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Party Monsters

Punch-drunk critics in the era of Peak TV

Twice a year, Hollywood’s scribes arrive at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the Television Critics Association press tour, a two-week parade of media availabilities featuring small-screen stars, showrunners, and executives. The press tour purportedly exists to disclose what shows are being renewed, debuted, or deep-sixed, but throughout the waxing of television’s Golden Age—dawning, the critics agree, with the premiere of The Sopranos in 1999—the TCAs evolved into a platform for the wise old heads of Disney, Netflix, and NBC to give their state of the union addresses on the industry itself. The mood was buoyant at the Beverly in the summer of 2015: Mad Men had just wrapped its final, triumphant season, Game of Thrones was flirting with ten million viewers, and the acclaim garnered by Transparent and Orange is the New Black signaled a continuation of the medium’s halcyon era.

Only John Landgraf, the CEO of FX Networks, was willing to strike a sour note. Television is “in the late stages of a bubble,” he prophesied at his network’s presentation. Some four hundred scripted shows would be produced in 2015, Landgraf asserted, and that number was certain to rise. “This is simply too much television. My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we’ll begin to see declines the year after that and beyond.” When that happened, he cautioned, “the process will undoubtedly be Darwinian and weighted toward the largest companies with the top shows and the financial wherewithal to weather the storm and inevitable failure.”

Landgraf’s peers and the Hollywood press were united in their dismissal of his doomsaying. Entertainment Weekly guffawed, “Who’s going to be the first to volunteer to make fewer shows?” and Showtime’s David Nevins sought to twist the label Landgraf had applied to his diagnosis, “Peak TV,” into a cri de coeur. “There may be too much good TV,” he allowed, “but there’s never enough great TV.” In the following months, the medium’s most prominent critics did all they could to ensure it was Nevins’s take on Peak TV that entered the cultural consciousness. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik wrote about “the blessings of ‘Peak TV.’” The Atlantic likened the phenomenon to “one of those all-you-can-eat sushi conveyor belts,” where every item on offer is “delicious.” Variety’s critic joked, “If #PeakTV kills us, I’ll die happy.”

Over at Slate, Willa Paskin excused the collective subversion of Landgraf’s grave warning on the basis of the term Peak TV being “perfectly expressive. There is an insane amount of good television out there, and like Everest (and far lesser climbs), it can be genuinely overwhelming.” By 2017, the consensus was clear. As Alan Sepinwall, the dean of bald-faced, hyperbolic TV boosterism, put it on Twitter, “Peak TV refers much more to quantity than quality; i.e., not as many A+ shows as in the 2000s, but exponentially more A, A-, B+.” Even as they begrudgingly assented that the Golden Age of television typified by The Wire and Mad Men had come to a close, the critics concluded Peak TV nevertheless represented an extended epoch of excellence for the medium.

Limitless Praise

If a decline in quality writ large is indeed evident on the networks and streaming services, one could hardly guess it from the continuing tone of TV coverage. This summer, Sepinwall—recently ensconced at Rolling Stone, long Hollywood’s most reliable cheerleader outside of the trade rags—proclaimed The Americans “one of the great TV dramas of this era,” named Atlanta’s debut season “one of the best and boldest in recent memory,” and labeled Barry “the blackest of black comic stories.”

This counts as reserved praise from Sepinwall. And there’s a reason: in his esteemed opinion, 2018 “has not, by recent standards, been a particularly great year for television.” At least, not compared to 2017, when he groused upon the publication of his year-end best-of list that “narrowing things down even to twenty is tough in Peak TV.” Though one can scarcely imagine a civilian having the time or inclination to follow even twenty programs, to Sepinwall’s mind “there was no real gap in quality between my sixth-place show and about ten or fifteen series that didn’t even make this list.” Sepinwall means this as a compliment, but outside the TV critic echo chamber, the flattening of the critical curve confirms that the revolutionary artistic vitality television once boasted has long since drained away.

Sepinwall is hardly the only one straining to keep the party going. New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz, who has collaborated with Sepinwall on a series of gushy books chronicling the Golden Age’s most beloved dramas, recently called the schlocky ABC thriller Scandal “revolutionary,” the perplexing Legion “brazenly inventive,” and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “a national treasure.”

Today’s television critics, unfortunately, learned the wrong lesson from their own Golden Age: Breaking Bad was a work of genius, so everything else must be pretty good, too.

For the Times’ Poniewozik, this rococo praise is appropriate not only for the shows but their minutiae. In July, he penned a love letter to the opening credits of the spin-off of CBS’s The Good Wife. Titled The Good Fight, this legal drama is so extraordinary it airs only on the network’s streaming service.

