Today I speak with the television critic for The New Yorker (which I tend to read back-to-front thanks to people like her and Anthony Lane.) Previously, she worked at New York for seven years, editing the Culture Pages and writing both features and criticism. (and creating the Approval Matrix, which I have to make a conscientious effort not to read before the rest of the magazine.) You can enjoy her Twitter feed here.
Tell me about the career path that led you to being the TV critic for New York and then the New Yorker.
Well, I didn't really get into journalism until my late 20s. Before that, I was living in Providence and then Atlanta, doing temp secretarial jobs and working at a battered women's shelter, among other things. Then I went to graduate school at NYU, teaching and working toward a doctorate in literature, until I got a fortuitous kidney infection and dropped out--long story.
Anyway, while I was in grad school, my friend Daniel Zalewski became an editor at the magazine Lingua Franca. I started writing short pieces for them, then longer features. I got an editing job at Nerve, where I worked under the tremendous Sue Dominus. She in turn recommended me to Jodi Kantor, who was editing Slate, and I wrote stuff for them--and then Jodi, an awesome go-getter, got a job heading up the New York Times Arts & Leisure section. (My main advice to writers is to magically meet editors who do things like this.) I wrote a column for her about old TV shows, called "Reruns." I was also freelancing for the New York Times Magazine, doing research gigs, including celebrity wrangling, photo scouting, and writing deep captions for photo essays. I eventually got to write longer features, including a piece about a homeless gay teenager's first year in New York and a profile of Joss Whedon.
When Adam Moss, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, took over as New York Magazine's Editor-in-Chief, he called me in for a job interview. He hired me to be the Culture Editor, overseeing the re-design and production of the Culture Pages, which was hugely educational. It was also super-workaholic, with crazy hours, and after I had kids, I shifted to half-writing/half-editing. Eventually, I became the TV critic, after our brilliant TV critic, John Leonard, died. Then two years ago, Nancy Franklin stepped down from her job at the New Yorker and I applied for and was offered the job, which let's face it, is a total dream gig.
How has TV criticism changed since you first started doing it?
Well, I only started doing actual TV criticism (as opposed to arguing with people at cocktail parties) a few years ago, so I can't say it's changed THAT much since I started. But overall, technology has made all the difference. Tivo and DVDs turned TV into something you could collect and re-watch. And I'm a creature of the internet: in the late '90s, I was a big participant Television Without Pity, which was an awesome set of boards filled with furious, funny, intelligent, anonymous writers, hashing out TV all day long. There were recaps, and fan fiction, and various breeds of weird, unofficial, but terrifically insightful forms online. Hollywood insiders got on there too, so there was a lot of access to information about how television was made. I wrote a piece about this for Slate in 2000, called Confessions of a Spoiler Whore.
Mainly, though, I'd say that in the past there were two main kinds of official TV writers: buzz-oriented entertainment reporters, and then your more literary writers who were slumming. There's a whole new school of writers now, all of whom take TV seriously as their central subject. Obviously, people vary a lot in their tastes, but I'd say that it's a group of critics who aren't interested in the old defensive/condescending approach to the medium, or in endless comparisons to movies and books, and who are trying to forge new ways to talk about television as its own fantastic thing.
At the New Yorker, how much autonomy do you have when it comes to deciding what shows/actors/themes you'll cover?
A ton. Once in a while, my editor will come to me and say "Are you doing anything on that new Netflix show House of Cards?"-and I'll put it on my list. But mostly, I just try to keep my subjects various, so I shift back and forth from cable to network, watercooler show to untouched gem, comedy to drama, occasionally making sure to touch on reality, procedurals, and so on. I consciously try to write a pan once in a while, because it's a boring column if it's just me picking things I think are great. And every few months, I write a longer essay, like my history of cliffhangers or my essay about Ryan Murphy.
This may be pure speculation but it seems like there is a far greater percentage of higher-profile female TV critics than there are of other media. Assuming this speculation is not entirely unfounded, why do you think TV is friendlier to female critics than music or film currently is?
Hard to say, but I think it's more just that movie criticism and music criticism are historically such boys' clubs. There are definitely a bunch of great online female critics--Mo Ryan, Willa Paskin, Alyssa Rosenberg, June Thomas-- but I'm not sure why, maybe because there's a more open entrance ramp? When it comes to female characters and creators, TV is certainly a better environment right now than Hollywood, but that's damning with faint praise. I do bridle when people act as if female critics are all on a team together, because we don't all like the same things, and I'm often in synch with male critics as well (Matt Zoller-Seitz and I disagree on a lot, but I think we were the two early adopters on American Horror Story-and Andy Greenwald and I agree on everything except The Office, where I am right and he is wrong.)
