How Are TV Critics Handling Peak TV?

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Last week, I wrote about my personal experience of trying to keep up with peak television — the unfathomable amount of scripted programming airing right now, and all the other series available for viewing on any number of platforms — but I’m also interested in how fellow TV critics are handling the phenomenon.

Watching television is a task in itself, but writing about it — often daily, whether as reviews or recaps or thinkpieces that analyze TV in the context of the broader culture — makes the peak TV era that much harder. Sometimes, it seems damn near impossible. Every September, I have a hard time trying to decide which new shows to cover (mostly because I want to cover all of them), how to cover them, and how many pre-air episodes I should watch before filing a review. Once I have that settled, there’s the question of which returning shows to cover — especially when one that I abandoned last season has been winning unanimous praise, making me feel like I absolutely need to return to it (and one day I will, Halt and Catch Fire).

But I’m clearly not the only critic with this problem. Many of my colleagues are facing the same questions. To get an idea of how various TV critics are dealing with the peak television conundrum and our ever-increasing workload due to the ever-increasing amount of TV, I asked a handful of writers — staff critics, culture editors, site founders, freelancers — to describe how they approach work, especially as we gear up for the new season. Their methods are sometimes similar, mostly different, and often familiar (especially because I’ve either worked alongside or been edited by a majority of them), but all provided insightful, thought-provoking answers.

Flavorwire: How do you decide which shows you want to cover?

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic at HitFix: Once upon a time, the goal was to attempt to review every new scripted show debuting on broadcast and cable, but that aim stopped being realistic a long time ago. Sometimes, I never even find the time to watch these shows, let alone write about them. But in terms of what I see, it’s a mix of what I respond to strongly (either in the positive or negative), what I suspect my audience might be interested in (due to subject matter, creative team, star, network, or what have you), gut instinct, and how much time I have in a given week. For instance, this week things are relatively slow, so my podcasting partner Dan Fienberg said we should watch NBC’s The Carmichael Show , which I likely would have never even sampled at a busier time of year. Instead, I watched it, and liked it enough that I’m probably going to write something about it on top of the podcast discussion.

Sonia Saraiya, TV critic at Salon: It’s a combination of what our readers have demonstrated interest in (based on trailers or pre-air pieces), what my editors think is relevant or valuable, and what I find either important, interesting, or fun. And it’s kind of in that order, too; I know our readers will want to read a lot on The Daily Show, for example, so that’s a must-cover, as both my editors and I myself would agree. But, like, if there’s absolutely no interest from the readership about Jane the Virgin (and there isn’t a ton), I’m going to limit my coverage to just one or two pieces a season, perhaps, which will try to sell the show to new viewers, and focus instead on other shows.

Margaret Lyons, TV columnist at Vulture: [New York magazine TV critic] MZS and I divvy up the calendar for reviews, and then over the course of a show’s season, if there’s something that really sparks an idea, I’ll revisit a show in another capacity.

Todd VanDerWerff, Culture Editor at Vox (previously TV Editor at The A.V. Club): At Vox, we rarely cover more than a show at a time. So we’re usually covering the big show of the moment, or we’re covering something I feel really passionately about (since I do the majority of our TV writing).

But I suspect you’re more interested in my A.V. Club days, and that was a constant attempt to stay ahead of trends, figure out a way to drop shows at just the right moment, and cover an increasingly expanding universe of TV on roughly the same budget year over year. Readers often wondered why I covered so much, and it was usually because I didn’t have to pay myself. Shortly before I left there, I pointed out that the number of total shows on TV had roughly tripled from when I started, but we were already at the peak of content we could expect readers to reasonably check out.

I’ve sensed this from networks at Vox, too. There’s a frustration with how not everything gets coverage now in the way it once did, but there’s just not enough time or reader interest to cover everything. And I don’t know that that will change any time soon.

David Sims, Senior Associate Editor at The Atlantic: I think I make these choices unconsciously, but I think I pay closest attention to the creative staff and network — if there’s a name I recognize among the writers and producers, or perhaps the cast, that’s one thing I take note of, and if it’s from a network that already makes good original TV, that helps put it on the radar. After that, a show’s premise is obviously important, along with any and all advance word of mouth from other critics.

Tara Ariano, co-founder of Previously.TV (previously co-founder of Television Without Pity): If you mean on the site: we get a vague sense of interest based on which shows people have requested forum sections for, and beyond that it’s just instinct. Running Television Without Pity for almost a decade gave us a good idea of the type of show that Internet users will hook into and want to talk about: they generally have some or all of the following — serialized story arcs, meaty roles for women, cute boys, ambiguous but weighty themes. It actually is that simple. Jane the Virgin: yes. Ray Donovan: no.