Poniewozik prefaced his paean by writing that “a title sequence is not a disposable wrapper. It is part of the program. It is, at best, the show’s homunculus, the creation in miniature.” In this sequence, a series of quotidian objects—leather-bound tomes, a pair of laptops, some handbags—are exploded by an unseen force, accompanied by a score Poniewozik describes as “stately [. . .] something you might listen to in a fancy waiting room or while sipping a fine burgundy.” “The title sequence ends with everything going up operatically in smoke,” he continues, “furniture, finery, law books and the norms they represent. This is why you don’t skip the credits. A good sequence like the one in The Good Fight is a poem, a map, an invitation to join its storytellers as they blow up their world, real good.” All of this for one minute of a show that you’ve almost certainly never heard of, on a streaming service hardly anyone subscribes to.

Flunky-Free TV

What the contemporary critics are loath to acknowledge amid their frantic reassurances that television, in The New Yorker’s words, remains at “the center of culture,” is that the problem of “too much TV” is hardly novel. Rewind to 2008, the apotheosis of the Golden Age, when The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad were all jockeying for airtime. The same year, Amanda D. Lotz, professor of Communications at the University of Michigan, published a study on how television criticism had evolved in response to the logarithmic explosion of channels available via cable and satellite in the 1980s and 1990s. “In a multi-channel era of profuse programming,” Lotz writes,

the critics’ focus on and immersion in the content of the medium take on added importance. Even critics, whose vocation entails viewing hours of programming daily, can no longer watch every show they are sent to review. David Bianculli, television critic for the New York Daily News, reported that he receives an average of twenty FedEx shipments from networks per day during “sweeps” months.

And that was years before Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu got into the original content game. Still, Lotz is careful to note the toll “immersion” took on her subjects:

A number of critics acknowledged that one consequence of the amount of programming they now must consider is that they give fewer negative reviews. Rather, those series and specials that they do not regard highly slip into the vast programming oblivion, as column space is too valuable to waste on negative reviews given the abundance of programming. One critic reflected on the superfluity of panning programming on networks that have comparatively small audiences: “there is no upside to trashing a program on the Discovery Health channel . . . it’s going to have fourteen viewers. What are you going to do, knock it down to nine?”

The incentive structure Lotz describes is straightforward: faced with a thickening glut of television, critics produce fewer negative reviews. With limitless A- and B+ programs available to overpraise, why trash a B-, let alone an F? This results in the expectation, on the part of the critics themselves, that the shows they write about must be aesthetically interesting or, at the very least, culturally urgent. Such endemic self-flattery leads, inevitably, to a weakening of their critical language. Hence Sepinwall’s half-hearted dismissal of Who is America? as “toothless” and Poniewozik’s shrug that HBO’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is “generic.” These adjectives represent as ferocious a pan as you’re likely to find, kid-glove grade inflation that would make a Yale professor blush. When Emily Nussbaum devotes a rarefied New Yorker column to Drunk History or Slate praises The Proposal as “invigoratingly dumb,” the piece is received by fellow critics as corroboration of the universal quality of their subject, rather than proof of its diminished stature.

Perhaps this narrowing of critical perspective explains Sepinwall’s pathological need to describe everyone and everything he remotely enjoys as the pinnacle of the form. Midnight Run? “The best buddy comedy ever.” A scene from the British show Fleabag where the protagonist meets with a loan officer? “One of the best things I’ve ever seen on television.” Die Hard? Not only “the best Christmas movie ever,” it includes “the greatest ‘ho-ho-ho’ in cinema history.” His friend and co-author Matt Zoller Seitz? “The best.” Oh, and while we’re on the subject of the “the best,” we mustn’t forget actress Carrie Coon, Justified character Wynn Duffy, the action film Three Kings, professional baseball player Brandon McCarthy, comic book artist Darwyn Cooke, and that one time David Simon and Edward Snowden tweeted at each other.

These examples are culled from Twitter rather than Sepinwall’s reviews, and I’ve included them here because of the guileless perspective on his craft they betray. Given Sepinwall’s stature in the industry, this knee-jerk impulse to celebrate first and criticize rarely is inexcusable. After all, this approach also brought about the wild proliferation of anti-critical TV writing. In 2011, Slate credited him with popularizing online recaps of individual television episodes, and dubbed him, following his own propensity for superlative, “the acknowledged king of the form”—ever since, publications from The Times to The Ringer have employed a small army of recappers to ensure their readers are kept up to speed on Westworld, The Bachelor, or Succession. Nussbaum has likewise noted that “Nearly every time that I’ve interviewed one of the major TV-makers, they’ve mentioned Alan, generally saying something awestruck along the lines of ‘Sepinwall, that guy knows his stuff.’” He knows, in other words, how to fawn over an industry flush with cash, or, otherwise, how to maximize audiences’ uncritical engagement with an episode by dutifully outlining its plot.

