest and Elementary in the last year. Both are good shows, but both also make for fun weekly dissections.) But at a certain point, reviewing every show on TV on a weekly basis is just throwing content into a giant gaping maw and hoping that will be enough. TV Club has always been curatorial — it originally launched in hopes of covering only a handful of shows at any given time before realizing how difficult that was — but we’re aiming to be more curatorial now. Is this show one of the best on TV? Is it something our readers want to read about? In both cases, we cover it weekly. But there are a lot of shows that don’t fall into either category, and we’re being a little more judicious about handling those shows in different ways. The TV Reviews section is a part of that answer, I think.

In addition to running the A.V. Club’s TV coverage, you contribute to a number of other publications. How do these changes approach the way you write about TV?

I’m appreciating the challenge of writing the TV Reviews. It’s a new set of muscles to flex, particularly because we’re trying to observe a more traditional, critically detached voice within said reviews. (TV Club writing tends to be much more prone to personal statements of feeling and the like, probably because it started out as a blog within The A.V. Club.) In particular, I’m enjoying things like reviewing the first season of The Bridge, where I have a lot to say but have to sort of talk around potential spoilers for anyone who might be intrigued by my review but doesn’t want to know everything that happens. It’s a new format, and we’re still figuring it out, but I’m surprised at how easily it’s coming to those of us who write for the section. TV Club is TV Club: open and earnest and vast and a little unruly. Ideally, it’s like sitting with a bunch of your friends at an after-bar gathering and talking TV. But the TV Reviews are already developing a tone that’s a little more like trying to persuade said friends to watch (or not watch) some show you’ve just discovered, and it’s been exciting both to see that develop, and to feel myself writing toward it more and more.

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