How Entertainment Weekly Affected My Life Watching TV and My Career As A TV critic
Even when you know that something is inevitable, that doesn’t stop it from hurting when it happens. Last week, the company that was responsible for the publication of several magazines — among them, Entertainment Weekly — announced, like so many publications in the digital age, they were ceasing print publication for all of them.
This didn’t come as a real shock. Ever since the summer of 2019 when the magazine announced that would only be publishing monthly, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before Entertainment Weekly stopped publication. The pandemic’s subsequent near shutdown of every major live event and almost all forms of entertainment no doubt hastened its demise. But that doesn’t mean that the end of the magazine in its print form is no less painful for me. Because along with TV Guide and the writing of Roger Ebert, Entertainment Weekly was possibly the most significant publication responsible for developing my love of television in my formative years and almost certainly affected the writing of this column.
There were many things about the magazine I truly admired. I loved how seriously it considered all forms of pop culture on an equal footing. I loved the guest columns it published over the years featuring many of the actors and writers behind the scenes of films and television. And I was very appreciative of the fact that they never had the same snobbery towards the blockbuster movie that, frankly, almost ever other publication I have ever read has. I don’t know of any other publication that would have dared to put Casino Royale as the best film of the year it came out or argue for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Rise of the Planet of the Apes to be considered worthy of Best Picture nominations. But I will focus on what was most relevant to this column — the way that EW affected how I viewed television and how it helped shaped the discussion of TV.
Much of my original interest in Entertainment Weekly came as a teenager when I saw how much it focuses on The X-Files one of my favorite series growing up. In retrospect, its easy to say that jumped on a bandwagon, but they were singing its praises at least a year before the series ended up becoming a pop culture mainstay. (One of my long-standing grudges against Chris Carter and the series is in a September 2000 interview with the magazine he gave a very long and detailed explanation of what the mythology was going to be for Season 8 and beyond — all of which turned out to be a total lie.) The magazine was always quick to pick up on the youth market and was one of the few publications to realize some of the pure gold that was coming out of the brand new WB network, from Buffy and Angel, to Dawson’s Creek and Felicity.
It is the job of a cultural publication to always be on top of the latest trends. But EWs heyday would coincide, not entirely coincidentally, with the beginning of Golden Age of Television. And that’s not necessarily where you might think it was. When Oz premiered in the summer of 1997, the universal reaction was almost entirely hostile. TV Guide never really liked the series and almost every other publication could only offer mixed praise at best. The only one that recognized it for the work of art it truly was would be EW, which would regularly argue the cast was due for Emmy nominations and put it on its Top Ten List for three consecutive years. One of the reasons I felt so little guilt from watching the often extreme violence and sexuality of OZ was because a publication I respected loved it.
And throughout my college years and well into the present days, Entertainment Weekly’s opinion would always count higher for me than almost any other publication. Some series I did discover on my own — 24, The Wire and Six Feet Under were the most prominent — but there were a lot of shows over the years that I only got on board with because of EWs blessing. I eventually fell in love with the new Battlestar Galactica after years of persuasion and I’ll be honest, it was more the fact of three consecutive years of Breaking Bad being considered the Best Show of the Year that I finally recognized the work of art it was and I definitely wouldn’t have gotten behind House of Cards without their approval. There were some series they pushed that I never got on board with — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and especially Scandal — but it was balanced out by their raves for series I would never have paid attention to otherwise such as The Americans and The Leftovers.
The magazine was always willing to do things that so many other journals weren’t willing to even try. Every entertainment journal has a top ten list, but starting in 2008 EW was willing to do a top ten episodes of the year — something I have never had the balls to try. They were also willing, more than any other entertainment publication, to admit how much the same series could rise and fall in a short period. After the extraordinary Day 5 put 24 on their Top Ten List in 2006, the horrible Day 6 put on their worst five shows of the year. In 2009 in what can almost certainly be considered the series worst creative period Grey’s Anatomy was put on the worst shows of the year. They recognized it as the best series in 2010. (Well, nobody’s perfect.) And their critics were always willing to challenge each other — after the first season of True Detective premiered, two of their TV critics argued whether it was the best show on TV or the worst. (There was no quarrel on the question in 2015.)\ There were often contradictions in their reviews — they could rave about Twin Peaks: The Return as being a masterpiece on one page and four pages later, joke about how incomprehensible it was — but considering the source, it’s hard to argue it.