Sepinwall’s happy-go-lucky approach has proven infectious. Poniewozik: “the finale of Sharp Objects has one of the best soundtrack setups/payoffs I’ve ever seen.” Nussbaum: “the best TV pilot is MY SO-CALLED LIFE.” Left to their own devices, our most prominent television critics seem solely interested in defining the best and the greatest, as determined by increasingly esoteric criteria. Such parlor room conversations would all be in good fun, were their effervescent tone not so clearly impairing the ability of the critics to view their subject with even a modicum of distance or restraint.

No New Hollywood

Few moments in American culture parallel the just-passed Golden Age of Television quite like the era of New Hollywood, when GIs tromped through the jungles of Southeast Asia, Nixon was croaking into his clandestine tape recorder, and you could still get a decent deal on a loft in Haight-Ashbury. Promulgated by the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and ushered out of vogue by Star Wars in 1977, New Hollywood is best known for its nouvelle vague-lite filmmaking techniques, but the willingness of its directors to delve into the darker regions of the psyche is, if we’re being generous, its lasting legacy. New Hollywood’s emphasis on the previously forbidden is shared in common with TV’s Golden Age, with its centering of the brooding misbehavior of what Brett Martin has labeled “difficult men”: mobsters, drug dealers, and power-hungry ad executives. In her effulgent review of Bonnie and Clyde for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael—as influential in her day as Sepinwall is now—wrote, “Our best movies have always made entertainment out of the anti-heroism of American life; they bring to the surface what, in its newest forms and fashions, is always just below the surface.”

Kael was far from the only one to reward supposedly existentially troubling films with praise. Roger Ebert labeled Taxi Driver “a brilliant nightmare,” and Andrew Sarris wrote of McCabe Mrs. Miller, “I can’t remember when I have been so moved by something that has left me so uneasy to the marrow of my aesthetic.” Nevertheless, these reviews were hardly raves in the contemporary sense. Instead, the critics maintained the restraint necessary to sort good from great and had little patience for material that didn’t measure up.

In 1974, with classics like Nashville and Network still forthcoming, Kael wrote that though American movies were “probably the best in the world,” she still fretted over their future, with young moviegoers suddenly flocking to “slam-bang pictures” like Dirty Harry. “Audiences like movies that do all the work for them,” she complained,

College students don’t appear to feel insulted (what’s left to insult us?); they don’t mind being banged over the head—the louder the better. They seem to enjoy seeing the performer whacked around, too; sloppy knockabout farce is the newest smash, and knockabout horror isn’t far behind. People go for the obvious, the broad, the movies that don’t ask them to feel anything. If a movie is a hit, that means practically guaranteed sensations—and sensations without feeling.

Kael, of course, was right. Dirty Harry begat Rambo begat Top Gun, and film audiences have been knocked about by cyborgs, secret agents, and superheroes ever since. Kael celebrated the films of the late sixties and seventies that she thought truly superlative, but always with the understanding that New Hollywood was too good to last. She also, importantly, was no rubber stamp: she blasted A Clockwork Orange as having “no motivating emotion,” and used it to argue that no less an eminence than Stanley Kubrick had “assumed the deformed, self-righteous perspective of a vicious young punk.” Indeed, throughout the era of New Hollywood, the critics were as likely to sing the praises of a now beloved picture as to pan it, as when Renata Adler—Kael’s great antagonist and a necessary skeptic to the widely held assumptions of Hollywood’s excellence—wrote that “Seeing The Graduate is a bit like having one’s most brilliant friend to dinner, watching him grow more witty and animated with every moment, and then becoming aware that what one may really be witnessing is the onset of a nervous breakdown.” Compare to now, when a show’s poor review is usually blamed on the factors of its production rather than those responsible for creating it.

Today’s television critics, unfortunately, learned the wrong lesson from their own Golden Age: Breaking Bad was a work of genius, so everything else must be pretty good, too.

Though the latest season of Luke Cage is a “repetitive slog,” Sepinwall writes, that’s Marvel and Netflix’s fault for “filling up a thirteen- episode bag with only three or four episodes’ worth of story,” rather than, you know, the creator’s fault for only coming up with three or four episodes’ worth of story. Similarly, even as Sepinwall chides Legion as a series that prizes “style over substance,” he is quick to reassure the reader that in its “wonderful” first season, “the style was so dazzling, and the story propulsive enough, that it didn’t much matter that the characters were largely hollow archetypes.”

