My mother, perhaps like yours, used to get on my case about watching too much TV as a kid. Turn it off. Go outside. There was something deeply satisfying about telling her that I’d been picked as the new TV critic. All those childhood years in front of the idiot box could now be considered research — a lifetime of training, cleverly disguised as sloth.
But, like any “fun” job, I feel obligated to tell you it’s a lot harder than it looks. TV is relentless. When I started, there were fewer than 200 scripted shows on broadcast and cable that required my attention; now, including streaming series, that number is closer to 600. Don’t forget about reality TV (another 700-plus shows, by one recent count), documentaries, breaking news coverage and assorted specials. But who wants to hear a TV critic whine? Poor baby. How arduous can it be?
At social events, “I’m a TV critic” is hard to beat in the small-talk department, especially in Washington, where everyone else is a lawyer, or married to one. Except for intellectual ascetics, we all watch TV. When you’re the TV critic, everyone wants you to tell them what shows they should be watching. Couples, especially, are desperate to land on a new show that they’ll both like to watch, together. It can feel a lot like counseling.
Before heading into parties, I learned to come prepared with a list of current shows to mention. I also learned that what was on my list wasn’t nearly as fascinating as what was on theirs: What shows did they like, what shows could they not stop watching? I always wanted to know.
Early on, one woman insisted I list five shows that she and her (mute, it seemed) husband should be watching. “Well, ‘Breaking Bad’ is very good,” I started. (It was 2011 or so, and I was still begging people to at least try watching what turned out to be one of the best shows of our time.) I mentioned others, most likely the other shows I was liking at the time. “Homeland,” “The Office,” “The Good Wife.” The more I talked, the more their faces scrunched up in distaste.
“I guess we don’t watch a lot of TV,” she sighed, and they walked off.
I thought about yelling after them, “Then why’d you ask?”
But I understood why people always asked. TV, which once seemed a manageable part of the cultural diet, became all-consuming. Netflix released its first big streaming hit, “House of Cards,” in 2013, and the steady supply of TV programs that I once jokingly thought of as an open fire hydrant instead began to resemble a tsunami. The customs of TV were upended: where to watch it, how to watch it, how much of it to binge-watch at a time. Also, new manners: how to talk about it, how not to spoil it for others.
My own struggle was always how to write about it, in a way that might matter, with adjectives I hadn’t already used a hundred times before. I often felt I was only conveying part of the necessary info that could guide a reader along the watch/don’t-watch dichotomy (thumbs up or thumbs down? Rotten or ripe?), along with some grander thesis statement. What is this show really about, what does it say about us, where does it succeed, where does it fail?
The journalist Renata Adler, who spent an ill-fated year in her late 20s as the New York Times’s chief film critic, recalled in a later essay the stressful act of writing reviews on deadline, including “the peculiar experience it always is to write in one’s own name something that is never exactly what one would have wanted to say.”
Some of my readers took rapturous pleasure in TV's revolutionary revamp, as did I. The shows got bolder, more sharp, more violent, more sexy and more diverse. Viewers loved cutting that expensive cable cord (in metaphor only) and gaining control over what they would pay to watch.
Others, who were often a little older, called me to complain — what happened to good ol’ prime-time TV? After I gave “Transparent” a rousing review in 2014, one reader called to tell me that she couldn’t find “this channel, called ‘Amazon’ ” on her remote-control listings. You never heard such a defeated sigh as when I asked her if she had a WiFi connection. (“Ugh, never mind,” she said, and hung up.)
I had success with others; one such caller told me that her family bought her an iPad the previous Christmas, which she only used for some word games and email. Was it possible, she wondered, for the iPad to somehow connect her to Netflix, so she could watch Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin’s comedy, “Grace and Frankie”?
I swear to God, in about 10 minutes of my patient explaining and her adept listening, she was connected to a free trial of Netflix and had the first episode queued up. What a sweetheart she was. Even though I had given “Grace and Frankie” a middling review, she otherwise did everything I told her to do — a critic’s dream. I felt such a soaring sense of accomplishment after we hung up.
Sometimes I’m no help at all, particularly when I’ve been flat-out wrong about a show, and was adult enough to admit it. It happens to all critics, especially when we forget the essential ideal of our role, which is to ask: Is this show good at what it’s trying to be?
That’s a whole lot different from whether I personally like it. And that’s what the job is about: watching all kinds of shows you’d otherwise never watch and representing the limitless interests of your readers, who deserve to know the truth, even when they disagree with it.
