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Point-Counterpoint: Why TV Criticism is Easy

In this scenario, I'm Abed, Qualler is Troy, and television is the
Jeff that gets bored with our conflict and helps us see the errors of our ways.

Welcome to our pretty new look, everyone! In case you haven't heard, we here at The Blogulator are now a TV-talk only blog. Since it's been the focal point of our Blogulator Radio netcast for the past year and for purposes of re-branding/finding an ever-so-slightly more specific niche than just "pop culture," we have decided to succumb to the inevitable. We hope you like it. We're excited.

And to start off, I would like to invite Qualler, my close friend and confidant, as well as the dude that originally started this site with me way back in 2005 (!), to discuss an entry point question that I've been pondering ever since reading not-100%-praising responses to the second episode of this current fifth season of Mad Men, "Tea Leaves." (Betty as unsympathetic/superfluous, contrived interactions between the older and newer generations, etc.) The question in, err, question is this: why is it so easy to nitpick even the greatest of television shows, of which Don Draper and co. have firmly planted themselves in the pantheon?

I pose this to you, Qualler, in particular because ever since AMC finally announced more than a year later when Mad Men would return to our Sunday evenings, you had a faint grumbling about yourself, as if you were either not looking as forward to going back to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as I was, or that you were, but viewed it as a chore of some kind. In our emails discussing this first blog post under the new TV-only format, you explained that it was a reaction merely juxtaposed next to "shiny" (your word) newer shows like Game of Thrones, etc. I think this is completely reasonable, though I do not find myself in that category of thinking for whatever reason, but is it also possible that we've just spent so much time with the Mad Men universe, and with TV criticism at large, that we've become a lot more adept at critically analyzing it, even while we still find ourselves dedicated to it?

Here's my thesis: TV has not only risen in the ranks of media that can be classified as art over the past decade-and-a-half or so, but it is also the only form of long-term nerdery that demands both allegiance and healthy skepticism. We have invested over five years of our lives to fictional characters that work at or are somehow connected to those that work at a fictional New York advertising firm. At this point we deserve to a) know how their stories end and b) reserve the right to criticize how their stories are being told to us. This seems reasonable and yet, what's the kicker? All we had to do was sit our couches for 50+ non-consecutive hours to earn these things. So, simply put, it's an easy relationship - for us, anyway.

Look at this form of passion/dispassion in other areas. View movies from an authorial standpoint and you can maybe make an argument for following directors or screenwriters, but ultimately the slate is still wiped clean each time, just like when a showrunner starts up a new project. What about franchises? The authorial consistency is rarely there and when it is it's almost never on a factory schedule like television is, and 6-9 hours over a period of 3-20 years doesn't equate to nearly as much verisimilitude. Music is a slightly more worthy comparison, as following musicians (especially prolific ones, and they seem to be getting faster and faster at turning records around nowadays with technological and DIY advances) can often trigger reactions similar to yours about Mad Men, i.e. I, for instance, really have little to no desire to listen to the new Cursive record, despite The Ugly Organ being one of my totes faves of all time. Still, though, I was a very different person in 2002 than I am in 2012 and Tim Kasher is writing very different music and is in a very different place in his personal life than he was back then.

This brings me to my final point and ultimately the reason I think we have rather naturally found ourselves here today as a TV blog and weekly netcast: television is all about community. Music is intensely personal because lyrics and melodies are profoundly borne directly from the musician's psyche. Movies are intensely historical (when they're not just entertainment) from an aesthetic standpoint and when they err more on the side of entertainment, they can become quote-heavy fodder for midnight screening crowds. What I love about television is that it's so delightfully easy to both find that communal atmosphere that the cheesiest B-movie can attain, but with the intellectual prowess of an art film or the fiery energy of a post-punk record. And all we have to do is sit on our couches and make quips! How sweet is that?

Qualler enters the blog post.

Huh. Well, dammit, Chris, here I was ready to sharpen my wits and dig my heels and give a true counterpoint. Here I was ready to become the mayor of Pillowstown to your mayor of Blanketsburg, fighting your established thesis to the bitter end like Troy and Abed did in the latest episode of Community. But, as it turns out, I largely agree with your thesis.

That is not to say that I don't think there are differences in how I see how your thesis is applied to real-life TV criticism. For one, I don't necessarily agree television has seemingly risen to a form of art over the last decade-and-a-half -- doing so seems reductive to the shows that broke the ground for the current pantheon of what we deem great. For every episode of Community that is immediately upon airing deemed groundbreaking and revelatory, there are 200+ episodes of Cheers that mastered the general premise of throwing people into a setting and letting them hang out with each other. Shows that are correctly lauded for their superb writing and excellent acting like Mad Men were preceded by shows like NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues, even going back to The Twilight Zone as standard-bearers. If anything, the advent of TV on DVD and the rise of internet communities has merely highlighted the fact that television has been an art form all along.

Of course, the way stories are able to be told has expanded, what with the much-more-fragmented delivery models of television. Of course, after The Sopranos took off, other cable networks took license to develop their own slates of original, highly serialized programming. And as we all know, serialization of televisoin certainly opens up possibilities for amazing storytelling, but for every Lost, there are five FlashForwards or, to a lesser extent, The Killings. That is, good writing / acting / backstage business trumps the methodology of how a show is delivered, which is a formula that hasn't changed in decades of television history.

But, I think what you are seeing in your shock and amusement to the reaction of Mad Men's "Tea Leaves" is the instant reaction that occurs as the show is airing. Twitter makes it a lot easier for chumbalones like me to see Betty's first scene of the new season, see that she's gained weight, reach into my quick-access part of my brain that I know about "shark-jumping" moments on past television shows, and add to the level of snark that has already built on the Internet in that moment in time. I would differentiate that reaction to actual negative critical reaction to the show. If anything, it is more like we are all being told a story in real-time, one of which none of us know what will happen.

Tied into that is my personal excitement level for a new season of Mad Men. Think about the things that have happened between the fourth season finale and the fifth season premiere: I watched the entire series of Friday Night Lights, watched two seasons of Breaking Bad, caught up with the highly plot-twisty-and-pulpily-entertaining The Vampire Diaries, and read the entire first and second books of the Game of Thrones series and finished one season and started a second. Four seasons of excellent television like Mad Men certainly is not going to turn me away from these final three seasons of Mad Men. But on the other hand, I feel a little fatigue when we just started the fifth of the proposed seven seasons of the show after the show was away for eighteen months. Add in that by the fifth season, some plot beats of the show feel very played out (Harry accidentally saying something sexist in Megan's company comes to mind as a plot point that made me openly bored with the season premiere) and it's inevitable that my level of excitement at this point in time is not at an all-time high for the show.

But, I completely agree with you that community building through television is the easiest form of pop culture consumption today. When we started this blog in 2005 (way to make me feel old, Chris), we both were interested in analyzing and discussing pop culture as it came to us. Television is now an obvious starting point for our pop culture conversations. And, television has the added benefit that anybody can watch the same things that those who are paid to do it and add their voices to the fray. Unlike sports blogging, television discourse doesn't necessarily require media access to form a (look what I'm doing here) valid opinion. And, let's face it, there is a great television community that exists in our society today.

So, with that said, let's quip away as a community. Because, heck, all of our opinions are valid about TV.

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