The Maureen Ryan Interview

Today I chat with AOL/Huffington Post TV critic and all-around cool lady (confession: we are friends in real life) Maureen Ryan. Before joining HuffPo, she was the television critic for the Chicago Tribune (she still lives in Chicago.) She serves on the board of the Peabody Awards and has served on the AFI Top 10 TV Shows of the Year committee three times. You can follow her on Twitter, and if you want an example of my favorite pieces she's written recently, check out this post on the backlash against the show Girls.

For those who don't know your history, how did you come to get paid to write about TV?
It's kind of serendipitous, but I feel so lucky to be doing it. During the '90s, I wrote a lot about music and even had a music "fanzine" called Steve Albini Thinks We Suck (for the kids out there, fanzines were precursors to blogs, but they had the added attraction of losing the person publishing them tons of money). 

So in the early '90s, I was working as a writer/editor at a public policy magazine, then later at a pop-culture/genre entertainment magazine, and doing a frightening amount of music freelancing and the 'zine on the side. (I look back and I have no idea how I did all that. Ah, youth!) Eventually I began freelancing for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, writing about rock and roll and such, and eventually I became aware of an open position at the Tribune. 

I got hired there in '97, and after doing various editing gigs and some writing as well, myself and a colleague, Sid Smith, began filling in for the TV critic, who was going on leave, in about 2004. I had been writing about TV, the Internet and pop culture before that, but that's when I began focusing exclusively on the small screen. That year, "The Sopranos" and "The Shield" were on the air, "Deadwood," "Battlestar Galactica," "Lost" and "Veronica Mars" arrived, and the debut of the U.S. version of "The Office" was around the corner. It was an incredible time to start working as a full-time TV critic, which I've been doing ever since. 

Who are some of your favorite other TV critics?
There are so many, and I'm indebted to all of these critics (and others whose names have slipped my mind for the moment; I will spend the next six months beating myself up over the names I forgot): Alan Sepinwall, Emily Nussbaum, Ken Tucker, Matt Roush, Heather Havrilesky, Linda Holmes, Alyssa Rosenberg, Ellen Gray, Andy Greenwald, my podcast partner Ryan McGee, Willa Paskin, Todd VanDerWerff, James Poniewozik, Tom and Lorenzo of, Dan Fienberg, Noel Murray, Andy Dehnart and the guy who goes by the name Film Crit Hulk, among many others. And of course there are my colleagues at Huffington Post TV and dozens of other excellent media folk who write about the business of TV or who write features. I read a lot of those kinds of pieces as well. Basically, I think everyone in the media business who I follow on Twitter is worth reading (or at least arguing with, heh). 

How much do you try to keep up with what other critics have to say about shows you cover, vs. how much do you try to stay un-influenced?
Well, I have one big, unbreakable rule that I almost never violate: I don't read other critics' reviews of shows (or even features about those shows) before my own review is finished and posted. Otherwise I'd be afraid of unconsciously copying someone else's language or ideas, and it's hard enough to write a decent review without trying to edit out what might wandered into my brain from another source. 

Aside from that, I read critiques and coverage of TV voraciously, if it doesn't interfere with anything I'm writing. Twitter is great that way: It's easy to eat up a lot of time reading stories that others have linked to or written themselves. The downside of Twitter (aside from its amazing ability to eat up time) is that it's fairly easy to figure out what people's first reactions to a show are. You get a vibe of what the early reactions are before most people have actually posted their reviews, and though I don't think that influences me in a huge way, I guess in a perfect world I wouldn't know what others anyone else was thinking when I sit down to write my piece. 

Still, to answer your question in a general way: I love to stay informed about TV and I feel lucky that there are a ton of places where I can read about it.  

Blogroll time: what are your favorite sites to visit, both for TV stuff and just in general?
Again, this just a partial list -- I'm sure I'll recall more after I've sent this email to you. But here goes: for great film and TV commentary for the finest in informed, well-written nerdery for fine nerdery from a lady perspective because they do not only terrific TV recaps and reviews but amazingly fun, funny and smart fashion coverage. On a daily basis, this is the site I probably spend the most time on. The Fug Girls always make my day. Lots of links to TV news and features. 

And of course Twitter and the web sites of the critics listed above. 

For really beautiful visuals, I love the site Story Woods. It's an illustrated children's story, so I usually check out the site every month or two with my son, but no matter how old you are, I bet you'll find it calming and sweet.

We also enjoy a few rounds of Stick Man Badminton now and then.

Television-wise, what are some of your guiltiest pleasures? (I know some people don't believe in guilty pleasures, so what I mean is: shows you love that you really couldn't defend to your readers as being "good.")
I honestly don't have any shows I feel guilty about watching. Really! My constant guilt comes from not watching enough TV in general: I just can't get to everything, and I'm constantly running in to people (and relatives) who are disappointed that I don't watch or have only rarely seen their favorite shows. Sometimes I get roped into watching something like "Terra Nova" because another family member wants to see it, and I certainly couldn't defend that as good. 

