The episodic review isn’t dead, and certainly isn’t exactly dying, but it’s also doing us all a disservice.
I was thinking about this when trying to formulate some thoughts about this season of Twin Peaks, and I was stymied as how to approach writing them down. None of the “normal” ways seemed appropriate, and I fell into something of a despair. What’s unfolding defies explanation, to some extent, to be sure. But the ways in which we are used to writing about and discussing television in the post-Television Without Pity era also harms us more than helps us in this case.
To be sure, I’m not anti-TWOP, nor am I anti-episodic reviews. I basically made what little name I have for myself doing exactly those, and a metric ton of those to boot, for various outlets. They aren’t inherently evil, and often serve a great purpose. But they are inherently selective, in as much as the most commonly-applied versions of them are close readings of texts that invite such scrutiny. It’s not that the shows that inspire the best episodic reviews are bad. Indeed, they are often of high quality. (I know: Bold statement!) Rather, it’s that the tight association between episodic reviews and the types of narratives that lend themselves best to those reviews have unfairly skewered the moniker of “quality” to a certain type of storytelling, rather than to the nebulous idea of “quality” itself.
Let’s take a step back.
Applying this to Twin Peaks, we have a situation in which a 1,500-word close reading would be as applicable as a “Teach Me How To Dougie” .GIF. There’s really not one I’d favor over the other in terms of truly getting to the meaning of an episode of this season. But that’s not a failure of Twin Peaks, but rather a failure in creativity when it comes to reacting to the show. Whether or not Twin Peaks this year is actually good or not isn’t something I’m particularly interested in exploring here. (For the record, I think it’s a frustrating but fascinating season, one that’s engaged me more than bored me, and I couldn’t tell you a goddamn thing that’s really happened to this point.) It’s less about whether or not Twin Peaks itself is good, but the ways in which we’re talking about it that have value to me.
Why? Because Peak TV should inherently inspire Peak Review, which isn’t about an increased proliferation of the same type of criticism but rather an increasingly varied way in which we respond to them. (In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t mean podcasts. Those are even more monolithic in their approaches than written criticism, and I’m saying that as someone who’s hosted a half-dozen podcasts over the years) Reading 300 reviews of Game Of Thrones wouldn’t be a problem if they were three hundred different ways of approaching criticism of an episode of Game Of Thrones. It’s weird that we expect creativity onscreen and don’t expect it online.
More specifically, we need to decentralize the primacy of the close reading as the gold standard that towers above the rest. Well-written fanfic that addresses themes through the imagination of the other is every bit as important as someone invoking James Joyce’s Ulysses. Fifty words can work as well as fifteen hundred. Haiku that crap, y’all! A comic strip is a valid response. A musical composition? Go for it. (Ryan Adams didn’t write a review of Taylor Swift’s 1989, he reinterpreted and rerecorded the damn album!) Hell, even interpretive dance could work. Each one of those examples would probably get to the heart of an episode of Twin Peaks more than trying to make sense of a tree with a brain that can control electricity via fifteen paragraphs.
The best reviews I’ve ever read feel like they are somehow connected with the mood of a show in a way that’s difficult to conceive but easy to identify. To date, the most creative reviews of any show I’ve ever read were the Tom + Lorenzo “Mad Style” reviews for Mad Men. They were as close to must reads as I can remember, specifically because their approach (using fashion to identity theme) was so fresh. Plenty of writers have used fashion as an entry point into analyzing pop culture, but I didn’t know a single other writer who chose to apply it to Mad Men. Luckily, they were damn good at what they did, but even if they weren’t, the idea of their approach was as potent at the AMC show itself.
It’s obviously easier said than done to create the Twin Peaks version of “Mad Style.” (Maybe a lumberjack will carve logs while talking backwards on YouTube?) But Tom + Lorenzo met the show halfway, creating a symbiosis that suggested a deep connection between show and authors. That type of connection is not only easy to identify but downright contagious to consume. I will read a lot about subject matters I know nothing about if I can tell the author is engaged with that topic, and trust me, I know JACK SQUAT about fashion. But I read every word because it was fresh, exciting, and gave me something else to read besides, “Don Draper flashbacks are the worst.”
I tried something like this with my review of Review a few months back, a stealth spoiler posing as criticism hiding as a creative essay. Breaking the mold is extremely difficult, primarily because you can’t fake the enthusiasm it takes to craft something like that on a weekly basis. I crave the sweet, sweet SEO that comes with a review of The Walking Dead, but I couldn’t sustain a weekly review from the perspective of Carl’s cowboy hat. But I do think everyone who loves writing about TV has one or two shows that pique their interest to extra levels, and that’s when magic can occur.
It doesn’t have to be about reinventing the wheel: I found myself writing my Spartacus reviews in the cadences and language of the show itself, because it reflected how the show got into my mind on an almost molecular level. When I covered season two of Scandal, I got so overwhelmed by the show’s operatic nature that my prose turned purple despite itself. I broke up 5,000-word reviews of Lost by framing them around The Numbers. I did these things partly out of inspiration, but mostly out of the fact that doing the same type of review for every show bored me to tears, and I’m sure that translated to those reading it as well.
I don’t have a smart way to tackle Twin Peaks. I don’t think I’m remotely the poster child or champion for the types of writing I’m describing here. But I do feel confident saying that the frustration people have with Twin Peaks has as much to do with the way TV critics have framed the discussions around this show as the show itself. We just have very little experience dealing with something like Twin Peaks: Dig Dougie, and so we fall back on what usually works. Honestly, if we just posted audio of ourselves talking in our sleep while experiencing vivid nightmares, we’d be honoring the show more than trying to figure out what Bob’s master plan is.
Trying to fit every show into a single, familiar review format obviously doesn’t just affect Twin Peaks. It affects children’s programs, reality TV, procedurals, and a host of other genres as well. Just because it’s tough to write an episodic review of Law & Order doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. It means that Law & Order doesn’t fit the reactionary model that helped define what quality TV is. None of this is to say that every show is amazing and deserves a participation trophy, either! It just means that our lack of variety in writing about TV has inherently limited how we celebrate it. And that’s a bummer.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Twin Peaks as the season winds down. In the meantime, I’m off to choreograph the first third of my interpretive dance.