In Defense of Episodic TV Reviews
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In Defense of Episodic TV Reviews

By Corey Atad | Think Pieces | July 30, 2014 | Comments ()

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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.

You can follow Corey Atad on Twitter, or listen to his Mad Men podcast, Not Great, Pod!

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • e jerry powell
  • wonkeythemonkey

    I feel like this whole "debate" is just an example of critics overthinking their place in the world. What is the purpose of written criticism of popular entertainment, anyway? The two biggest reasons I can think of are:

    1) To help readers decide whether or not to spend any of their finite time on a particular bit of entertainment, and
    2) To provide insightful commentary about something the reader has already seen or otherwise experienced.

    Episodic TV reviews don't exist to satisfy #1. Television is free, and the episode has already aired by the time the review is published. If someone isn't already watching a series, a glowing review of episode 25 is unlikely to get them to watch that specific episode next time it comes around in reruns.

    That leaves #2. I don't see how you can question the value of episodic reviews without questioning the whole idea of reviews as commentary.

    What's the purpose of this navel-gazing? Either your reviews contribute something meaningful to your readers' lives or they don't. Exactly what you are reviewing, and in what context you review it, are irrelevant.

  • I disagree with the argument that most quality, hour-long multi-season TV shows with character arcs and plot arcs are written and designed so that each individual episode works as a "short story." Some episodes clearly do work this way, and some series are set up so that most episodes work this way, and in those cases I love analyzing and discussing the episodes as such, just as I do with short stories and novellas. For example, if you look at some middle of the season episodes of Mad Men, the episodes on re-watch have echoes of season-long themes and characters take steps towards external and internal development, but they aren't fully realized until the end of the season, or maybe even the season premiere of the following season.

    It really depends upon the series, the season, and the episode. But, because we have developed this need for instant analysis and criticism, a new show e.g. 'Manhattan' is going to be subjected to episodic reviews just like 'Mad Men,' because this system and style has emerged. Some shows deserve recaps and casual discussion for each episode, and others deserve more in-depth analysis of individual episodes, and I take issue with a reviewer telling me what a color palate means in a 'Law and Order: SVU' episode. When I see over-analysis or misplaced criticism it turns me off to the author and website (not Pajiba, of course).

    You even made this point yourself when you said, "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."

    I really value the concept you seem to fall on as an overall preferred model: "...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."

  • lowercase_ryan

    is it a need for analysis and criticism or do we just like to talk about it?

  • In a majority of 'The Leftovers' recaps, reviews, and criticisms I've read, one negative critique that reoccurs is, "I understand the characters are searching for meaning and the show is about how people try and find meaning/purpose in life's unexplainable events, but does the show itself have meaning/significance?"

    And then from there, the writer tries to delve deeper into this question.

    That, to me, is representative of the recap/review culture - an exploration for the themes and deeper meaning behind episodes, seasons, and series. I know shows like 'Lost' and 'The Wire' and 'The Sopranos' started this, and they were all well-deserving of in-depth analysis.

    Unlike other websites, the writers on Pajiba interact with readers in the comments, so that really is more of a conversation and reflects what you pointed out, that we as a culture enjoy television conversation.

    But, on most other websites, there's not much valuable and enjoyable conversation. There's a writer musing and philosophizing (often about nonsense or surface-level meanings) just because they want to sound like the smartest kid in the room.

    Anyway, that certainly isn't true of all websites or writers, but that was the television criticism that I was saying really isn't necessary or helpful for each individual episode of a series.

    I'm all in favor of more discussion forums for fun and intelligent discussions and conversations between critics and fans!

  • lowercase_ryan

    I get what you're saying, good point(s).

  • lowercase_ryan

    Let's be honest, on most sites the reviews and recaps serve as a vehicle for members of the online community to discuss the episode. Yes we read the reviews, and we often get something out of them, but by and large I think we all flock to these in order to express our opinions on a show we care about. It's about participation and relating to each other and I think they are essential for websites like this.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    Spot-on comment. In the absence of a "watercooler moment" with my friends and colleagues who don't watch the same shows I do, I get to discuss them with most people around here. So yeah, I value TV criticism for the 'communal aspect' it brings to the comments section.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't get the hullabaloo. To me, tv review posts are like book club. Hey, we all read the last 4 chapters, here's what it seemed like to me. What do you think? Discuss.

    I also do think movies are broken down, and specific scenes have certainly gotten deep-dive focus (the NY Times has an "anatomy of a scene" series analyzing movie scenes with directors). They just aren't broken down while you watch. (unless your really annoying film-major boyfriend presses pause to explain things to you)

    There are some well-written criticisms/analysis out there, and I think that's great. I'm surprised anyone feels the actual writing/posting of them needs to be debated. They generate page views and discussion. Some discussion is more worthwhile than other. But can't you just shrug off the people who don't find it valuable?

  • The problem is, some TV and the subsequent reviews rise above this, and then when all other TV and reviews try to emulate this and rise to the same level, the show and reviewer fail, because the model of "casual book club discussion" should be applied, like a casual AV Club review, but far too many reviewers try to Jeff Jensen/Todd Vanderwerff it, but it doesn't fit the quality of the TV show or the episode.

  • lowercase_ryan

    The book club analogy is spot on.

  • amberdragonfly

    The annoying thing for me is the people who don't find it valuable can't seem to just skip over that click. They have to get on the comment section and tell everyone what idiots they are. It's silly. I already know I'm a dumbass. I don't need to hear it from some stranger on the net who doesn't understand my complete and all encompassing obsession with Captain Tightpants.

  • lowercase_ryan

    agreed. Although I will be the first person to climb all over everyone in the comments for a chance to tell everyone what an idiot a character in a show is. Not the commenters though. Except Jezzer.

  • emmalita

    Jeezer knows where you live. Just saying.

  • lowercase_ryan

    he has way too many pets to be taking off on road trip killing sprees.

  • emmalita

    He'd bring his murder cat with him. He'd probably let her drive.

  • amberdragonfly

    I think I love you

  • lowercase_ryan

    lookout, SOA reference

  • lowercase_ryan

    Although I DO NOT have CMD!!!

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