Occasionally I had to write a follow-up review to make amends for my first pass — “Game of Thrones” being one glaring example, which I dismissed as total nerd fare in 2011, only to wind up sharing in the global obsession for it as seasons progressed. Truly, it was the show of our times; a grand fable about social upheaval, corrupt politics, climate change, devastating weaponry — the works.
I was also probably too dismissive of a certain kind of comedy that cloyingly straddles the spot between smart snark and softhearted sensitivity. People love these shows (“Parks and Recreation,” “Schitt’s Creek,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Superstore”) because they are funny in a way that is comforting, open and conspicuously safe. I always liked the crueller, darker humor, as seen on “Veep,” “Silicon Valley,” “Better Things.” It seemed more true, and less inclined to blow sunshine up the viewer’s rear. It’s also, I’ve noticed, on the outs.
I suspect that could be generational lapse, among other shifts in perception that begin to occur in midlife, which brings me to this point: TV is changing in ways beyond quantity and even technology. The points of view are changing — more youthful, more demanding, a different attitude.
Corporately, the medium knows no restraint: The other day Disney announced plans to make 10 new series based on Marvel comic books and another 10 based on Star Wars.
Ooof. What other sign does the universe need to send to get me to click the off button? Grogu, the baby Yoda of “The Mandalorian,” does nothing for me, nor does his recent encounter with a CGI Lukealike. (Whoops, that’s a SPOILER ALERT! A job hazard I won’t miss.)
But is “The Mandalorian” good at what it’s trying to be? Technically, yes. Critically? I’m out of words.
The prestige networks continue to put out shows that astonish me with their raw honesty, drama and characters. But there’s a lot of fan-service being dumped on us now, a lot of genre shows, a lot of bloated ideas, and quite a bit of “young adult”-themed material about miserable teenagers. I’ve seen enough.
That’s good news, however. A critic’s job isn’t meant to be a lifetime appointment. I always hoped I would recognize the moment when I’d said all I could possibly say about TV and instead longed to read someone else on it, someone new.
Everyone now asks: Will you still watch TV?
Of course. HGTV’s “Love It or List It” is a powerful temptress. (Quick review: The answer should always, always be love it.) My huge cable bill and multiple subscriptions will, of course, be getting some fresh scrutiny. I’ll read more books than I already do. When it becomes possible again, I’ll be happy to return to movies and live theater. There is also the unfortunate matter of the 50 pounds I gained while doing this job. My mother’s voice remains a constant echo: Turn it off. Go outside.
Will do. But before I sign off, I wanted to leave one last list for you, of shows I reviewed that I would totally watch again.
Enjoy, always. That was only ever the real point.
'Twin Peaks: The Return' (Showtime, 2017)
Is this epic event a movie or TV series? I no longer care, but so much of it still rattles and flashes across my mind that I must take another trip through it, give it further thought, appreciate it for the fine art that it is.
'The Americans' (FX, 2013-2018)
I begged you to watch it, and many of you did. Now I want another ride through the whole sordid saga, savoring its lead and supporting characters, the Cold War anxiety, the marital unease, the steely nerve of it. Probably my favorite of all the shows I’ve reviewed. (Something like 1,200 of them, but who’s counting?)
'Enlightened' (HBO, 2011-2013)
A few years before the full-on Laura Dernaissance, her portrayal of Amy Jellicoe in Mike White’s pitch-perfect dramedy delivered a fitting comment on both the American corporate nightmare and our dopey Goop culture. I almost regard it as a documentary.
'Transparent' (Amazon Prime, 2014-2019)
Derailed by its star’s misdeeds, Joey Soloway’s dramedy about a transitioning woman, her ex-wife and three adult children never stopped teaching me about gender, contemporary Judaism, family constructs and human nature. (Also, speaking of transparency one last time, a disclosure: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
'Lost' (ABC, 2004-2010)
This much-discussed drama was headed for its much-maligned ending by the time I took over the beat. Nevertheless, I want to go back to the island. I’ve forgotten more than I remember, and it’s time anyhow for some aughties nostalgia.
'Mad Men' (AMC, 2007-2015)
This mesmerizing but frustrating drama was also at full buzz when I came into the job — so vexing in its dourness, in what it said (and did not say) about ambition, desire and the American Dream. I would like to start over with Don Draper (and, really, Peggy Olson), this time without the pressure of having something to say.