I read a comment from an irate reader in an interview with you because you mentioned Show A in the same sentence as Show B. I don't remember people caring this passionately about Friends and Seinfeld when NBC was running Must-See TV. Why are people so passionate about TV now?
Because TV is fantastic! Also, it's just so intrusive and visceral a medium: it comes right into your living room and turns you on and scares you and pisses you off. Plus if you commit yourself to four years of a show and then it lets you down, of course you're going to be angrier than you might be at a two-hour movie.
I certainly don't like all TV shows, but one of the things I do love is unbridled argument and passion, high expectations, a sense that TV should be *great*, not just pleasurable. I hate a cool attitude toward art. I think it's boring.
Describe your typical TV viewing setup for me: where do you watch, how do you take notes, how many times do you watch an episode before you write and what (if anything) do you do to ensure you're free of distractions while you watch/write? (I say this because I sometimes had a hard time stopping myself from drifting onto Twitter while watching American Idol when I reviewed it.) And typically during what hours can you be found in this setting?
I watch everywhere: on my flat-screen (which I just got in January); on my computer using screeners, Hulu, or Netflix; on my Iphone, at night, lying in bed, using headphones. It's always triage. I want to watch a lot of shows, so that I know what I'm talking about, but it's obviously impossible to watch everything, let alone watch everything with careful attention. If I'm reviewing something, I do usually rewatch, but not always. (Apparently, Pauline Kael never rewatched, which is a comfort.)
I am really struggling with the Twitter-while-watching thing. I try only to do it with shows like Scandal, which beg for that shared audience experience. I can always rewind if I miss something. With Mad Men or Breaking Bad, on the other hand, I focus on the screen, then Tweet afterward. Truth is, I don't really need to be fully free of distractions when I write or watch. I frequently write with my kids running around, or in a cafe, or whatever. I'm good at focusing when I have a deadline.
I go into the office about half the week, work at home half, and I often write and watch late at night, which is a problem for both myself and my husband. We're natural night owls and often work best from 10:30 am-2 am. I wouldn't get up before 10 a.m. if it weren't for the fact that the government would take away my children.
What specific shows or types of shows are most difficult to write about?
I haven't written about news so far, both because I rarely watch it and because it honestly inspires the same disgust in me that it does Aaron Sorkin. (Newsroom is a terrible show, but that doesn't mean I don't agree with it about cable news.) Reality television is hard to write about because it's key not to be a condescending jerk about the production values or prissy about the ethics&#--there's plenty of stuff to say about good and bad reality shows, but it's trickier to figure out how to say it.
Sitcoms are also hard to write about. But I keep trying, because I love sitcoms.
What are your favorite shows/broadcasts to watch with a group?
When I was living in Atlanta, I watched Melrose Place with a group. Once I moved to New York, I watched Seinfeld, Friends and ER, every week, in Cobble Hill, with a group of college friends, ordering in burritos. Then I watched Buffy every week, later on, with a totally different group--and then Sex and the City, same group.
However, at the moment, I am tragically lacking in group-watching experiences, because I'm living in Brooklyn and my Game of Thrones-watching friends are on the Upper West Side.
What shows do you and your husband most agree and disagree on?
My husband isn't big into TV! I'm like his concierge, choosing things I think will be in his wheelhouse, and over the years, I've gotten him addicted to Alias, 24, Arrested Development, Archer, The Good Wife, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. We both think the Canadian show Slings & Arrows is basically the best thing ever.
He's never been a Buffy fan, which kills me (he has some weird gripe against Buffy herself.) He also wasn't into 30 Rock, which still baffles me.
What do you most enjoy watching and not reviewing? What do you like to fall asleep in front of?
I don't fall asleep in front of the TV (we don't have a TV in our bedroom, although I watch on my iPhone.) Mostly old Law & Order episodes and reruns of whatever sitcom I feel like looking back on, lately Frasier. I'm a channel-switcher and I'll just jump around and watch Good Times or a random Lifetime movie. I don't watch sports, which saves me a lot of time.
What do you typically do when you've reached maximum TV capacity and need to unplug?
I do a lot of other stuff, including read books and magazines, go to bars, go to the gym (although wait, I watch TV on the treadmill), go for walks in the neighborhood. I'm pretty social and like to go to parties. But honestly, I like watching TV. It's relaxing. I watch plenty of shows I just enjoy, like Switched at Birth, even though I've already reviewed them. And also shows I've panned, like Newsroom and Smash, just in case they make me change my mind.
How does it feel to be the 353rd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Everyone in the Q&As I read said they felt honored, so I'll say I felt deeply insulted.