Praising Criticism: TV Critics Edition
How The Rise of Peak TV Has Led to A Similar Rise in the Quality of TV Criticism -And How One Minor Publication Can Show Others How Its Done
Throughout this long and winding series on criticism, you might have noticed that I have largely focused my attention on the follies of film and literature critics, leaving my field of television criticism basically unscathed. This is not out of professional courtesy nor because I think all these critics show perfect judgment all the time (my Overrated Series is a prime example of how I think that critics will reach an opinion about TV that I can’t comprehend). It is mainly due to the fact that overall, as the Golden Age of TV has become prevalent, I have overall been impressed by the work of my fellow critics in this field both as a body and in specific cases.
Those of you who have read my columns during Awards seasons should not be shocked by this. Every year since they were established in 2010, I have essentially written a series of love letters about the Critics Choice Nominations and the Awards that they subsequently give. I went into further paroxysm of ecstasy in 2021 with the first ever Hollywood Critics Association TV Awards which in just two awards have become an utter joy to write about, try to predict and then watch the winners. They have managed to cut the Gordian Knot about so many of the differences between Broadcast, Cable and Streaming that I’m impressed that it took me this long to come up with what seemed to be an obvious solution. And while I have my issues with the TCA and their methods of giving acting awards in a single category with no difference for gender or lead, I won’t pretend that I haven’t been overall impressed with their selections over the past several years, particularly when it has come to recognizing such extraordinary series as The Americans and Abbott Elementary. I don’t agree with every single one of the nominations or awards they end up giving, but I tend to respect their choices more than the Emmys or Golden Globes and have been known to track down series that they nominate almost entirely based on the choices they have made. (I probably wouldn’t have chased down either Wednesday or Andor had they not been willing to select them.) Every time they have given awards I am proud of my chosen profession.
I have no idea who the members may be of these organizations, but I have read enough television criticism over the last quarter a century to know that the ones who give these awards are worthy of having this power. During Entertainment Weekly’s existence, I would always track down each new issue almost entirely for their television section alone. The reviews they gave either for a single series or occasionally series with a similar theme were always fascinating to read, and the fact that they would give the shows a grade equivalent to a report card helped clarify things for me. Their issues where they gave their hopes for Emmy nominations were always fascinating to read and eventually when I began my own official version around 2011, I followed their model and was always interested in their ballots for their awards (it’s there that I got my conception for Should Win/Will Win). And I loved their annual Best of list: which featured not only Top Ten lists from two or three different critics, but also a section for the worst 5 shows of the year, some of which often were successful series that had been huge disappointments. (The most prominent examples were Day 6 of 24 and the second season of True Detective.) It’s also worth noting their publication was the only one I ever remember reading that was not inclined to dismiss franchise TV shows just for the sake of being based on a comic book or movie, something that far too many critics for ‘highbrow publications’ would do outright.
TV Guide was not quite up to those high standards, but as Peak TV has flourished they have been more than up to the challenge, both in their reviews sections and just as often in Cheers and Jeers, when they will deserved accuse hit series of jumping the shark or occasionally blame viewers for not watching a show they like. (This was after all, the first publication I remember to have covers devoted to ‘The Best Show You’re Not Watching, which including Homicide, Party of Five and Sports Night, all among my personal favorites.)
And for all the harsh blasts I have given to New York film critics over the years, those grudges don’t apply to New York TV Critics. The New Yorker erratically gave TV reviews for the first few years I read it, but around 2003 they realized just how great TV was becoming and began to assign some genuinely talent critics to the job. Emily Nussbaum, who worked for them until recently, is a genius whose reviews have always inspired me with their logic even when I didn’t agree with her opinion. (Her extreme dislike of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was one that she was proud of.) She was also superb at seeking out and highlighting series I thought did not get their due such as Billions, Evil and The Good Fight, and her worship of The Good Wife shown over four separate columns over the years, demonstrated the best of both writing and what a TV critics must be capable of in this era.
Other New York publications have similarly done well in this regard, some perhaps not surprising (The New York Times has become very skilled in its coverage) some more so (New York Magazine was always ahead of its time; it may have been one of the first publications to recognize just how great Oz was). But for the purposes of this column, I’m going to focus on the one that had perhaps the greatest influence on me growing up and a recent review that demonstrates just how truly great TV criticism can be, when done well.
When I was first beginning to take TV criticism seriously, one of the first papers whose criticism I considered most vital was that of Newsday. Part of this was due to the work of Marvin Kitman, one of the greatest TV critics of all time, who was at that point sharing duties with the equally skilled Diane Werts.
Kitman was a brilliant writer who had extremely high standards that, frankly, should have had the snobbish attitude of Pauline Kael and John Simon, both of whom I loathed. But I never hated him or found him the elitist snobs I have so many other critics, mainly because the shows he aimed his poison pen at basically deserved it. (When you consider some of the comedy series that were given the label ‘Must-See TV’ or some of the dramas that were airing on television during the 1990s, its hard not to say they earned his wrath.)
I will also confess I may not be capable of being unbiased because he was the first professional journalist I ever wrote into with my opinions — some of which he published in his columns and some of which he actually agreed with. He fully supported my views of the ridiculous practices of the Emmys nominating and giving the same awards to the same actors over and over (I referred to this as the Helen Hunt rule after she won four consecutive Emmys for Mad About You; I’d call it the Julia-Louis Dreyfus rule now) as well as my disdain for calling them ‘a yearly ceremony paying tribute to David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco (these days I might elaborate to Armando Iannucci and possibly Mike White). We also agreed about the greatness of Homicide and the superbness of Chicago Hope. I was in despair when he retired from all writing in 2004, though admittedly he left us with a warning that ‘as bad as TV was, it was going to get a lot worse in the future.” Deadwood and The Wire were still on the air, Lost and Desperate Housewives premiered that fall, and AMC, Showtime and FX hadn’t even begun to demonstrate their power. Well, nobody’s perfect.