Such rhetorical excuse-making looks flabby next to Kael’s reviews of the eighties, when she blasted Platoon as “overwrought, with too much filtered light, too much poetic license, and too damn much romanticized insanity” and wondered, bemused, why Scarface treated its characters “as if they had an interior life and were going to grow or change.” These are, by many accounts, quality films. But they are not half the measure of their sixties and seventies antecedents, and they were treated as such. Today’s television critics, unfortunately, learned the opposite lesson from their own Golden Age: Breaking Bad was a work of genius, so everything else must be pretty good too.

No After-Party

This unconscionable lack of rigor is distressing, not simply for the pandering it showcases but for the uninspiring output it excuses from the studios. Back in 2015, Landgraf, a television executive, took the critics to task: “Your job is to be tough referees and to call the wins and losses. . . . Nobody bats four hundred in professional baseball and nobody bats a thousand in TV.” The willingness of critics to give an objectively half-assed show an (at least) lukewarm review has a ripple effect; it means the network renews the program rather than giving its slot over to a new idea, or else that a streaming service takes note that it can get away with giving a young director a lower budget or a quicker shooting schedule. As Kael put it in 1981, while attempting to explain the sudden plunge in quality of the films she reviewed, “Rotten pictures are making money—not necessarily wild amounts (though a few are), but sizable amounts. So if studio heads want nothing more than to make money and grab power, there is no reason for them to make better ones.” Kael was clearly troubled by the fact that her fellow critics’ reassertion of film’s artistic worth had helped drive more viewers to the theater, only for the studios to stop making an investment in the quality of the films on offer.

Today’s critics? Not so much. And the aggregate effect of the studios’ knowledge that reviewers will excuse just about anything is obvious: earlier this year, Landgraf abandoned his prior prediction about Peak TV, stating that the number of scripted shows would surpass five hundred in 2018. Chastened, he declined to make a new prediction of when the numbers might begin to fall.

The most obvious beneficiary of critical permissiveness in the era of Peak TV is Netflix.

Once Netflix’s pantry of English-language shows is sufficiently stuffed, what reason will the firm have to keep showering money on up-and-coming auteurs?

The streaming service has been accumulating mountains of debt since it started producing its own content in 2012—even so, it will spend an estimated $11 billion in 2018 to expand its library of original programming to more than one thousand entries. But Netflix already has fifty-two million users in the United States, a figure that’s led most financial analysts to suggest that if the company wants to keep growing, it will have to turn its attention to producing shows for international markets. Once Netflix’s pantry of English-language shows is sufficiently stuffed, what reason will the firm have to keep showering money on up-and-coming auteurs? More urgent is the threat posed by the pending takeover of Fox by Disney, as it’s difficult to imagine the “significant value” the $71.3 billion merger will (supposedly) create for shareholders is dependent in large part on a consolidation of programming.

Indeed, Landgraf’s initial forecast may have only been a few years off, as evidence is mounting that the bubble is already leaking air. Netflix cancelled a record number of programs this year, and in the spring, the number of new scripted shows ordered by the Big Five broadcast networks hit a six-year low at the same time they hit a three-year peak in cancellations. Even if 2018 does indeed see more scripted series across all platforms, how sustainable is that growth if more shows are being cancelled than ever before?

There may be no dramatic, convulsive end to television’s boom times. But some decline is inevitable, and once that happens, it won’t be Netflix or Disney who suffers the consequences: it will be those who are trying to make art. The likes of Glee creator Ryan Murphy, who will be cashing a cool $300 million from Netflix over the next five years, will be just fine. No, it’s the younger filmmakers we should be worried about.

Imagine an aspiring filmmaker, working diligently in a writer’s room at AMC or Hulu, who, a few years on, finally feels she’s gathered the connections and clout necessary to pitch a dream project. In 2010, she would probably get a pilot. In 2020? And that’s to say nothing of the actors, costume designers, and gaffers who depend on these shows for their foothold in the industry. Once the party winds down, they’ll be the ones stuck volunteering at some Pasadena community theater. The critics, consolidated at whatever prestige magazines remain, will be whistling Dixie the whole time. While the Hollywood plutocrats skulk away to their superyachts, the debate will rage on Twitter: What was the best sitcom to debut on a full moon? Who was the best TV president ever? Best soundtrack? Best chase scene? Bloodiest death?