In Defense of Episodic TV Reviews
There has been an ongoing debate over the last few years over the value of episodic TV recaps and reviews. There are those who argue they’re essentially pointless and shouldn’t be written, and others who defend them wholeheartedly. More than just critical navel-gazing, the conversation highlights great evolution in both the television medium and the appreciation of it as art. If we’re to take TV seriously, then how we approach it critically is important.
The argument against episodic recaps is fairly plain. First of all, the word “recap” is inherently problematic. “Review” is better, but the truth is, many reviews online aren’t much more than a recap of all the events in a given episode, with only marginal commentary or analysis. The culture of recapping TV plots is something I’ve never fully understood in the age of DVRs and Netflix, but I suppose some people find value in it. Still, it’s hardly a form of criticism, and ultimately tangential to the conversation.
Looking at more serious episodic reviews, though, things get muddier. Even if we assume that a given review is well written and insightful, what is the value in looking so closely and critically at a single episode of an ongoing series? It’s a valid question, and applicable equally to highly serialized shows and pure case-of-the-week shows. Single episodes may be good or bad, or illuminate specific themes, or what have you, but a series is often more appropriately considered in aggregate. By looking at a series in its entirety, or at least in larger chunks like seasons, running themes begin to coalesce and patterns emerge in ways usually obscured by the closer lens of the single-episode reviews.
Expanding from that is the argument that other works of art are judged in their totality, or at the very least in the context of their totality. Film reviews aren’t written in scene-by-scene segments, and TV criticism should follow the same edict. The problem with this line of argument is that it ignores the unique qualities of TV’s specific varieties of episodic structure. Though the recent trend has been to liken serialized television to novels, with individual chapters that make up the whole, it’s also a faulty comparison. Chapters in a book generally serve the purpose of separating events into manageable, mildly structured chunks. With few exceptions (The Wire for the most part being one), TV episodes are far more structured, almost like short stories that can then be collected into a larger whole.
Seeing TV episodes as short stories rather than chapters is where the value of episodic reviews emerges. Of course, not every episode will be particularly worthy of reflection, but then against most things aren’t. If that method of discernment was applied to movies, for example, then all the reviews of the latest Adam Sandler joint or mediocre Marvel movie are pointless, too.
If we look, for example, at a great serialized show like Mad Men, we can see each episode lovingly crafted, working through related ideas in each subplot and forming an isolated whole. The best episodic reviews of the series work to unpack these short stories, reflecting on them as individually constructed wholes and discovering in them the emerging themes of the larger series.
Binge watching has complicated this fact a little. It’s so easy to plow through a whole season of a show like Mad Men, causing the episodes to blur together into something resembling a 12-hour film. Of course, there’s value in this, too. Being able to step back and view the collected work of a season or series as one cohesive body can elucidate the qualities and themes and even plots that are more difficult to discern when you’re in the weeds of week-to-week viewing. But if you take the time to appreciate each episode of a series individually, you’re just as likely to find unifying themes explored within the contained stories.
The thing episodic reviews could probably do with less of is speculation. It’s only natural to anticipate what will happen in future episodes of a series, but it’s also not entirely helpful. If criticism is a reflective, analytical tool, then it stands to reason episodic reviews should focus primarily on the episode at hand, as well as the emergent themes of the series to that point. That’s a minor quibble, and one that need not detract from the value in examining the way an episode works without the context of later episodes. Going back and viewing an episode can be amazing, as I’ve been finding with in my re-watch of Mad Men. Once again, the same is true of a film, where re-watches of a great film can illuminate things that weren’t so clear the first time through. But just as most good film reviews take seriously the first impression, so do good episodic TV reviews.
What it all comes down to is the preferred perspective. In the end, both are valid. Taking in a series as a whole, or examining each episode of an on-going series individually each offer a valuable way of viewing a series. They can also work in tandem, with the episodic reviews acting as close reading in the moment, and a season or series review building off those to evaluate the way they work together cumulatively. The beauty of all this is that television in the so-called “new Golden Age” is so conducive to the conversation. With great art comes great criticism of all kinds, and to say that only one kind of criticism is of value is far too limiting.