Other than that, though, the sad fact is, I watch less TV than people think I do, and a lot of what I do watch tends to be new shows that I have to watch for reviewing purposes. I wish I had more time for marathons of truly questionable programming, but I don't get a lot of time for that, alas. After spending a lot of time in Physical Therapy before and after ACL surgery this spring, I've seen a lot of Live! with Kelly and Rachael Ray (which are always on the PT TV), but I do not regard these shows as fine additions to my television rotation. 

I guess the shows I feel worst about having seen are the atrocious tween programs that my son occasionally watches. I won't even name them here; that's how much I dislike them. They're overacted, cheesy, cheap and full of every sitcom cliche you can think of. Apparently these hit the spot if you're 10, but if you're me, they give you a migraine and make you lament the future of our civilization. Sometimes I do the right thing as a parent and force him to watch "SpongeBob Squarepants" instead. 

What are some shows you and your kid both enjoy?
We are both obsessed with "Regular Show," a Cartoon Network show about a raccoon and a blue jay who work at a public park. It's very surreal and frequently funny in a very 5th grade sort of way (I call it "Archer" for middle-schoolers). I could seriously sit here and quote "Regular Show" lines for 10 solid minutes. Anyway, we also like "Adventure Time with Finn and Jake" and "Phineas and Ferb." As a family, our favorite TV ritual is to get takeout food and watch "Doctor Who" (we've recently re-watched all the post-2005 "Doctor Who" episodes, which was a lot of fun). It's kind of cool because my husband is English, so "Doctor Who" is a way for all of us to experience a British classic (which I have began watching when I was about 12 and WTTW aired the show). Sean's favorite Doctor is Matt Smith, and once, after an interview, Matt offered (out of the blue, I didn't ask) to give me an autograph for Sean (whom I'd mentioned in the course of the interview). This made me the coolest mom in the world for about 45 whole seconds, I think. 

What are some series that your colleagues have sworn up and down are groundbreaking and amazing that you just never got?
"Big Love." I just never liked it and couldn't get into the characters and gave it a lot of chances, but it didn't speak to me, and if anything, I found it off-putting and vaguely annoying. 

Another show I never got was "Desperate Housewives." I like a good nighttime soap, but this one just never did anything for me. 

Why do you think the comments on TV crit posts get so heated and personal?
I think it's because we develop personal relationships with the shows that we watch. We watch them for years on end, we get psychologically attached to the characters and stories, and we feel on some level that these shows are "ours." I can and do get freaked out some times by the emotion and vitriol that I see in comment areas, but I'd be lying if I said I never wrote my reviews or assessments or rants from places of emotion or even anger sometimes. I definitely do that on occasion (and by the same token, I sometimes write from a place of joy and excitement, so there's that). I know why people react so viscerally, because sometimes I'm possessed by the same strong emotions.  

Still, it's not fun when commenters 1. decide that the way they're interpreting something is the "right" way and everyone else is wrong and 2. start yelling at and attacking each other 3. start personally attacking anyone associated with the show being discussed. All those things just create such unpleasantness, and as far as I'm concerned, personal attacks on other commenters or on the people making the show are out of bounds (attacking the work is fine -- taking after the people as individuals is not). After 20-plus years on the Internet, I don't know how you go about eliminating that kind of unpleasant element from Internet discussions. I guess as long as people have such intense relationships with their favorite shows, that kind of thing will be hard to entirely get rid of. 

On the other hand, what are some other genre posts you've read angry comments on and thought to yourself, "Man, I'm glad I don't cover that beat?"
Hmmm, reality show posts can get out of hand pretty quickly (I used to write about those kinds of shows more and they seemed to fairly quickly devolve into name-calling against various participants and/or anyone who advocated for those people on message boards). Also, some fandoms, especially after a number of years, just begin to have so many factions and so much fighting that it becomes wearying over time. It's for that reason that I'm glad I don't write about "Lost," "Supernatural" and "Battlestar Galactica" any more. Obviously I still miss "Lost" and "BSG" (and I miss what "SPN" used to be), but I definitely don't miss the comment-board mayhem that, at times, kept me up all weekend, trying to keep the peace. 

What are some series that you've flip-flopped your opinion on, either good-to-bad or vice-versa?
"Breaking Bad" -- I always liked the performances, but I thought the first two seasons were patchy and not quite as tense and consistent as they needed to be. I'm so glad I stuck with it and by the time Seasons 3 and 4 were on board, it had become such a thrilling ride. Same goes for "Community." For a long time, I just thought it was too cold and meta and pleased with itself, but I kept giving it a chance and it eventually clicked with me. 

As for shows I used to love but now don't want to watch, "The Office" is in that camp (and before it went off the air, "House" was in the same category for me). It's hard for long-running shows not to become broad parodies of themselves eventually, and those shows resisted that for a long time, but after a while, they just went down paths I didn't enjoy and we parted ways. 

Who have been some of the nicest TV stars you've interviewed?
I've been really lucky in that most of the actors I've interviewed have been really nice and a good number are really articulate (and by the way, it's no knock on actors to say that some aren't articulate; I think some of the best artists in the world aren't really sure how their gift works and have a hard time expressing how they do what they do, and that's perfectly fine with me). 