And reading the magazine consistently for nearly twenty years, I learned more and more about the craft of writing for television than probably from any other single source in my entire career. There are quite a few columns at this site that are borne out of what I saw in the magazine — more series that I was willing to try, more trends that I was willing to write about. Even some of their failures have fascinated me. In June of 2014, EW made one of its boldest decisions — to write an article showing the 50 greatest scenes of the 2013–2014 season for Emmy consideration for voters. It was one of the few occasions the publishers grasp exceeded its reach; even in the age of Peak TV they knew they had stretched themselves too thin. They would try a variation of it the following year, but they would cut the number of scenes to 20 and even then it seemed like they were stretching too far (Number 1 on the list was Will Durst’s apparently inadvertent revelation of his guilt in the murders he’d been accused of in the HBO documentary The Jinx. The fact that it was included at all really shows how questionable it was). Three years ago, I wrote a list of the 50 greatest episodes of TV in the 21st Century and no fewer than seven examples — from Sherlock’s best man speech in the eponymous series to the controversial pilot of True Detective to the climax of Ozymandias on Breaking Bad — were represented on those two lists. I probably would have come to those conclusions on my own, but it’s hard to argue those lists didn’t help.
Every time I was in a waiting room, working out or just by a newsstand, I would look for the most recent issue of EW and start scrolling to the TV pages. (I’d read the whole thing eventually, but I’d start there.) The depth they were willing to go into reviews of individual series, the way they were willing to dig deep into shows that I truly loved, the way they would defend certain shows even decades after they ended in controversy. (Lost, one of their favorite series and mine was still being dissected and discussed nearly a decade after the controversial ending.) They would go into venues that I wouldn’t look at — from animated cartoons to short form series to cult series that had been forgotten for years. I would always devour them with interest.
And now Entertainment Weekly is gone. Yes, I’m well aware they will continue to run in a digital format going forward and I know that these days online is where you have to be in order to get read. (The irony that I am mourning the loss of a major print journal in an internet column is not lost on me.) But it is a substantial loss to the world of entertainment and probably television as well. Entertainment Weekly was as wrong as it was right (I would often look at their summer blockbuster issues months after the fact and marvel how badly they miscalculated the success of some films) but they foresaw a lot of changes. Late in 2014, an opinion piece said that we were on the verge of the end of the Television Age of Television and considering how much of the Emmys are now dominated by streaming services; it’s hard to argue the point. Similarly we are nearing the end of serious discussion about television in formats we can genuine trust. EW may not have been the most reliable source on a lot, but compared to the level of discourse on social media of just about anything, they were practically the Washington Post and New York Times of entertainment. More so, I would argue, because both of those hollowed publications look at anything that comes from a comic book as barely suitable to use as toilet paper. It’s impossible to imagine either publication having a serious conversation as to how any of the post Phase Three projects in the MCU had any real value besides entertainment, as one of the last issues of EW had discussing the flaws with such projects as Wandavision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
The medium of television is still in fairly good shape as far as I see it as the second decade of the millennium begins. It is in flux, the sources for the best material keep changing, and there’s still too much of it to filter through. It is for that reason we needed publications like Entertainment Weekly to hold and to read. I will miss their opinions on the upcoming season of The Crown, their anticipation for the final installments of Better Call Saul and their endlessly fascinating Emmy predictions which I often disagreed with but couldn’t fault the logic of. What would they think of the controversies over Euphoria or Jeopardy? What was their opinion of the cancellation of The Sinner? Would they fight harder to save Queens or Ordinary Joe? I suppose I can look online to find out, but it’s never going to be the same. So I will just say a fond farewell to EW, a publication that for all its flaws, always hit the Bullseye.