If you mean me personally, I cherry-pick my own shows based on the above criteria, more or less; however, there are lots of shows I like to watch but about which I know I would have very little to say. My schedule plays into it too: I know in the summer I can’t take on any Wednesday-airing shows we don’t get screeners for because Catfish takes up half my day.

Alyssa Rosenberg, columnist and blogger at The Washington Post: Since the way I cover shows is very different from a lot of other critics, I would guess that my process is somewhat different. I watch pilots to see which shows are likely to have intriguing political theme (or if they have elements I can turn into trend pieces) and use the Television Critics Association press tour to see how engaged the executive producers seem to be with those themes. I’ll stick with these for a while, and as the season progresses, talk to other critics about what they’re seeing, what they’re enraged about, what they’re excited about. Often this will make me loop around and revisit a show I’d set aside earlier (I did that with Halt and Catch Fire earlier this year). And I also try to have a couple of shows that I really champion, because I feel like my readers’ lives would be improved if they watched them. Right now, that’s The Americans and Starz’s outstanding comedy Survivor’s Remorse.

Sarene Leeds, freelance writer: As a freelance writer, I’ve been pretty fortunate in obtaining assignments for a significant amount of shows I want to cover. My situation varies by publication, but for the most part, the shows I end up covering tend to be ones I’ve pitched that, for one reason or another, have not already been snapped up by staffers (be it interest, oversight, workload, etc.). I pitch shows that pique my interest via word of mouth, press kits, or direct pitches from PR reps (in this case, it’s only if I wind up liking what I see in initial screeners).

Once in a while, an editor will ask me to cover something because it’s similar to a type of show that I’ve written about in the past. For example: since I am the resident Downton Abbey/Outlander reporter/writer at Speakeasy (WSJ.com’s entertainment blog), my editor there asked me to recap Poldark this summer.

Mo Ryan, TV Critic at The Huffington Post: I throw a bunch of show titles into a hat and pick one out — either that or roll 12-sided dice. No, seriously, I find more and more of my job is simply triage, i.e., watching an array of pilots or however many episodes we get, in order to see which shows I want to write about. I tend to be more interested and possibly excited to check out shows that have actors or writers whose work I’ve liked in the past, but I’m well aware that many of my favorite shows have been created by people I hadn’t heard of when those programs premiered. I always try to keep an open mind.

Another big deciding factor is whether it’s reality or not — I tend not to review unscripted/reality anymore, though I have no innate bias against it. Also what network it comes from matters as well. There are certain plsvrd that have good or at least interesting track records and make shows that are least worth paying attention to, so those might get bumped up on the “to be watched” list. That said, it’s awesome when a new network/entity comes out with a show that’s amazing or even an established network breaks out something like “UnREAL.”All that boils down to following a gut instinct regarding what I think might be worth checking out and what I think people will want to read about. My favorite feeling is when I just *have* to write about a show and I can’t sleep until that piece is posted. Whether I’m angry, excited, intrigued or whatever, there has to be an energy of some kind motivating the piece. Another thing I think about when deciding what to cover is how many great critics there are these days. Whatever I do, I don’t want to just lamely echo what someone else has already said well.

When do you abandon ship on a series you dislike? (Do you watch a certain number of episodes, or is it just a gut feeling?)

Sepinwall: Gut feeling and, again, time of year. Though the margin for error is really shrinking. Once upon a time, I’d give even the network pilots I didn’t like at all at least one or two more episodes to prove themselves worthy of ignoring; now, unless there’s some reason to look for hope (say, with something like Marry Me where I didn’t like the pilot but had faith in the creator and cast based on my experience with Happy Endings), I rarely make it to episode two, let alone three.

Saraiya: It’s usually a gut feeling. But I also don’t always get a choice to tap out of a series I’m not enjoying — case in point, True Detective Season 2, which I recapped in its entirety. The ubiquity of TV means that if I’m not compelled to finishing a series — either through my own interest or outside necessity — then I probably won’t.

Lyons: It really varies, depending especially on what it is I dislike about it, and how necessary coverage is. Like if it’s some fringe-y show that only I care about, I can just drop it. But some shows I have to keep up with for coverage purposes, so unfortunately I can’t just stop watching, say, The Walking Dead, even though I hate it. I tend to do a slow fade rather than throw my hands up and get straight-up show-divorced, but that’s more about my own style than any professional thing. Like, I might fade out on watching every ep, but still read recaps or reviews of episodes… and then if that dwindles, I’ll still follow certain tweets about it or something… and then… then the darkness starts.