Robert Sean Leonard from "House" was incredibly fun and hilarious to interview, he couldn't have been more quotable and self-deprecating. Mary McDonnell from "Battlestar Galactica" -- I could talk to her for hours, and the rest of the "BSG" cast was similarly kind and down-to-earth. Walton Goggins of "The Shield" is one of the more articulate and smart people in Hollywood I've ever talked to, same goes for Bryan Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito. Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Christina Hendricks from "Mad Men" have all been not just intelligent but very amusing to talk to, and I have to give a special shout-out to the cast of "Friday Night Lights." I visited the set of that show for four days in its first season, and what struck me then was how surprised they were that anyone would care so much about this little show they were making in Austin that they would come visit the set. Watching them make "Mud Bowl" was without a doubt one of the high points of my professional career, and the cast and crew couldn't have been more gracious, humble and patient. 

And any time I have a bad day, I remind myself that I've been lucky enough to interview Nick Offerman more than once in Ron Swanson's office on the "Parks and Recreation" set. This instantly makes me feel better. And I have to add, I know I'm forgetting many great interviews I've been lucky enough to get over the years, so these are just a few of the highlights. Many of my favorite memories involve multiple interviews on the sets of shows like "The Shield," "24," "Parks and Rec," "Chuck" and other shows. Those are always a lot of work (in terms of preparation) but almost always extremely fun. 

This is probably really annoying but I also have to thank the showrunners from these shows (past and present), who have been incredibly generous with their time over the years: "Game of Thrones," "Lost," "BSG," "Homeland," "Justified," "Men of a Certain Age," "Parks and Recreation," "Cougar Town," "The Good Wife," "Spartacus," "Archer," "Burn Notice," "The Shield," "Fringe," "Party Down," "Chuck," "Doctor Who," "Farscape," "Dollhouse," "The Wire," "Supernatural" and "Veronica Mars," among many others. I know this sounds super-corny but I feel like talking to these people was the best education about storytelling I could ever hope to have. It's a huge thrill to learn new things and gain insights from people who are doing excellent work. And yes, it's even possible to learn from their mistakes. And one of the most interesting things is to talk to the more honest creators about where they may have gone wrong; many are actually quite willing to discuss things they would have done differently. Not all, but more than I would have expected. 

You have a now-infamous story about hearing back from a showrunner who didn't agree with your review. Have there been other TV writers or producers who have contacted you directly after reading your reviews?
Yes, it's not that uncommon. Sometimes people ask to stay off the record, but other times if an email begins, it can lead to an interview at one point or another. One example from a few years ago: I dashed off a quick piece about where I thought "Ugly Betty" was going wrong. The post was fairly harsh but I made it clear I was still on board with the show. The next morning, the show's creator, Silvio Horta, had emailed me to say he agreed with a number of the points I'd raised, and I interviewed him and we talked about those things. So that was interesting. If there's one thing I've learned in the past decade, it's that sometimes the concerns you raise are shared by individuals that work on that show. On occasion,  writers, actors or other staffers will say they agreed with a criticism I made -- and sometimes, the creators will vehemently agree with something I wrote and explain that it was something that was forced on them by the network or the studio.

So that's just further motivation to be as honest as I can in my reviews. What I've realized is that there isn't a downside to being honest. Sure, some people don't ever want to talk to me again, but so what? Not everyone's going to like what I write, and though that might make for uncomfortable situations on occasion, that's just how it is. 

The thing is, now contact can be even faster, which is weird. A review you've written can be tweeted to an actor or writer for that show within seconds, and sometimes you get DMs or emails from people who work on the show (or, more likely, by publicists for the show) within an hour of a review going up. It's not like this happens all the time, but it's fairly regular occurrence, and it's made me more conscious of what I say and write on Twitter. 

But like I said, I've been somewhat surprised by how open people are to criticisms of their shows. I think when I first started in this field that people would stop speaking to me if I critiqued their work in a fairly aggressive (yet professional) way, but that's rarely the case. 

There are some showrunners who become convinced that you just don't understand their show when you start making more negative comments about it, but here's the dynamic that tends to happen over time with that kind of creative type: When critics praise a show, that showrunner thinks critics are super-smart and perceptive. When we are less kind to it, suddenly critics become a lot dumber and less perceptive -- en masse, apparently. And around then, that kind of creator will begin to listen to or talk to media outlets that do nothing but positive puff pieces. 

I get that it's hard to put your work out there and have it criticized, but I've been doing that every day for 20 years. In any event, the people who only want to listen to the echo chamber of the faithful often have the least to say, so it's fairly easy to tune out.   

What have been some of your favorite pieces you've written that are not on the television beat?
I wrote a piece about the photographer and artist's muse Lee Miller, whose life story has always fascinated me. 

And I can't find it online at the moment, but I got to interview Philip Pullman about the "His Dark Materials" book seires several years ago, and that was a thrill. Back in my music days, I talked to a lot of bands, but probably Guided by Voices the most. Those were fun times.  

How does it feel to be the 318th person interviewed for
The responsibility I feel is pretty crushing. I feel like there are 317 different ways I could have done a better job, but at least I've set the bar a little lower for the 319th person, so there's that.