Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hard things about being a TV critic #1

A piece I was working on for The House Next Door just kept getting bigger and bigger and less and less manageable, so I ended up scrapping it (at the advice of my editor, as always), hoping that someday, I'll get to write it at a more palatable length (be that a book or an encyclopedia). The piece was to be about how hard it is to be a TV critic when there's no standardized format for thinking about television and writing about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were a lot of things that were hard about being a TV critic, and one of those things is just how hard it is to catch up with the medium as a whole. Most hugely influential shows are on DVD, but several are lost to the ages (especially shows from the '50s when the technology didn't exist to save the shows for long periods of time cheaply). Whereas a company like Criterion is dedicated to releasing films that are obscure for most American audiences so cinephiles can watch them (university presses do the same for obscure and lost novels), nobody is picking up ancient series that were on for a season (or less) but influenced shows that came after them. Room 222, which spawned many of the comedy writers who created the 70s sitcom renaissance, is unavailable (it will occasionally pop up in TV Land reruns), for example.

Even if every TV series in existence were readily available on DVD, catching up would take an exhausting amount of time. A lifetime can be spent reading every worthwhile novel or seeing every worthwhile film, but the big names can be hit rather quickly (I had seen most of the AFI's 100 greatest films list -- admittedly, a flawed list -- by the time I was a sophomore in college). With television, there's more time and effort involved in, say, watching all six seasons of I Love Lucy or something. Not that it can't be done, of course, but doing it requires a real investment, one that almost would have to preclude having a life.

I'm not saying there are easy solutions to this problem (there aren't), but I do think that there's room for a Criterion-style company to release critically acclaimed shows that didn't see a big response when they first aired in sets with detailed extras and such.

So if you have millions of dollars in venture capital, get in touch, because I'd be happy to run such a venture.

No comments: