Why I Became a TV Critic

As a kid, I wanted to be an anthropologist. Then I started watching ’90s sitcoms.


Photo illustration by Slate. TV by Jakkapan21/Thinkstock. Poster by UPN. Pattern by iStock/Thinkstock.

At the beginning of seventh grade, my history teacher walked into the classroom wearing a terry-cloth bathrobe and slippers. She poured us orange juice, sat at her desk with a cup of coffee, and asked us how we’d slept. Watching our history teacher behave like a sleepy mom was our introduction to the “status and role” portion of our curriculum, which was a yearlong survey in old-fashioned anthropology. At the end of the year, we gave oral presentations on Native American tribes, hitting on topics like “subsistence” and “settlement.” For the presentation I made wild rice, talked too fast, and decided I wanted to be an anthropologist.

If this seems like a slightly esoteric career goal for a 12-year-old, let me be clear: I was not an esoteric seventh-grader. I was into certainty. I really liked the mistaken but oh-so-satisfying impression the class gave me that you could solve for cultures like math problems: Maybe there was a system for making sense of why we do all the weird things we do, like putting trees in our houses in December or punching holes in our ears or watching stories about violent criminals right before we go to bed at night.

I’m jumping ahead with the last one. This line of inquiry didn’t occur to me for another decade. That’s when, at the tail end of college, I started writing arts reviews for my college newspaper, as opinionated, culture-obsessed know-it-alls are wont to do. Before then, TV had simply been for me, as it is, a pleasure, and often a guilty one. Almost every minute of television I watched growing up—a lot of minutes, though not as many minutes as I would have liked—was an occasion of extreme chagrin for my mother, who would see me glassy-eyed on the couch, channel-surfing through soap operas, and reliably mention my brain, its rotting, my limbs, their liquefying, the sun, its benefits. (Don’t worry: I lord it over her plenty.)

I grew up watching TV in the ’90s, and though there were good shows on then, questions of good and bad couldn’t have mattered less to me. I loved Buffy and ER, but I was also devoted to Saved by the Bell; Beverly Hills, 90210; Lois & Clark; Sliders; Family Matters; and dozens and dozens of other programs, including lots of daytime soap operas and shows so bad or so canceled I can’t remember them. (But I remember you Models Inc., Class of ’96, and Jack & Jill! Sometimes I check to see if clips of you have made it to YouTube. They never have.) Even the shows I watched that are now widely considered canon were airing in a completely different cultural context. TV, no matter how inventive, moving, funny, allegorical, or full of George Clooney or Dennis Franz’s naked tush, was always lowbrow.

And this, TV’s lowbrow essence, was what was so intellectually appealing about the format to wannabe-anthropologist me. Americans spend so much time watching television. Why do we do that? This question is far more interesting when we’re watching junk. When we’re watching the good stuff (to say nothing of art) the reason we’re doing so seems self-explanatory.

So there I was, at 22, fired up to embark on a career as a champion of trash, a miner of meaning in genre full of garbage, egged on, whether I knew it then or not, by the great and brow-agnostic criticism happening at Television Without Pity. Lucky for my job prospects (though not my gasbaggy party spiel about how TV criticism needs its own Pauline Kael), television had its own agenda. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Buffy were all airing as I finished up college. Here I was ready to make sense of the muck, just as TV was getting out of it. There will always and forever be bad television shows, but suddenly there was reliably ambitious and excellent television, and that was the new phenomenon that needed investigating.

These shows led to a huge boom in engaged watching, which led to a huge boom in television writing. A boom that is responsible for the fact that this here piece of writing is about how I became a TV critic, instead of a piece about how I wanted to be a TV critic for a couple months right after college or a piece about how I wanted to be a TV critic but then I watched only terrible TV for a few years and came to hate television. In other words: My timing was good. I left college convinced that TV was where the action was. And TV, even more than I knew, was where the action was.