Every so often, I’ve decided to drop in a Q&A with a reporter of my choosing to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work I really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Alan Sepinwall. He’s the television critic at HitFix and the best in the business. He also has written two books (The Revolution Was Televised and TV (The Book)). We talked about the art of the TV show review, how his job has changed over the years, the value of objectivity, and his Knicks fandom.
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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.
1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?
I had always wanted to be a movie critic, going back to all those Sunday nights spent watching Siskel & Ebert on TV. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania and began writing for the Daily Pennsylvanian’s weekly arts magazine 34th Street. At the same time, I was part of the first Penn class of non-engineers to be given an email account and easy internet access, which I took advantage of to begin writing about my favorite show at the time, NYPD Blue, on Usenet, and then for my own (now very tacky-looking) website. The combination of my 34th Street clips and printouts of some of my online pieces (which were pretty novel for 1996) helped get me a summer internship in The Star-Ledger features department, and when the paper’s veteran TV critic couldn’t go to the Television Critics Association press tour that summer, my editor, Susan Olds, decided to take a gamble and send me. A month after graduating college, I was basically a full-time TV critic, and have been doing it ever since, first at the Ledger, now at HitFix. I’m very lucky. Right place, right time.
2. Your weekly recaps of shows are, for myself included, must-reads after watching a show like Mad Men or Silicon Valley. Slate called you the “king of the form.” What’s the art to writing something like that?
It varies depending on the show. With some shows, it’s much more of a thumbs-up/thumbs-down paradigm, where I look at whether an episode worked, or didn’t, and why. With a Mad Men or a Wire, the greatness of the series, and of most episodes, is virtually a given, so what you’re looking for there is to find deeper meaning, whether it’s the symbolism on Mad Men or the connections between all the characters on The Wire.
3. As a television critic do you see your job and your criticism as being self-contained to the shows that you watch and write about, or do you also try to look at them through a more cultural prism and as social commentary too?
Other critics like James Poniewozik and Alyssa Rosenberg do the latter, and do a great job at it. That’s not really how I’m wired, though, and while sometimes the social point of things is impossible to ignore (earlier today, I wrote about an episode of UnREAL that used a Black Lives Matter plot for cheap shock value), my main focus is on the show as a show.
4. Do you think television has kept up with the changing demographics and social beliefs of its viewers or do you think it’s moved more slowly? Why do you think that is?
That answer probably depends on one’s own political beliefs. If you just look at the wave of shows featuring trans characters, for instance, you’re going to find some people who wish TV would stop talking about the subject, and others who feel like those handful of shows (notably Transparent and Orange Is the New Black) aren’t nearly enough.
Demographically, TV is getting better, but it’s still not great. What’s been heartening to see is the success of ABC’s diverse family sitcoms, which are a reminder that if you filter the same old sitcom stories through the kinds of perspectives that have rarely been shown on sitcoms, the stories feel brand new again.
There’s just so much more of everything: things to write, things to watch, platforms on which to discuss and promote things. If I were to go back and tell my 22-year-old self how much more work there would be to do, he’d probably be terrified. Well, no, that’s not true. He’d be 22, and thus young and cocky and stupid, and eager for the challenge.
6. Netflix seems to have the most out-sized effect on television. We can now consume TV shows like candy and just binge-watch them. I think it’s kind of turned their shows into almost movies because of how the shows are constructed and meant to be watched consecutively. Do you think that’s made TV better and is it eradicating the self-contained TV episodes and turning every show into a point on a story arc?
I think the Netflix effect on storytelling hasn’t been great, overall. There are some great Netflix (and Amazon and Hulu) series, but most of those tend to be the ones with a stronger command of how to construct individual episodes, or else are simply shorter. (“Stranger Things” was basically an eight-hour movie, and worked at that length; the 13-hour version would have been unbearable.) The episode has value as a unit of measurement, and unless you’re working at the level of a David Simon on The Wire, you probably don’t want to get too cocky about simply filling 13 hours worth of stuff and hoping the audience is thrilled with it all.
7. How much time and interaction do you get with your sources — whether it’s actors, show runners, network executives, others? If you’re covering a sport, you’re in the locker room or clubhouse almost daily for months at a time. But you don’t have that luxury/burden so how much access do you get and how does that affect your writing?
I go to LA twice a year for press tour, occasionally do other travel there, and sometimes do interviews in New York. But the Internet’s been a great equalizer in that regard. A lot of the strongest relationships I have with sources arose before we ever met in person, and just came from me emailing them (or, in some cases, them emailing me out of the blue).
Besides, my primary focus is the criticism, and that part of the job can really be done without ever meeting any of the people who make or star in the shows. I like hearing about how the sausage gets made, and feel that informs my writing, but I completely respect the approach of guys like Poniewozik or, back in the day, Tom Shales, who wanted to keep separate from the people they were covering. Bias is built into the job — artistic opinions are subjective by nature — and if nothing else, not meeting or interacting with actors and showrunners can insulate you from accusations that you’re being more positive or negative based on personal feelings. I don’t let that stuff influence my writing — I don’t get along with the creators of some of my favorite shows, and am friendly with people whose shows I don’t much care for — but it becomes an easy club for people to hit you with if they don’t agree with a review.
8. You’ve been credited with helping save the show “Chuck” – including by NBC CEO Ben Silverman – what’s the line for you between being an activist for a show, a fan and a neutral critic? Do those lines even need to exist anymore, from television criticism to political reporting and commentary, if you’re open with your biases?
Again, it’s a subjective job: I like this, I don’t like that. There’s no neutrality in criticism. On those rare occasions when I’ve agitated for a show to be renewed, it’s been out of some sense of fandom, but mainly out of my desire as a critic to be able to keep watching and writing about that show. I have found, though, that because I’m very enthusiastic about some shows, fans of other shows expect me to be just as enthusiastic about theirs, so when I’m critical of an episode of, say, Game of Thrones, they’re taken aback by it.
9. Who are the writers you read and who people should read who you don’t think are getting enough due? (And don’t work at HitFix — because that’s not fair)
A lot of it is the usual suspects: Poniewozik, Emily Nussbaum, Mo Ryan, Todd VanDerWerff, Tim Goodman, my old pal Dan Fienberg, my once and future partner Matt Zoller Seitz. I enjoy the way Previously.tv (a site run by the founders of Television Without Pity) finds different ways to cover TV so it’s not just the now-traditional recap or advance review.
10. You’re a Knicks fan. Would you call that a more painful or numb sensation now? How did you get to be a Knicks fan and is there a TV parallel for it?
My best friend Mike was a Knicks fan, so I became a Knicks fan. I would be mad at him, but I imagine the alternative would have involved becoming a Nets fan, and that would have brought with it its own heartbreak and agita. Being a Knicks fan involves a lot of willful denial and unfounded optimism. I wrote a column once about hope-watching, where you stick with a series that isn’t very good because you feel like it could become good at some point. That’s basically been Knicks fandom since the Ewing trade. Just recently, I despised the Derrick Rose deal (he was one of the very worst players in the NBA last season) and felt the team should be gathering young assets to build around Porzingis, and to hell with appeasing Melo’s desire to win. (He can always waive his no trade clause, after all.) But a few weeks later, I’ve talked myself into most of the team’s other moves, and am already convincing myself that Rose can be a decent placeholder for a free agent point guard to be named later next summer. Because it’s what we do.
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You can check out the first six Q&As below: