Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Alan Sepinwall. He’s the television critic at HitFix and the best in the business. He also has written two books (The Revolution Was Televised and TV (The Book)). We talked about the art of the TV show review, how his job has changed over the years, the value of objectivity, and his Knicks fandom.
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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.
1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?
I had always wanted to be a movie critic, going back to all those Sunday nights spent watching Siskel & Ebert on TV. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania and began writing for the Daily Pennsylvanian’s weekly arts magazine 34th Street. At the same time, I was part of the first Penn class of non-engineers to be given an email account and easy internet access, which I took advantage of to begin writing about my favorite show at the time, NYPD Blue, on Usenet, and then for my own (now very tacky-looking) website. The combination of my 34th Street clips and printouts of some of my online pieces (which were pretty novel for 1996) helped get me a summer internship in The Star-Ledger features department, and when the paper’s veteran TV critic couldn’t go to the Television Critics Association press tour that summer, my editor, Susan Olds, decided to take a gamble and send me. A month after graduating college, I was basically a full-time TV critic, and have been doing it ever since, first at the Ledger, now at HitFix. I’m very lucky. Right place, right time.
2. Your weekly recaps of shows are, for myself included, must-reads after watching a show like Mad Men or Silicon Valley. Slate called you the “king of the form.” What’s the art to writing something like that?
It varies depending on the show. With some shows, it’s much more of a thumbs-up/thumbs-down paradigm, where I look at whether an episode worked, or didn’t, and why. With a Mad Men or a Wire, the greatness of the series, and of most episodes, is virtually a given, so what you’re looking for there is to find deeper meaning, whether it’s the symbolism on Mad Men or the connections between all the characters on The Wire.
3. As a television critic do you see your job and your criticism as being self-contained to the shows that you watch and write about, or do you also try to look at them through a more cultural prism and as social commentary too?
Other critics like James Poniewozik and Alyssa Rosenberg do the latter, and do a great job at it. That’s not really how I’m wired, though, and while sometimes the social point of things is impossible to ignore (earlier today, I wrote about an episode of UnREAL that used a Black Lives Matter plot for cheap shock value), my main focus is on the show as a show.
4. Do you think television has kept up with the changing demographics and social beliefs of its viewers or do you think it’s moved more slowly? Why do you think that is?
That answer probably depends on one’s own political beliefs. If you just look at the wave of shows featuring trans characters, for instance, you’re going to find some people who wish TV would stop talking about the subject, and others who feel like those handful of shows (notably Transparent and Orange Is the New Black) aren’t nearly enough.
Demographically, TV is getting better, but it’s still not great. What’s been heartening to see is the success of ABC’s diverse family sitcoms, which are a reminder that if you filter the same old sitcom stories through the kinds of perspectives that have rarely been shown on sitcoms, the stories feel brand new again.
8. You’ve been credited with helping save the show “Chuck” – including by NBC CEO Ben Silverman – what’s the line for you between being an activist for a show, a fan and a neutral critic? Do those lines even need to exist anymore, from television criticism to political reporting and commentary, if you’re open with your biases?
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You can check out the first six Q&As below:
- With Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal on Aroldis Chapman, Springsteen and Twitter
- With Lindsey Adler of Buzzfeed on women in media, finding stories and NY vs. SF food
- With James Wagner of the Washington Post on empathy for hispanic players, PEDs, and growing up around the world
- With Marc Carig of Newsday on the anxiety of reporting, if baseball is boring and Bartolo Colon
- With Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal on covering the Knicks, diversity in journalism, and staying happy
- With Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB on developing sources, covering the NFL, and almost burning down Giants Stadium