Justifying David Simon
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
April 11, 2012 – 15:51
Last week, the TV-themed corners of the Internets were all atwitter around a pair of interviews David Simon gave, first to The New York Times, then to Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. I won’t try to summarize them fully, but I did want to weigh in on one of Simon’s core arguments about the place of episodic criticism. (Note: as I was writing this, Noel Murray posted his own take about this and related issues at The A.V. Club – like nearly everything Noel writes, I recommend it, and in this case, agree with pretty much all of it, so please read it!)
Part of Simon’s gripe is his annoyance over Grantland’s “Best Wire Character” bracket, especially in the site’s silly write-ups, if not the fan voting itself—even though I did vote (Bubbles 4EVA!), I agree about the way that type of fandom missed the point of the series. More interesting is his critique that weekly reviews of long-form serialized television often misconstrue a series, lacking the perspective of how any episode or plotline fits into the whole. I fully agree with his points on this for many series (including Simon’s own), where the long arcs often include moments in earlier episodes that might be less than satisfying or clear without the context of the whole. This is not to say there is no use for episodic reviews, which function (as Noel expresses eloquently) more as sites of conversation than definitive assessment. And as a media scholar, I find those in-the-moment evaluations and conversations essential windows into reception practices—what I wouldn’t have given to be able to look at such evidence from earlier programs in television history that I’ve written about, like Soap or Dragnet! But the rush to judgment, and the associated critical consensus that can develop around a show from week to week can be more damaging than illuminating to understanding the larger picture in the moment.
Case in point: Justified. Yesterday saw the conclusion of the third season, ending in a fantastic episode that brought together many of the season’s diverse plot threads and wove them into an emotionally powerful tapestry about fathers and sons, family, and going home. Before the finale, the online critical consensus was that season 3 was a let down from season 2′s superb tale of the Bennett crime family, with too many competing criminals and lack of thematic consistency. While I actually liked the season overall more than many critics, as I always found the performances compelling and the moment-to-moment dialogue and tone so pleasurable, there was a real sense of concern in the critical sphere of “what happened to Justified?” and could it regain its footing next year. But in the wake in the seemingly universal praise of the finale, perhaps those critics and commenters should revise their assessments of the show’s strengths. At least I would hope that they would notice how the themes and threads were subtly there throughout, even if they were not always apparent in the moment – I certainly have thought back on previous episodes and reconsidered how Arlo’s ramblings, Quarles’s backstory, and Winona’s pregnancy all relate in ways that I’d never picked up on.
My own experience doing weekly reviews is modest, as I blogged the final season of Lost for Antenna. In that process, I kept wanting to put a pin in certain moments and plotlines, withholding judgment until the final revelations help explain what we were watching and why. Certainly many people felt let down by Lost‘s finale, and I would argue in large part it was due to so much weight being put upon that reveal of the sideways universe’s true meaning, and the concept couldn’t quite support that much pressure. While I loved the opportunity to pontificate & converse about the show each week, I also saw how that evaluative context changed my reactions and expectations in ways that I might wish it had not.
There is no “pure” way to watch a program, but that doesn’t mean that all contexts and practices have equal impact – writing and reading episodic reviews, and engaging in such sites of conversation, changes our expectations and experiences in palpable ways. Some shows benefit from that – from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Mad Men does, and I’d say that many comedies do as well – but others can get mired down in parsing out details or filling in gaps that we might need to reevaluate down the road. But two things that online culture is particularly poor at is withholding judgment and reevaluating experiences, as people tend to double down on their own perspectives more often than not. There is no simple answer here, as the benefits of weekly reviewing & conversations are compelling enough to keep going, and I’ll still read & write them. But I’d hope we could all dial down the absolutism, and try to step back and imagine larger contexts, and be open to them when they reveal themselves, rather than needing to revise our earlier scorn (or praise) in light of how things end up.