The Margaret Lyons interview

I wrote a piece for Lifetime Moms in response to a woman who claims that she taught her infant to use the adult (not baby!) toilet because they're so well-bonded.

Today's interviewee and I were real-life pals back when she lived in Chicago and worked for Chicagoist and Time Out Chicago. Sadly for me, but happily for television, she moved to New York to write for Entertainment Weekly. Now she's a TV critic and editor at New York Magazine, where she writes "Stay Tuned," America's premiere television advice column--here's a good installment where she talks about which current shows are "worth it." (Funnily enough, "Stay Tuned" was also the name of the column she wrote for her college newspaper, the University of Chicago Maroon.) You can read tons of her TV pieces (and she covers everything, wittily and passionately) here and follow her on Twitter here.

What show, right this second, is the one you most look forward to watching? (You may review it or maybe you don't, and maybe it's a new show or it's not.)
Jane the Virgin, Being Mary Jane, Broad City, The Fosters, Girls.

What's your typical TV-reviewing setup? Where do you watch, what do you wear, what time of it day is it, how much distraction can you tolerate and how do you keep track of your thoughts as you watch?
I generally watch things in my apartment, in various states of pajama, sometimes during the workday, sometimes during traditional prime-time TV hours, and often late into the night. Depending on the show, and depending on what I'm watching it for exactly, I can tolerate a lot of distraction. (Not true if I'm writing, in which case I can tolerate no distraction. No music, no nothing.) I write everything in TextEdit, so I usually have at least one document open for notes, one for full sentences that come to mind, and then one where I compose the actual article. Again, this varies by the kind of piece I'm working on. If I'm doing a straight-up review, I focus as much as possible just on the show, but if it's more of "this is a show I keep up with but am not writing about at this very moment," odds are I am multitasking.

When I was a TV critic I found that half-hour sitcoms were much more difficult to recap than hour-long reality shows, maybe because the "talking points" seemed so few and far between (and also, it could just be really joyless to pick apart a short comedy.) What types of shows do you find easier than others to recap?
I'm lucky that I actually don't recap anything anymore. Recapping is pretty brutal. That said, I enjoyed recapping Project Runway years and years ago, and Top Model also years ago but slightly more recently. Recapping The Office was hard, because a) it drained the fun out of a show I used to like and b) I was writing about it when the show was really and truly sucking, and it felt like piling on. I think it varies by person and by show, though; I can imagine having fun with a Mindy Project recap, theoretically. More than anything show specific, the week-in-week-out grind of recapping is a real bummer and not one I'd return to unless it was under duress.

One of the things that I wasn't good about as a critic was being game to review shows I wouldn't normally watch, but you cover such a broad spectrum. Are there any genres of shows that you have a more difficult time getting into than others?
I will give anything a try, though I have a hard time with shows that glorify violence against women. At this point, for me to be excited for a cop show, they have to be doing something pretty interesting or doing something extremely well. (Not the cops. The show.) I'm not into most Bravo and Bravo-style reality shows; generally "celebreality" and wealth-oriented reality shows hold little appeal. Oh, and I hate pranks. Like if the joke is "can you believe how strong a reaction this normal person had to a terrifying situation?" I just want to cry for them. There aren't too many of those, though, so I'm mostly in the clear. I also do not care for scary things, so stuff like American Horror Story is tough for me. I would never watch that if I didn't need to for work. Ayeeee.

I remember about 10 years ago you and I went out for drinks and you were telling me about some new shows you'd previewed, one of them being It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I don't think you cared much for, and yet, here it is, still on. What are some shows you got wrong about the duration of their shelf life? (I also remember at the same time you had previewed the show Starved, which did not survive.)
I remember liking Starved, and I still don't like It's Always Sunny, but I don't think me liking or not liking something is the same as me predicting its longevity. (Also to be clear, I think Sunny is a fantastic show, and I respect it tremendously. It's just not for me.) If 10 years ago I tried to claim my taste was somehow a barometer of success...well, I wouldn't do that now. I am not good at guessing which shows will last and which won't, but in fairness, who is? Because if someone was, a network would hire them, and they'd be very, very rich. I try not to make predictions about popularity, either, because again, who the hell knows? I live in a nation of strangers.

I still remember somebody once called me a "fucking idiot" in the comments on an SNL writeup because I didn't like a sketch that they did. What shows seem to get the commenters the most worked up?
I avoid comments in general. I also block people on Twitter all the time. I don't care. Life is hard enough, you know?