Long after he departed, I would read Newsday’s TV page every day of the week. They would not always review a show; sometimes they wouldn’t be there at all, but I always found a fascinating read. Verne Gay, currently the major TV critic for the paper, has always been fascinating to read as a critic. And he’s probably one of the best working today.
Newsday reviews are interesting because he always follows the same format: there’s a brief summary of what’s the show is about (or if it’s a new season, updating us on how the last season and ended and how the new season begins) and then a general review of what he thinks, concluding with a summary of whether its worth your time. There’s a rating system of one to five stars (since reduced to four), and while the raves are always great to read, it’s often the 2 and a half stars that are the most interesting because it’s just on the cusp between a good show and a waste of time and its hard to know if its going to be worth it for the viewer. Usually these reviews are based more on the episodes they get to preview than anything else: Newsday only gave Watchman 2 and a half stars based on the first three episodes, but the general context was that it might still be worth the viewers time if they chose to commit. (Spoiler: It was.)
And its always interesting to watch their opinions of a series change over time, sometimes in the course of the same season. I well remember that at the start of Season 7 of Homeland, the initial review was fairly negative but the major objection seemed to be less with the plot of the episodes available, but the fact that the most important character in the reviewers eyes (Peter Quinn, the most ambivalent about the actions that took place each season) was now dead. I believe the reviewer’s opinion had become more favorable by the end of the season. And while they are capable of recognizing greatness when it is apparent and will hold to that opinion — the reviewers justifiably considered The Americans one of the greatest TV shows in history into the final season — they are more than willing to moderate their opinions over time. And it is in fact regard to that fact that I want to discuss a review I saw in the paper today: the review of the fourth and last season of Succession.
It’s worth noting that the initial review of Succession in Newsday was not positive at all. They only gave it two out of four stars with the headline “A family that’s hard to like.” (This was a trend that was actually notable in the initial reviews, but that’s actually going to be the subject of another column later.) Their opinion improved quite a bit over time, and in this review they give it four stars. This in itself is not a shock — the early reviews of Season 4 have been laudatory, even rhapsodic. But the Newsday review is an exception to this, not because it doesn’t admit that its not a great show but because unlike all the other raves I’ve seen, it is questioning everything that so many seem to be drawn about it in the first place and actually calls into question why so many people watched the show at all.
After describing what’s happening the review quotes King Lear, saying: “nothing will come from nothing.’ It argues that all the action in Season 4 — Tom and Shiv’s marriage imploding, Connor’s disastrous run for the White House, the children’s decision to revolt against their father — are just a sign of meaninglessness.
The reviewer (I assume its Gay; I’m not sure) basically tells us that for all the extraordinary writing and acting and the idea of comedy, it’s essentially a dark tragedy. It makes it clear that the entire purpose of the series — who will run Waystar Royco — is in a way meaningless. He quotes Lily Tomlin: “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” He argues that whoever ‘wins’ the battle has already lost in a general sense: if Kendall wins, for example, it just means he’s become the most like Logan. He says no matter how the series ends, none of these characters will have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment because they’re not capable of it — “if they were, they would have by now.”
And in the last paragraph it argues that the entire series is basically a bad joke that it has told us ‘the military-media-industrial complex’ has apparently has done as much damage to people who run it as America. “Before this series began, we knew who the winners were and we knew who the losers were.” The implication is crystal clear.
I don’t normally like reviews where critics tell their audiences that in a sense the series they have spent several years watching has been a waste of time, and indeed, I’m not certain that is what the Newsday reviewer is saying. But in the case of a show like Succession where all the things that should utterly be repulsive to viewers — how unpleasant everybody is, how unqualified all of them are do achieve the goal of the series, and how meaningless it ultimately is whoever ends up winning — I actually think its justified, and not merely because I agree with the opinion.
For three seasons, millions of viewers seem to have been thrilled by the saga of the Roys even though nothing has happened, all of the characters are loathsome and its very clear that no matter who wins, the world loses. Even now, most of the reviews I have seen seem utterly determined to highlight all of these things as reasons to watch the final season. The Newsday review is arguing that the series is worth watching, but it is questioning why so many have been drawn to it in the first place. Analysts might suggest that it is because of the brilliant technical aspects, the underlying meaning of so many of the behaviors of the Roy children or that so many Americans are experiencing schadenfreude at how miserable the rich and powerful are. This review argues in the strongest possible term I’ve seen any columnist say that the viewer’s enjoyment of this series is saying something very subtly unpleasant about the nature of the show’s viewer. And honestly, it is a question that we should have been asking more often.
It is reviews like this that make me proud of my chosen profession. It is the kind of nuanced, eloquent and even amusing review that the best critics are capable of. It gives the impression that this is a great show, and then argues that maybe it’s a good thing that its ending not just so that for the series to overstay its welcome, but to suggest that the fact we let it in the door says something unpleasant about us. Maybe the average reader will just look at the rating, assume that’s all need to see and ignore the rest. God knows that what far too many of us do anyway. But reviews like this — and frankly the best TV criticism — make us question what we are watching and why we are enjoying in the first place. We might still watch it anyway, but we might think as to why we are now.