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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Reviewing TV and Why It Is A Nightmare

Reviewing ongoing TV series is a tricky business.

I say this having done an awful lot of it in the past, and part of what makes it so difficult is that until a series is concluded it is hard to say, with any authority, whether it is ultimately worth anyone’s time.

Will the cogs keep turning and all the pieces fit?

Will the key executive producer(s) be fired, turning the show into something new?

Will the show hold its landing, and end satisfactorily?

Will it perhaps even be cancelled before it has a chance to conclude?

The standard for TV and film are different. One medium asks for perhaps a couple of hours. The other potentially asks for days. Whereas a film can be worth seeing for a few key sequences, can a TV show?

I would argue not. In most cases, the cost-benefit ratio doesn't bear it out - not least because TV shows thrive on keeping people watching, not on ensuring they are of excellent quality throughout.

Undoubtedly, of course, there have been tonnes of great series that went wrong along the way, or which withered on the vine. But where should TV critics draw the line? If they watch the first three episodes of a series, is that enough to commend or condemn?

What about a whole season? Or should critics hold their tongue until a show is over and done with before making judgements?

Does it matter, and does anyone care?

Well, to answer the last questions first, not really. People will watch what they want to watch. But if you find a critic you like, people can care. I know I have done, and still do, and I trust some critical voices with my time while others infuriate me deeply.

Like all criticism, it is subjective.

Take year’s conclusion of Game of Thrones as an interesting case in point.

Having seen the pilot way back when, I was ruthlessly unkind about it, including on my old podcast, The Smart Arts Review (if you look at the reviews of Season 1 on Metacritic, you will find an excerpt of what I had to say). Indeed, I was probably a little too mean.

For those who followed the show as it came out, it felt at times like "GoT" might have been going somewhere. The series was a grand experiment. A many headed-hydra, unpredictable, mutating, and viewers never really knew whether they should trust in George R. R. Martin’s grand plan – let alone in David Benioff or D.B. Weiss. But many of us kept going, often in spite of our better judgement.

It was just too big a show to ignore.

Sometimes, 'Thrones was pretty brilliant. Sometimes it was execrable. And in the end, I think most viewers would say, while it was fun in stretches, and featured a number of iconic water-cooler moments, that Game of Thrones is not a truly great TV show. It will not go down in the annals of TV history as a ‘must watch’, and although it will have its fans I doubt people will be trying to convert new adherents to it in a decade’s time.

It was another Lost. Another 24. Another Heroes. Boardwalk Empire. True Blood. Dexter.

The list goes on.

I hope you will forgive the note of cynicism when I say all this, but I started reviewing TV during the early days of box set culture and have been badly burned by it. Days... Weeks of my life have been wasted.

I remember when people first started to talk about ‘binge-watching’ shows. Back then, The Sopranos had just ended, The Wire was still running (to catch it, you had to stay up very late and tune into BBC Two), and Breaking Bad was yet to even begin.

For perspective, Doctor Who had not long been revived.

I didn’t realise what was about to happen.

I don’t think anyone did.

People often cite The Sopranos as the beginning of the "Golden Age of TV" and write about how it was the first big budget HBO series, quickly followed by a string of similarly iconic hits, including Six Feet Under - a brilliant series that now seems almost forgotten.

They say that The Sopranos it was responded to in rival series on other networks, such as AMC’s Mad Men.

That, like Batman necessitating The Joker, it was a case of cause and effect. A televisual arms race of sorts.

Yet, people forget that NBC’s The West Wing also launched in 1999. And that Sex and the City predated both, starting out as a black comedy more in the mode of the source novel before it mutated into something… different.

Before then, of course, HBO had Oz, which was a cult show, but could it be argued that Tom Fontana’s postmodern prison drama was the tip of the spear?

For my money, the trend started with DVDs. You can look back further and find series that were phenomenally popular weekly, or on VHS, of course, but were they digested in the same way?

The X-Files, E.R., Friends, Frasier, South Park, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation all inculcated their own brands of tape-based collect-o-mania, but people didn't hoover whole series up as they do now. It just wasn't a thing!

But, in the early 2000s internet piracy was rife.

That’s what changed it all.

Streaming had not been born, so the TV industry’s only move at the time was, to compete with free, they had to sell really big, really cheap bundles of DVDs containing whole series. Content was king, and so was quality, and in that flood of inexpensive entertainment a new kind of glossy TV series was born.

Sure, old shows were dredged up for re-release and reappraisal, but every channel everywhere was trying to create their own high quality, break-through TV drama.

It was bedlam - and still is.

Back then, I tried to keep up, but ultimately I ended up drowning. There were too many shows to watch, too many prior series to binge on to get up to date with the back catalogue of this show-runner or that. Too much research to do, and too much rubbish clogging up my TV set.

It became oppressive, and exhausting, and I burnt out.

As a result, I am now very, very choosy about which series I watch.

Life is too short for bad TV – and that is really what a TV critic is for, in my opinion.

To save you time, and give you a sense of whether this show or that is worth you investing in.

With this in mind, if a show is ongoing, and I am watching it, and I feel compelled to write about it, I will do so with trepidation.

If I think it is going to be worth it, I will say so – and, frankly, I will only recommend a series if I feel, in my gut, that it will not ultimately prove to be a waste of time.

And I was right, I feel, about Game of Thrones. I was right about Lost. Right when I recommended Breaking Bad just a season and a half in, when nobody was talking about it and the DVDs weren’t even for sale in the UK.

I have seen a hell of a lot of shows, and do not suffer poor television gladly.

With this in mind, I hope you come to enjoy some of the things I recommend on this blog, yet take it all with a pinch of salt.

I have been wrong before. Was wrong about Rubicon. Wrong about Luck. Wrong about The Walking Dead (although who could have seen the Darabont thing coming, really?)

Anyway, if in doubt, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, play it safe, and wait until a show is over before you jump on board. Because reviewing TV is a nightmare - albeit a nightmare that always comes to an end, even if that end is a massive letdown.

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