The King of Review-Caps

Critic Alan Sepinwall was nice enough to leave a comment on an earlier post clarifying something I wrote about him (I updated the post to include the clarification), and this before I had a chance to link to this great Josh Levin article in Slate on how Sepinwall changed TV criticism. Sepinwall was one of a few people who realized that the internet was tailor-made for TV criticism. A movie is a one-time thing, so there’s no particular advantage in reviewing it online; same with an album or a book or a play. But with a continuing television series, the internet can be a platform to review every episode. No newspaper or magazine can review every episode of a show; the closest any magazine comes is Soap Opera Weekly, and even that doesn’t do much more than fill you in on what happened. The modern online episodic review does tell you what happened — though often not much more than, say, a long book review, which will usually summarize the argument of the book before criticizing it — but also critiques the episode and, perhaps most importantly, provides an opportunity for critic and reader alike to speculate on where the show might be headed.

For a long time, the dominant style of episodic review online was the snarky recap as pioneered by Dawson’s Wrap/Mighty Big TV/Television Without Pity. These were pieces that, even if written by fans of the show, could give the opposite impression because they so relentlessly pointed out logic gaps, infantile behaviour by the heroes, and bad fashion choices. My own favourite is the Buffy recap site “Boils and Blinding Torment,” whose stream-of-consciousness style allows you to experience the disappointment of season 7 step by step. At its best, this style was a lot of fun and it wasn’t even, really, about hating the show, though you might get that impression. But it was a way of keeping TV at arm’s length a bit. Almost any TV show has its share of absurd moments if you’re willing to look for them, so the snark style was a way of saying it’s only TV; let’s not treat it with too much reverence.

There’s a place for that kind of thing, and it can be surprisingly fun to step back for a moment and realize how crazy something might seem to someone who isn’t caught up in the show. It also had the slight advantage of focusing attention on discussion of that particular episode, instead of the “what is the plan for the season and the series” type of discussion that eventually bogged down the online commentary — critical and fan alike — about Lost. But eventually it became wearying, and the TWoP style became boring to readers who wanted to pay attention to the stuff that mattered — plot, theme, character — rather than the nitpicky stuff like clothes and hair and whether we’d like these people if we met them in real life.

Anyway, the current style, pioneered by Sepinwall, is for the critic/reviewer/recapper to be covering a show he or she likes, or at least wants to like. More importantly it’s a show he or she takes seriously (even if it’s a comedy) and doesn’t want to mock. Occasionally a mockable show will turn up and a bit of that old TWoP style will resurface; “The Cape” gets a lot of reviews because it’s about something important like superheroes rather than something totally unbelievable like police work. But even “The Cape” gets its due when it turns out an episode that sort of makes sense. A like Fringe, which like much good science-fiction is very ambitious and powerful if you buy into it and totally ridiculous if you don’t, mostly gets reviewed by people who buy into it. The assumption now is that commenters, who are almost as important to this form as the reviewers themselves, are looking for discussion of what the show is trying to do, rather than MST3K-ing it. And so the tone of online episodic criticism, led by Sepinwall, has shifted from keeping shows at a distance to getting very closely involved in them, from refusing to take them seriously to believing in them completely (even when an episode is disappointing, the fans don’t just stop taking the show seriously and start mocking it — not at first anyway). It may lead to some re-evaluation when the show is over and the fans look back at the whole thing — if they look back — but it’s a much more emotionally involving experience than the snarkblogging approach.

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