You majored in religious studies at the University of Chicago: how did that come to pass? Did you think that you would pursue that after school or you always knew you would want to cover pop culture?
I was always super interested in religion and religiosity. My mom is Catholic, and my dad's an agnostic Jew, and I always had lots of questions. I'm a real rules-and-structure person. I was an altar girl, I know every word to "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Super Star," and I always fascinated how people thought God worked. I wrote a paper in high school about how the parables in the Gospels are retold in The Great Gatsby, and I remember thinking "yeah, I like thinking about wisdom texts in this capacity," but I always assumed I'd graduate with a math or science degree. Honestly, I still consider myself more of a math and science person than a humanities person, but life is strange. (U of C didn't have minors when I was there, but if it did, I'd have a math minor. I think? I took a solid amount of math.)

Towards the end of my third year, when it became clear that I wasn't going to pursue more math after college, I did assume I'd wind up continuing to work in that field. I was -- and am! -- particularly interested in what happens when institutions of religious power encounter institutions of secular power, for example in the United States, when perhaps the government has infringed on someone's right to free practice. My BA was about the definition of religion in the U.S. Supreme Court, and my vague plan was to do a joint law school/div school program and then battle injustice. This is Sliding Doors me, and I still think about it.

I did not always know I wanted to cover pop culture! I always enjoyed pop culture, and I come from a family that's very into TV and movies and books, but I didn't ever think I'd be a writer. I was a copy editor at the Maroon for four years, but I only wrote about TV my fourth year. That turned out to be a lot of fun, and here we are.

Speaking of the Maroon, how frequently do you look back on your earlier writing? What have you notice has changed about how you write since you first started publishing?
How often do I actually dig it up? God, very very rarely. As rarely as possible. I think I'm less cynical now than I was when I first started out, and I probably get to the point a lot faster. 

How (or do you) think your time at the University of Chicago influenced you in your postgraduate life?
I met several of my closest friends at U of C, so there's that. I loved U of C. I like working hard, I like reading, I like math problems, I like underlining things in books, I like writing, and I especially like arguing. U of C was proof that I wasn't alone, and sometimes I think that's the most important thing I learned there. Awwww. I'm not sure I'd be able to figure out which parts of my adult brain and life *aren't* influenced by my time at U of C, intellectually, emotionally, etc.

I'll also add that copy-editing the Maroon for four years made me a better writer, editor, and journalist than anything else possibly could have. Training yourself to look for errors, to spot sloppy thinking, to work efficiently, all that jazz -- I am grateful to have had the chance to learn in that environment, too. 

What's a show that everybody loves (or loved) that you just don't get the hype about?
The Leftovers. I just do not get what people see in that show.

Who are some of your least favorite characters on TV (in that you just dislike watching them, not like "They're so bad!" like Thomas on Downton Abbey.")
Everyone on 2 Broke Girls. I find most of the Real Housewives very trying. I want the earth to swallow Teddy on Nashville.

According to you, American Idol is good again, but I'm afraid I just can't watch it after all the time I spent reviewing it and watching it for the AV Club. Are there any shows that you maybe would like more if you just got to watch it for fun?
I don't know! I haven't watched a show just for fun in 10 years. Everything I watch is for work. (This is not a complaint; I love writing about television, I love watching television, and I have a sweet gig.) I mean, I watch TV recreationally, but it's never *just* recreationally: Even when I'm rewatching a Gilmore Girls I've seen 100 times, sometimes someone pops up and I realize they're now famous, or I hear a line and think "oh, I just heard someone say something like that on some other show." I'm always thinking about articles or trends or angles and whatnot. Maybe I would have stopped watching Lost were I not writing about it all the time? But maybe I never would have watched it in the first place.

I know you've done readings and improv: what live performances have you been doing lately, or do you have planned?
I perform a lot these days. I'm on an improv house team at the PIT, and I perform there every Wednesday with my long-running team Family Haircut. (It's free! C'mon by!) I also perform musical improv with my musical team Bee Hammer. I also get to do storytelling-ish shows here and there when the opportunities present themselves, which I enjoy tremendously.

What do you put on when you just want to watch a show and unwind or fall asleep without taking notes?
Sports Night. I could probably recite that entire series at this point.

How does it feel to be the 404th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It's always nice to be included.