VanDerWerff: I rarely abandon a show, unless I absolutely hate it. I’m most likely to ditch it between seasons, when it comes back and I realize I’ve let it pile up on the DVR.

Sims: If I strongly dislike a show from minute one, I usually won’t make it halfway into the season unless there’s some sign of improvement. More typically, if a show doesn’t suck me in, I’ll watch the first three or so and then let it pile up in my DVR until I have a lighter week to catch up on it, or if I suddenly start hearing positive buzz about its later episodes.

Ariano: I have quit shows mid-episode. I can tell when I don’t care anymore. The advantage of being an editor as well as a writer is that I can try a show for a week or two and then assign it out: I did that with Poldark this summer.

Rosenberg: It’s entirely a gut feeling.

Leeds: It depends on the show. Usually I try to give it a couple of episodes (around two or three — by then you know which direction it’s going), even if my gut is telling me during the pilot to give it up. I always like to give shows a fighting chance.

Ryan: There’s no set number, but if I’ve given a show three or four episodes and I just find it unendurable or uninteresting or whatever, I bail. It’s rare, but that can happen after or during the pilot as well. Given how much TV is out there, I hate to say it, but we’ve raised the bar almost unfairly on TV creators. I know how hard it is to make a great, good or even decent pilot, but if the pilot or pilot plus the first two or three or four episodes aren’t holding my interest, I’m out.

If you watched a show but then stopped only to learn that it got better later on or in a different season (think: Halt and Catch Fire), do you return to it?

Sepinwall: I have and will continue to do so, though (again) timing is a factor, as is number of episodes. Last summer, I was lukewarm on both BoJack Horseman and You’re the Worst, but kept hearing from other people (both critics and people who follow me on social media) that there was eventually a lot more there than I had seen at first. It was slow(ish) in summer, so I revisited both, and both wound up as two of my favorite shows of that year.

This is easier with shorter cable/streaming seasons. Fienberg used to talk up Vampire Diaries as a show that had improved dramatically from the point where I’d written it off early in the first season, and I said I would catch up, but when you’re talking about being 40 episodes or more behind on a serialized show, and the new stuff keeps piling up, the math eventually becomes impossible.

Saraiya: Ugh. I try to. Summers usually are when I catch up on all the stuff I missed or couldn’t watch earlier. Halt and Catch Fire was a lovely rediscovery. But it’s hard. I’ve been hearing good things about Tyrant‘s second season, but my readers and editors aren’t returning to it, so it’s hard to justify me returning to it.

Lyons: Sometimes! It depends on who told me it got good again. I am also pretty much always watching SOMETHING, even in the background, so if a show I gave up on is on an otherwise bare night, sometimes I jump back in just because of a lack of other necessities.

VanDerWerff: My general philosophy of TV criticism is that I have to believe that the best TV episode of all time could be the NCIS LA episode I’m not paying attention to that night. So if I hear that a show I don’t watch (or even despise) is doing something new and different, I will always at least check out an episode. This has saved me many a time.

Sims: Almost always. My problem is that I am a ridiculous completist, so I’m always compelled to catch up on the earlier bad seasons just to have a full understanding of the plot and what’s changing for the better. It’d have to be a really horrendous show, or a strong affirmation from multiple sources that its earlier episodes are irrelevant, for me not to do that. So that’s just more grist for the DVR.

Ariano: I do this rarely, although Halt and Catch Fire is an example of one I re-sampled after great reviews for the first few episodes of Season 2. Happy Endings was one I picked back up in Season 2 after the first two of Season 1 really turned me off. And I stepped off The Walking Dead for Seasons 2 and 3 and resumed with Season 4.

Rosenberg: Yes, frequently. One of the great things about the craziness of peak TV is that I feel no real shame or sense of being behind on things when I do this. There’s just too much, and I feel like we all have to kind of triage and watch out for each other. I’m glad there are other critics I trust who can tell me when something’s made a dramatic improvement, and I try to do the same thing for everyone else.

Leeds: Rarely, but it’s been known to happen. Sleepy Hollow is an excellent example — I gave up on it several episodes into Season 2, but I returned for the penultimate/finale (and plan to continue watching the revamped Season 3), because they’ve made significant adjustments to the story line and characters. But for the most part, no, if I’ve abandoned a show, I don’t tend to go back (unless it’s something like the Glee series finale) — mainly because there’s no room in my schedule for it at that point.

