In recent years something glorious happened. People putting forward the pretense of being a part of the intellectual elite stopped proclaiming that "I don't own a TV". Instead the cultural conversations that surrounded the latest art-house cinema release were replaced by chats about the latest HBO show of the moment. TV not only became cool, but respected.
Alongside that, people started paying attention to the TV critic. Viewers needed guidance on what they should be watching, which saw the rise of rock star TV critics like Alan Sepinwall and Todd van der Werff, as well as highly regarded dedicated review websites such as The AV Club.
Erik Adams, The AV Club Associate Editor, is visiting Australia to appear at the Sydney Opera House event Bingefest, a festival dedicated to the culture we binge on. Ahead of his appearance on stage this coming weekend, The Guide spoke with Adams about the ever-evolving nature of television and how that in turn impacts upon the critic.
The rise of premium TV brought with it the rise of the 'difficult man' anti-hero as the protagonist, but over the last couple of years we are seeing a move away from that type of lead character. Are you seeing any specific trends of that type of lead being replaced with other stock-types of leads? As a reviewer, do you immediately bristle anytime you do see a show with a 'difficult man' protagonist and if so, is that fair on the show itself?
A lot of the qualities that could be attributed to “difficult men” types—the misanthropic outlook, psychological complexities, and lack of conventional likeability—has crept into the half-hour space, into shows like BoJack Horseman, You’re The Worst, Fleabag, and others. There’s no accepted catchall for these types of series—New York critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls them “comedy in theory,” others prefer the term “sadcom”—but you can definitely identify a patient zero for the trend: Louie, whose explorations of loneliness and dissatisfaction don’t always depend on a punchline. Not coincidentally, Louis CK had his hand in three of 2016’s most satisfying takes on this subgenre: Baskets, Better Things, and One Mississippi.
If the show that’s been built around a difficult man is worthwhile, I wouldn’t bristle at it any more than I would bristle at a multi-camera sitcom about a boorish husband with an unbelievably patient wife who’s had it up to here with his shenanigans. (For example: Westworld, the first season of which put a critique of the difficult man at the center of its science-fiction puzzle box.) TV is a medium that thrives on the familiar—stock types are going to show up in even the best shows. It’s what’s done with those stock types that matters.
There has been an increase in the number of half-hour series over the past 18 months. Why do you think so many people are gravitating towards such short episode lengths in an age where we're all binge-watching episodes anyway? Is it budget or creatively mandated?
There’s probably some increased market demand at play there. But there’s also so much inspiration and inventiveness in the half-hour space right now. Tragicomic half-hours about characters struggling with mental illness are starting to feel a little stale (as discussed in the answer above), but we’re also seeing stuff as vibrant, divergent, and experimental as Atlanta and Documentary Now! And when it comes to bingeing, shows of this length are much easier to digest. Maria Bamford might go to some dark places in Lady Dynamite, but scarfing that entire first season is less arduous than taking all of the latest Black Mirror in a single sitting.
In Australia we have long had access to TV from countries beyond the US. While it's always been very US/UK/Australian-heavy, we also have SBS, a free-to-air (over-the-air) broadcaster with the purpose of broadcasting multicultural TV. With the rise of Netflix and other streamers, the US has recently seen an influx in TV from beyond North America. How do you think that is changing TV consumption in the US? And is it generational in line with those that are accessing the technology)?
I think the average viewer is more willing to give an overseas program a chance than they might’ve been prior to the streaming revolution. We used to treat shows produced outside North America like museum objects: One of our main sources for British TV was called Masterpiece Theatre, for crying out loud; Dekalog and Berlin Alexanderplatz were “too good to be TV”—we screened them in movie theaters! But increased access to these types of shows, in addition to the perceived increase in the quality of U.S. TV, has created an even playing field. Please Like Me and the U.K. Office sit in your Netflix queue next to Friends; you don’t have to do the hard work of tracking them down on DVD or a specialty broadcaster. Unfortunately, subtitles remain a big hurdle for viewer interest: The A.V. Club did everything it could to evangelize for the French supernatural series The Returned, but my reviews of the show remained disappointingly under-read.
If there’s any generational component to this, it’s the lack of barriers, boundaries, or labels seen by the generation that came of age alongside the internet. TV content is TV content, regardless of its point of origin—or the device you watch it on.
How much Australian TV are you aware of? Is there anything you like?
