Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

This is a great conversation between Noel Murray and Scott Tobias from The AV Club, discussing their respective views on the culture around television viewing. Some issues they discuss include dropping in on a show partway through a season versus watching it from the pilot episode; the focus of critics on high-quality serial television instead of television that “most people actually watch”; and how analyzing television compares to analyzing film.

I fully agree with Tobias when he argues against Murray’s willingness to drop in on a program. Tobias’ point that “if we accept the premise that many of the best shows on television unfold like novels, with richly developed characters and grand narrative arcs, wouldn’t checking in mid-season be equivalent to starting a book on chapter five?” rings true to me, especially having just completed the entirety of The Wire. I can’t imagine casually watching an episode during season 2 without having seen character relationships develop over the course of the first season.

What’s great about the discussion is the positive way that the two characterize television criticism: as something more engaged with the public, less indebted to traditional forms, and able to delve into details on a weekly basis. This point from Tobias is worth quoting in full:

“Because we aren’t primarily engaged in telling people whether they should or shouldn’t watch a show—because we’re usually talking with people who are already watching—we get to kick around symbolism, character development, and real-world connections to what’s on the screen, rather than just writing about whether the show is worth a damn. Sure, we write about what’s working and what isn’t, and why, but we have the space and the freedom to get into so much more. And the people we get into it with—the readers, and our fellow critics—seem so much more open, friendly, and engaged than, say, cinephiles these days.”

The idea that television viewing experiences can be immersive, not just simply through watching but actively participating in a discussion, is thrilling to me. After finishing The Wire, I felt as though I had spent two months in the world of the Baltimore police, building knowledge about characters and themes in a way that I never really experienced with a film or a sitcom. As a result, once the episodes finished I wanted to seek out other people that had also had that experience, that I could talk to about specific details and moments to get a deeper involvement.

In other words, let’s talk about The Wire, everyone! And television in general! Are you a purist, watching from the very beginning, or are you comfortable with diving into a season midway through? How do you see television criticism in relation to that of cinema? Which version of “Way Down in the Hole” do you like the best?

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2 thoughts on “Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

  1. Re: the increasing tendency for shows to demand committed, attentive viewing practices (and the tensions this trend creates within the industry model)—there’s an essay in the edited collection “Ephemeral Media” that talks about the use of season recaps. One example the author provides is “Breaking Bad,” and I remember feeling very weird about the idea of someone watching a 10-minute video to “catch up.” I’d be curious to here your thoughts on this tactic, and have you seen any recent examples? Oh, and speaking of that book, did you recall it from me?

    • I definitely agree that the idea of recap videos is unsettling. To me, the experience of watching “Breaking Bad” is only partly about the plot (I could watch that show on mute and be totally satisfied), and when the past few episodes are condensed into a few sentences it feels uncomfortably reductive.

      However, I think it is important to think about the different viewing practices that we’re using in relation to something like the “previously on…” recaps that play before an episode. I have never watched “Breaking Bad” from week to week, but rather will watch a season within a few days. In that situation obviously a “previously on…” seems redundant, because I’ve just seen the events half an hour ago. For people who watch shows on a weekly basis, especially shows with multiple characters and complex story lines, a “previously on…” may benefit them.

      What bothers me more are “next week on…” clips. They’re summative (and reductive) in the same way, but imply that the show needs to work hard to maintain viewers through these reductive strategies instead of letting the show speak for itself. After a great cliffhanger on a show, the last thing I want is to see a vague hint of how it will be resolved.

      I didn’t recall that book, but it sounds really interesting!

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