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April 18, 2014

How TV Criticism Has Changed ... And Where It's Going

by Joel Keller, posted May 27th 2011 2:30PM
Steve Carell in 'The Office' - 'Goodbye, Michael'Today is my last day with AOL, having served AOL TV and TV Squad in various capacities since November 1, 2005, and I've enjoyed every day of it.

What's been the most interesting thing about my time here, when Keith McDuffee hired me to blog for TV Squad right after it and the rest of Weblogs, Inc. (Engadget, TUAW, Joystiq, etc.) were bought by AOL, has been how the coverage of TV has changed in a relatively short period of time.

Think back to 2005. It doesn't seem like that long ago, right? Most media websites had matured to the point where their designs were slick, professional and well-done. Blogs were starting to become the prevalent form of communication on the web. Heck, sites like Television Without Pity had already been around for a half-decade by that point, giving us funny recaps of our favorite shows and letting us sound off on message boards.

But besides TWoP, the old TV Squad and a scattered few others, there wasn't much out there in terms of giving fans really in-depth critical coverage of the shows they love.

Now? It's all over the place, and most of it is of high quality.

What sites like the old TVS, Alan Sepinwall's original What's Alan Watching blog and TWoP did was make it OK for TV fans to geek about about their chosen form of entertainment the same way that film buffs, music fans and fine art appreciators have been able to geek out about their favorite pastime for decades. If you wanted to obsess over the minute details of any show ranging from 'The Shield' to 'ER' to, yes, 'American Idol,' you could do so on these sites. You can debate the merits of each plot, each new character, each turn of events, and pick it apart like movie fans pick apart 'Star Wars' or opera fans pick apart a performance of 'Rigoletto.'

But there was something in it for the person writing the recap, and it wasn't just to get a byline. I remember reading Josh Levin's Slate article about show recapping when it came out in February, and coming away a bit disappointed with it. Not only for egotistical reasons -- he didn't mention TV Squad or AOL at all, even though we had been doing recapping well before most of the sites he lauded had started doing it -- but because he didn't quite capture the spirit in which these recaps were started and why they continue.

'Gilmore Girls'The example I'll use is the first show I ever recapped for this site: 'Gilmore Girls.' I didn't start recapping 'Gilmore Girls' because it was assigned to me, or because it sorely needed a critical boost; by that time I had read enough stories about Lauren Graham getting screwed out of Emmy nominations to last me a lifetime. No, I started blogging the show because I enjoyed watching it and wanted to discuss it with people who also enjoyed it. It didn't hurt to also have that "I love the show even though I'm a guy" hook that people were probably curious about.

Yes, as Levin cited in the article, you didn't recap a show week after week unless you liked it, but it was more than just that. We were fans who so enjoyed the show we wanted to talk about it with other fans. The ironic thing, though, is that led to the people who wrote about these shows to become even more highly critical of them, due to raised standards. Some people think I hate 'The Office,' for instance, when nothing could be farther from the truth; I've loved the show from day one and remember it's highest points. So when some of the mediocre episodes from the last few seasons come along, I communicate that disappointment via my recaps.

(Of course, a show can also wear you down to a nub to the point where you disown it at a certain point, as 'Glee' did with me this season.)

Nowadays, when you can find instant assessments of episodes in 140-character form on Twitter, people chime in on a show's Facebook page and every site that writes about TV -- including many newspaper sites -- recap at least some shows, it's very easy for someone to stick with the one or two voices they agree with and stay there. The number of recaps to read becomes overwhelming at a certain point, sort of like the list of reviews for a particular movie you can read off of Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb. So, you go to the voices you trust. But if that voice, for instance, dismissed 'Happy Endings' when it premiered and never came back, you wouldn't have been able to see the show improve by the time its first season was over.

So, where is all this going? Well, the recap isn't going away, of course, and there's going to be a lot of instantaneous assessment amongst fans via social media. But I also can see the good old-fashioned TV reviews -- where a critic like Mo Ryan or James Poniewozik or Matt Roush drops in on a show periodically and makes their assessment -- making a comeback. You can already see it in what Mo's done here for the last year, and even on recap-heavy sites like The AV Club, where their "Other Shows" category is chock full of reviews of shows they don't review on a weekly basis.

'Happy Endings'Why is all this necessary? Because when you're using your smartphone or tablet and using an app like the one AOL TV just released yesterday, you want all this information to be available when you click the title of your show on the listings grid. How cool would it be to see a listing of recaps, reviews, tweets, Facebook posts, and other bits about your show, right as you go to program it into your DVR? That future is here, and the more content that's there to feed that monster, the better.

You'll see my byline here and there over the summer; I still love TV and love getting paid to write about it. But my five-and-a-half year ride here is about to end. Thanks to everyone, from writers to editors to colleagues to readers, who was along for the ride with me. It's time to get on a new ride, one that's going to go a whole hell of a lot faster than the old one.

