Jim, Willa, and June,
I’ll get to June’s question about how the gig has changed after this public service message for everything British, sincere, and PBS-y: Leave Last Tango in Halifax alone! Admittedly, I haven’t seen it. But as a fan of U.K. imports from way back, I feel compelled to defend anything that involves tea and British people wearing sensible sweaters. And that is my stealth way of advertising my affection for Call the Midwife, quite possibly the least heralded show of the recent wave of Interesting Shows From Elsewhere. It’s about women delivering babies in a poor neighborhood, and it’s so much sweeter and less dark than that description makes it sounds. There is a real streak of kindness in so many of the shows we’ve been discussing (well, not The Following); Call the Midwife isn’t perfect but it’s extraordinarily sincere and positively glows with good intentions. I will fight June over which U.K. actress in an underrated import is more delightful, Sarah Lancaster or Miranda Hart. You are all the witnesses to the challenge I’m issuing to June: Cardigans at dawn, madam!
To answer your question about how the job has changed: tremendously, but I’ve mostly given up weekly reviews because there’s just a ridiculous amount of TV to cover. (I did write them for Breaking Bad and I’ll continue to do them for Mad Men.) My general rule for everything else is: I’m not going say anything unless I have something to say. It took me a while to learn that, but I find that the reviews or essays that I can’t stop myself from writing at 2 a.m. because ideas are buzzing around my head like overcaffeinated wasps are the posts people respond to most strongly. It’s not a given that I’ll review any particular show, at its premiere, during its run, or when it’s over. Sure, there are shows I’m extremely likely to review, but nothing is written in stone.
I know all of us approach our job differently, so if others don’t agree with the following, I understand, but I like the idea of serving as a tiny quality-control valve within the vast machinery of the media. I think part of my job is to serve as a time-saver for readers; I assume they’re as busy as me. Critical mass can be a sieve, if you will—catching the good stuff and letting the bad stuff go. As for what I’ll watch on an ongoing basis, it really depends, but the bar has been raised there. Let’s say a show is putting out a solid, dependably decent string of episodes that you’d give a “B” grade to. It might get one review, but unless that show speaks to me in some major way or does something notable, I’m probably going to move on.
That said, I totally take Willa’s point that there are shows that you know are flawed—sometimes deeply flawed—but they just hit some pleasure spot in your brain, so you stick with them. I mean, if we can’t have some fun in this job, why bother? I watch things like the animated Regular Show with my son. But’s so surreal and goofy—it features a talking gumball machine that turns red when it’s angry—that I just don’t care that it features a deus ex machina almost every week.
How do we pick what to write about? For me, it often comes down to whether a show is doing something new, aesthetically or thematically, or experimenting in fruitful ways with characters or storytelling. If not, is its riff on those things somehow fresh, distinctive or compelling? Is it following a very old format but doing something thoughtful, weird, beautiful or disturbing with it? Does this show have a reason to live? Does it move me, even a little? Or was it thought up by a room full of robots in order to please a focus group? If there’s even a drop of sincerity, originality or creativity in a show, I’ll give it a chance. The kind of bland, rote, we-have-to-put-something-on-the-air TV that we often get or the “prestige” shows that fail to raise my pulse—those shows just aren’t worth the time it takes to dismiss them (well, maybe they get one tweet).
That brings me to Hannibal, which does fulfill some of the criteria above for me. I completely understand why it’s hard to watch. There’s an element of earnest effort to Hannibal, and that buys the show a lot of credit with me. Hannibal is trying to understand and depict the roots and causes of violence. It’s trying—and I think succeeding—in showing the effects of violence on Will Graham and others. Behind all the baroque gore—which certainly disturbs me at times, as I think it is meant to—the impulse is infused with sincerity. Like American Horror Story at its best, Hannibal wants to understand human nature and the impulses and desires that make some people act in ways that are less than human—or superhuman.
So whatever you want to say about Hannibal—and I find its intensity (especially its overdone sound design) intolerable at times, too—I think you have to admit that it’s about something. There are some ideas there. The only idea behind The Following, on the other hand, is to get a number. There’s no sincerity and the only effort involves juicing a mishmash of tired and exploitative serial-killer tropes in order to stay on the air. It’s crass and dumb and there is no there there. As Max from the dearly departed Happy Endings would say, “Pass. Hard pass.”
So intent and execution matter, but so do so many other factors. And even when the intent and execution and aesthetics are at the highest levels … If we’re going to talk about the things that disturbed us most this year, the Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias” contained the most dislocating, nausea-inducing scenes of the year. The phone call, Walt looming over his terrorized family like a vengeful demon, Skyler’s distress—all of those things represented the culmination of a show at the very top of its game.
Yet I would pay good American money not to have to see that again. That’s a lie. I will watch that scene again someday, probably. But not for a long, long time.