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Critical Fandom: Are We Already Practicing New TV Criticism?

February 21, 2011

Fandom at its most triumphant! From last.fm.

When TV critic Alan Sepinwall performed the somewhat undramatic act of appearing as an extra on Community, one of the shows that he writes on, he was in fact crucially re-defining the shaky line between criticism and fandom. Much to his surprise.

In the bygone era of cultural criticism, the critic and the fan were two distinctly different entities. The critic was marked by his (and yes, I do mean his) high educational and social standards as well as his staunchly supported belief, despite his leftist leanings, that ‘culture’ belonged in museums and tomes. The fan, meanwhile, belonged to the culture-less masses, those who are instrumental in consuming culture but not clever enough to wittingly produce it. The intellectual shift responsible for recognizing pop culture as a valid source of information and knowledge was, accordingly, a momentous one– and one that necessarily heralded a change in our understanding of the barrier between critic and fan.

That this barrier remains contentious is illustrated by the small media frenzy (which seemed understandably larger if your day revolves around your culture blog RSS feed) caused by Josh Levitt’s article in Slate about Sepinwall’s questionably fan-like practices. Levitt’s original article pointed to Sepinwall’s obvious enthusiasm for the shows that he reviews, while simultaneously situating Sepinwall as a key figure in the evolution of popular, inside joke-rife and episode-recapping TV criticism as we know it. Nonetheless, as Levitt points out, are some of Sepinwall’s more dramatic antics, such as writing this open letter to save Chuck, or his aforementioned appearance on Community, too far over the ethical/entertainment line of the media journalist?

That Levin’s original piece touched on a troublesome cultural nerve is indicated by Sepinwall’s response to the original article, which was followed by Levin’s response to Sepinwall’s response. The original Levin piece also triggered lengthy responses from Times’ James Poniewozik and the A.V. Club’s Myles McNutt. Woah.

The issue, as Sepinwall points out immediately in his response, is the question of subjectivity/objectivity in pop-cultural criticism. Themes which certainly aren’t new in cultural/media theory or in fan communities, but which have taken on new urgency in the ever-expanding and immensely popular realm of journalistic TV-criticism. As Sepinwall writes,

A complaint I get tagged with sometimes is that a review “wasn’t objective,” which seems to miss the whole point of the subjective artform of criticism. We all bring our own tastes and biases to the entertainment we consume…But because what I do involves expressing an opinion, and because I sometimes do it passionately – particularly in circumstances where I’ve argued to save shows like “Chuck” or “Terriers” – I can see how some might feel the line gets blurred between “critic” and “advocate.

What Sepinwall crucially points at and what seems to be missing in the other critiques involved in the debate is an important self-reflexive understanding of his place within the media industry. Try as we might, as he says, we can’t escape our likes. On a structural level, this holds important considerations for all media. Journalistic stories are always, at a basic level, filtered through the opinion of an editor and a brand concept. While journalistic writing importantly strives to minimize bias, this “ethical” relationship is increasingly complicated when looking specifically at criticism and reviews– a facet of journalistic production that cannot escape the quandary of the opinion.

Thus I have to wonder if Levin’s question, posed in his Brow Beat response, is really the relevant point at stake. As Levin asks,

It’s possible to think Sepinwall is a fantastic critic—which I do—while also pointing out that some of his behavior wouldn’t be kosher if he operated under the guidelines of the New York Times ethics policy…Isn’t it possible that a critic who appears on a show or spearheads the effort to keep a series on the air will, consciously or unconsciously, have a harder time criticizing that series if it loses its way?

Of course Sepinwall’s actions would likely be a problem at the NYT— but then again, the type of criticism that he’s writing is an entirely different breed, born more out of the largely un-traversed annals of fan communities than the distinguished newsrooms of established media bastions.

The interesting issue here is not actually the ethical conundrums of the entertainment journalist, but rather the relationship between Sepinwall’s type of TV critic and fandom– particularly when we are talking about a type of writing that owes much of its stylistic format as well as its longevity to the fans that, throughout the responses to Sepinwall’s writing, are often a forgotten factor (though McNutt does address the unique relationship between Sepinwall and his own fan base).