(P.S. I put that scene from the 'Goodbye Michael' episode of 'The Office' at the top of this post because the show debuted only a few months before I started here. So I kind of feel the same way Steve Carell felt before he left the show. Only I'll be making a whole lot less money than he will.)

Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and on Facebook.

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lordbwahaha

After that juvenile rant you posted about Glee I can't say I will miss you very much.

January 11 2012 at 11:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Will-B

Good luck, Joel. You always did have the more high-quality writing on the critic websites I tracked.

I have a small request, Joel: I am the owner of a small website called OfficeRankings (https://sites.google.com/site/officerankings/home). Looking at your reviews for "The Office", I really think you'd be a great addition to the site, which compiles "Office" reviews from all over the web (including those by some of the ones you mentioned, like Sepinwall and Poniewozik) and forms an average score for each episode. Formerly, I only allowed in critics that gave scores to their reviews, but now, I'm thinking that I should include more, for the sake of including actual critics instead of just some random blogger.

It would be an honor and a great improvement to the website if you could reply to this comment with a list of the season 7 "Office" episodes you reviewed and assign a score out of ten to the nearest, say, .5 point (7.0, 7.5, 8.0...) to each one so I can include you in the website. Thanks!

June 05 2011 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Katie S

Beginning of the end. Well, really the beginning of the end was when every other post was chock full of non-interesting videos (Hoda & Kathie Lee have drinks at noon! WATCH NOW). All I can say is I guess I'll have to start going to AV Club or TWoP for insightful Mad Men recaps...

June 03 2011 at 1:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
barbfile

Good luck, Joel -- and thanks for opening the door for me at TV Squad. It was a fun ride. I'll miss it, especially the way it was.

Allison Waldman

May 30 2011 at 9:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jason J. Hughes

Joel, I can't thank you enough for giving me a chance when you hired me for this site. It's been a pleasure working with you all these years and through all these changes. I'm sure it won't be the last we "see" of one another. And best of luck in your next chapter. Knowing you, you'll manage to fall upwards and forward.

May 29 2011 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
noseless_wonder

It seems like TVSquad is going the way of Cinematical. Once HuffPo took over, they decided to stop paying their authors so they all left. There were some incredibly horrible management decisions made there.

It does seem like the site has gone downhill. I particularly agree with RebeccaL's comment on spam. I've reported one particular spammer several times myself, but he keeps popping up and the posts I've reported are still there.

May 29 2011 at 1:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rebecca L

I agree with those who say this site has gone way downhill since AOL took it over. The recaps are rarely witty or insightful as they once were and the posters who cared about the shows and often made intelligent comments have been replaced by people who love to comment on shows they don't watch because they feel the world is waiting to hear who they think that show sucks. (Not smart criticism, just hey everyone that show you watch sucks.) And they do nothing about all the spam that the site attracts. Most articles insist on playing videos when you click on them which is extremely annoying, especially when you have a slow connection and the darn video has to load before you can stop it. It was much better when you could choose whether or not you wanted the video to play. It's very user unfriendly and one reason why I no longer go to this site every day. Thanks for the recommendations of other ones where i might find the witty and/or insightful recaps. I am longing for a new place to discuss the shows I love.
The only bright spot is Maureen Ryan and her recaps of Doctor Who. (And my old password stopped working, they always insist I sign in on some other account instead. I've no doubt it's because they are hoping I'll choose facebook or twitter so everyone I'm friends with will see a plug for this (now lame) website. And now that they have lost one of the final writers who was good at writing them and not just doing one of theby-the-numbers recaps that are replacing the good ones I've had it. I outgrew AOL as a subscriber when I had spent a couple of years online and now unfortunately they are spreading their lowest common denominator programming to my favorite websites. Ugh!

May 28 2011 at 9:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Evan

So the old TV Squad is officially dead. How sad. I used to love your reviews Joel, unfortunately over the past year or so I've found them not as good. I'm going to attribute it to the merge with AOL. That merge really destroyed the site and everyone could see that it would no matter how much you defended it at the time. Good luck with your future adventures.

May 28 2011 at 9:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
aml0591

I posted this for Rich, but I think you'd like to read it also. Good luck. So many people have come and gone. I'm sad to see you go too. I can't believe I've been reading TV Squad for close to 5 years already. You and Rich were the first to columnists I ever read on this site. I was in 10th grade, now I'm a Radio/Television/Film major going into my junior year in college. Thanks for keeping this TV nerd in the know for all these years.

May 28 2011 at 4:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Smiley

TV Squad was awesome. AOLTV sucks. Its a crime what they have done to my once favorite site. The AV Club is nice though.

May 28 2011 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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