Ryan: I try really hard to do so (right now, I’m catching up on Halt, for instance). But it makes a difference if a show is early in its run. After three seasons have aired and I managed to miss all of them, as Austin Powers would say, that train has sailed. I’m never going to get to it. But now that it’s so easy to stream shows and find them in various places, I try to go back to shows when I can. And obviously it’s easier to catch up with shorter seasons, for sure. Much as I’d love to get caught up on “Person of Interest,” which I watched for part of its first season, those 22- and 23-episode seasons might just kill me.

How many episodes do you feel is enough to watch in order to make an accurate judgement in your review?

Sepinwall: Ideally, the more the better. The days of living up to Quentin Tarantino’s complaints and reviewing a show (or, at least, a non-broadcast show) off a pilot are thankfully gone, for the most part, and it helps to be able to see episode two or three or five. (Back in the day, I had issues with the Studio 60 pilot, but it was the second episode that crystallized most of the problems I had with it.) But as more outlets begin sending out entire seasons in advance, it gets intimidating. I have the whole first seasons of Narcos and Hand of God right now. In terms of due diligence, I could watch both all the way, and I’m already more than halfway through the former, but I dislike the pilot for the latter so strongly I’m likely only giving it another episode or two to change my mind.

Basically, everything gets factored into a Life’s Too Short equation. Sometimes, you guess wrong. But there are so many other interesting shows — not to mention so many other fine writers covering the medium — that you can’t obsess over every one forever.

Saraiya: I like to think that I do an accurate judgment of whatever I’m given. I really don’t mind getting just one. It’s often harder to get the whole season — in that case, I’m reviewing several weeks of viewing that readers interested in checking out the show aren’t going to get to for a month or two. Getting more than one is helpful. Getting more than four begins to feel overwhelming.

Lyons: As a personal policy, I will watch however many they send out for review. I don’t know why I have this policy, but it feels fair?

VanDerWerff: My general rule of thumb is three for a drama with few serialized elements, four for a drama with heavy serialization, and six for a comedy. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to every show, but there are so many serialized dramas where episode four makes things take off, while there are plenty of comedies where episode six feels like things are starting to gel. But it’s always going to come down to gut instinct.

Sims: My old rule of thumb was always three episodes. The pilot is usually a flawed affair, the second episode is almost always a retread of episode one, so it’s number three that is the kicker (this rule is especially effective with network sitcoms). But these days, with so much to watch, if it’s a 60-minute show, I might just watch two episodes and hope for the best.

Ariano: We don’t do straight-up reviews; we have a feature called the New Show Fact Sheet that’s pretty much what its title suggests. Sometimes I watch more than one episode for those, if we get them in advance, but less often than not, and I’m upfront in the post about how many I watched and how strong or sketchy an impression I got of it, so I don’t require myself to be particularly “just” in my judgments. I always close by saying whether I’m excited to see more, or just willing to watch more, or if it’s good but not for me, or if I thought it was terrible; I feel like transparency absolves me from any responsibility to give just-OK or shitty shows more of a shot than I actually think they merit.

Rosenberg: It totally depends on what the piece is. If I’m telling people to check out a pilot, then all I need is the pilot. If I’m going to declare a season of a show a disaster, then I have to have watched the season. If I want to declare a show promising or unpromising, then I think I have to have seen a couple of episodes, at least. If I’m writing about one seismic scene, or a recurring character, then I don’t necessarily need to feel I need to discuss the show beyond those fragments when I’m writing a trend piece. I feel very freed up by the fact that I almost never write actual reviews of anything, since that’s not particularly my job. I do try not to condemn something in particularly harsh terms after a couple of episodes, unless I feel like there’s been something particularly disingenuous or gross in the way the show has been sold or presented — the last show I treated like that was FX’s Anger Management, which wouldn’t have made me nearly as angry if the network hadn’t tried to push it as a responsible exploration of Charlie Sheen’s issues with women.

Leeds: I’d say around three. By then any gut feelings I had have been either confirmed or debunked, and the majority of the integral characters have been introduced/reintroduced.

Ryan: I really, really like to watch at least four, if not more. Of course, the ideal is to get an entire season, and the worst scenario is getting only one episode (I really, really don’t like writing a review off one episode). But I would say that if I’ve gotten six episodes, for example, and the first four hold my interest, I’ll keep going. But after three or four, if my interest is flagging, then I’m usually out. What can often keep me going in the early stages of a show is a performance, an aesthetic element or a storytelling area that is somehow special or compelling — if I’ve got something to hold on to, I’m more likely to hang in there for longer. If it’s all just kind of sitting there and nothing pops out, or very little seems to be working on a consistent basis, then it’s hard to justify the eyeball time past three or four episodes. If I hear through friends or on social media that a show’s gotten better, I might circle back to it, during all of my extensive free time.