Indeed, as both Sepinwall and Levin note, the episode-recap style of TV response comes from early TV fan communities– Levin cites Dawson’s Wrap (now Television Without Pity) and Sepinwall performs a shout-out to Tim Lynch on Star Trek.  The legacy of critical output revolving around specific TV shows or media products is exhaustive, but there are certainly useful bodies of work that similarly coalesce around, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (look to Slayage) or, earlier, Dallas (see most notably the work of Ien Ang). But what this expansive body of variant critical thoughts and styles shares is the fact that the writer is necessarily a viewer and–yes!– a fan of the show. Fandom has always provided the organizational backbone to good TV criticism: it brings together a community for which the discussion is relevant and thus worth having, and it shapes, pushes and persists to care about what might otherwise be relegated to cultural obscurity or to Comic-Con.

To wish to clarify the line between fan and critic in Sepinwall’s case indicates a couple of things for me.

First, it seems troublingly (albeit unconsciously) flavored by the dominant disdain of fandom — and pop culture– more generally. This trace level of snobbery is characterized by an old-school obscuring of fan intelligence– visible in our desire to refer to fan bases as characterizable “masses” or “mobs.” Take current Bieber coverage for example: nowhere is there a more abjectly disliked and mythologized mass as Bieber fans… even if a select few were acting a bit immature with the guerrilla defacing of Esperanza Spalding’s Wikipedia page. The desire to have a more readily enforced line between fan and critic seems to be, at its core, a desire to retain a vaguely elitist separation between the educated critic and the mindless fan– a separation that, based on recent styles of TV criticism, is rooted in fantasy.

Second, what becomes increasingly clear is that writing such as Sepinwall’s cannot easily be talked about in the same terms and with reference to the same ethical guidelines as traditional print media. Indeed, what new TV criticism is doing is rooted in and formed by the products of virtual social media rather than reporting. What is at stake here, then, is a critical split in what we understand and go to as relevant journalism. The obvious take-away from the discussion of Sepinwall’s work is that journalistic media is at a critical juncture, in which its various new forms fail to align–and likely will never align– with traditional understandings and products.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2011 7:04 pm

    This debate is interesting to me for a number of reasons:
    1) Have you ever read NYT’s critiques on television shows–or those of any traditional print media, by the way? Their extension of “objectivity” usually results in a re-cap rather than a critique–a drab surface reading of the story arch. The comments on these reviews look more like Sepinwall’s work, and as such, tend to be more insightful. For example, it was an…”amateur commentator” in the response to an episode of “Mad Men” who noted that the changes in Sterling Cooper’s dynamics relate to the fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. Quickly–the ascent of the younger players, the unearned confidence, the need for immediate gratification, etc.
    The NYT reviewer completely missed the mark.
    It seems that a reviewer must have a level of fandom for the urgency/dedication to catch the nuances that make these things worth watching.
    What’s funny is that the movie reviewers in traditional print media often gush over the things they like and simply intellectualize the language. (A.O. Scott, Ebert) Is that the ideal?
    2) Levin’s circumscription of Sepinwall’s critical fandom shows his age and his ignorance. In case he hasn’t noticed, American objective journalism progressed from a a recap of the events/parties–>long human interest segments–>op ed pieces constructed around facts. Objectivity is the past. Opinion, in collusion with social networks, are now. Fandom critiques fit better in the sphere of this new journalism.

    • cefinch permalink*
      February 22, 2011 4:15 am

      1.) Enjoy your take on the NYT Mad Men critic/commenter tension! To me, that indicates more of the fan-oriented organizational structure that I was attempting to elucidate. To an extent, the way that we understand (or perhaps the way that are beginning to understand) a media object is a more all-encompassing view: what’s relevant isn’t just the review written by the authority, but rather what social reactions/conversations the review elicited, and where all of this fits into the actual production of the review itself (what audience is it targeted to? who has access to it?). In this system, authority is less rooted in one original critic, but disseminated into a network. In any case, the active participation of the fans, and indeed the critic’s role as fan herself, is the necessary structure around which reviews are created and continue to be created.

      For an excellent example of the dissemination of critical authority among the network of readers, check out the responses to the McNutt piece… almost all the critics involved weigh in, and then some! What started as your typical comment section soon took on the appearance/ language of an academic panel manned by experts, in a reversal of how we typically think of comments operating.

      2.) I don’t know that I would be quite that hard on Levin… what is really interesting and exciting about his article is how clearly it transmits the tension surrounding this shift in entertainment journalism’s origin/concept/ethics. Perhaps the “way forward” from the questions that Levin asks and the total shfit in journalism that we both perceive, is a sort of middle ground… not a reconstruction/deconstruction of journalism altogether, but rather a call for heightened awareness of one’s own position within the matrix of critics, fans, and media industries. At the base, I think it was important that Levin called for a level of heightened awareness on the part of critics.

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