I wish I was aware of more Australian TV—I just spent my name-drop for Please Like Me, which The A.V. Club included on its list of 2015’s best shows. (We’re still waiting for the fourth series; the cable channel that presented it in the States folded in October.) I’ve seen and enjoyed some of Utopia—I hope that makes up for the rough treatment The A.V. Club just gave to Working Dog’s Pacific Heat.
What are you looking for as a critic these days? How has that changed in line with the increase of content from an increasing number of platforms?
There are fundamentals that I’ll always look for, regardless of how I’m watching a show, or where I’m getting it from. First and foremost is character: If a show isn’t giving me interesting, well-rounded people to visit episode in and episode out, I just can’t commit fully. This is where the aforementioned Westworld really let me down: That show’s commitment to its riddles belied a lack of commitment to the on-screen personalities telling and solving those riddles. Story’s important, as is a sense of place, but character tops all.
I think my priorities can be summed up in one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, Parks And Recreation. In response to a bean counter who’s trying to slash the budget that pays her friends’ salaries and funds the vital services they provide, Leslie Knope (one of my favorite TV characters of all time) says: “These are real people in a real town working in a real building with real feelings.” (The incredulous reply that line prompts is good, too: “This building has feelings?”) If a show can give me a sense of at least two of those things, I’m hooked.
Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter is often complaining about there being too many shows now - do you feel that is true? Is it actually a problem that there are so many shows to watch/review? Or is it really only a problem if you are tasked with running a network (like FX chief John Landgraff?)
I wouldn’t characterize it as a problem, but it can be overwhelming. People in my position have to make tougher choices than our predecessors, who could feasibly watch and have an opinion about an entire primetime schedule. Today, I’m lucky if I can watch and have an opinion about a single network’s complete lineup. It’s tougher when you’re one or two of the chief TV voices at a publication. The A.V. Club’s editorial strategy—a large body of freelancers covering a wide variety of shows (but, by no means, every show)—means our critics can be a little more specialized in their areas of coverage and expertise, which is a good fit for an era of hyper-specific Netflix genres.
And this is somewhat analogous to the job Landgraf and others do, because we have to monitor what our readers respond to, throwing additional resources behind the big hits (Game Of Thrones, Walking Dead, etc.) while making sure that we’re still tending to the great shows that don’t have massive followings. It’s a difficult balancing act, and the more that’s out there, the more difficult it is to resist the temptation to pay attention only to the shows that will bring hundreds of thousands of readers to the site. But we’ve managed to do so so far.
How important is it to serve as a 'cheerleader' of sorts as a critic? What show do you find yourself cheerleading for?
I feel most comfortable being a cheerleader for something that’s being overlooked. I did it for The Returned; I most recently did it for Rectify. It’s a part of the job, but it’s one of the lower priorities.
Following the recent Trump win, have you noticed a change in what you are looking for in TV series? Has the setiment among AV Club readers shifted?
That wound is still so fresh, so to speak, so I hesitate to answer for the readers. But for me personally, I’m feeling a greater pull toward escapist fare with tempered optimism (like Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, Parks And Recreation) and experiencing a lack of patience with anything that depicts the end of the world.
As shows begin to generate some heat behind them and become zeitgeist-y, how aware are you of that build? Do you notice it with increased AV Club comments and depth of conversation, or is it really only through web traffic that you can track it? I would guess that it is immediately apparent with a Netflix show like Stranger Things, but less so with a show like Search Party?
I still haven’t developed a skin thick enough for regular dives into the comments (our commenters are lovely, passionate people, but that passion can be a bit much to deal with sometimes), so I get my updates on the zeitgeist from two places: Site traffic and Twitter. Twitter is going through its own difficulties with “passion” right now, but it’s still a good source for tracking the conversation that a show is inspiring. And different shows inspire different levels of devotion and conversation. To use the two examples you cite: With Stranger Things, it was immediate, and it came in a huge wave, but I had a feeling it might go that way based on the early glimpses of the show I’d seen. Search Party was a little sneakier, though there were several small swells of “You need to check this out” about Search Party over our recent Thanksgiving holiday.
End of year Top 10 lists - is this something you look forward to compiling/contributing to?
I anticipate the contribution; it’s the compiling that’s the real bear. But the more I do it, the less monumental it feels. I’ve been a part of six year-end lists at The A.V. Club now, and the preparations for each one feel more and more like just another day at the office. I believe in the service provided by year-end lists, but I try not to get overly invested in them.
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Catch Erik Adams live on stage with other members of The AV Club editorial team at Bingefest on 17-18 December for the panel "All the TV you should have watched by now".