There is one subject that television has almost always been at sea with: television itself.
There are exceptions, of course, especially at CBS News where the late John Leonard was rather wonderful talking about it on “CBS Sunday Morning.” And Jeff Greenfield, when he was at CBS, could sometimes be found praising television on other networks.
CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and Fox’s “Fox News Watch” have both ventured “a critical look at the media,” sometimes very well indeed. (In its best days, “Fox News Watch” had Eric Burns as its moderator and Neal Gabler as its standout commentator. It was both too good and too politically independent to find a long-term compatible place in Roger Ailes’ kingdom.)
I have an idea. Believe me, I’m not in the habit of coming up with ideas for TV shows but this one is good enough, I think, to mention in public.
I think the time has long since come for an hourlong TV show giving us a critical review of television itself.
Now that Jeff Zucker, for instance, is hungry for ways to collect pairs of eyeballs for CNN, I think CNN would be one ideal place for it. But that’s far from the only place it would be comfortable. PBS wouldn’t be bad for it, nor would MSNBC or even Fox News, if it came down to that. (And if someone could engineer some sort of ironclad managerial pledge to keep hands off it ideologically.)
There is, even now, a distant potential home for it on the newly reconfigured ESPN whose recent acquisitions by its head John Skipper have revealed an inclination to delve into political realms, now that they’ve taken Keith Olbermann back for the latest act of his continuing grand opera of Sturm und Drang against broadcast management, and Nate Silver has taken his matchless statistical expertise to ESPN. It’s hard for me to believe that Olbermann and Silver will be confined completely to sports subjects. Skipper himself (great name for a network chief, eh what?) has said that he simply is interested in bringing intelligence to ESPN.
What I propose is not specific previewing of shows, i.e., rating shows before they air, which is in its way a branch of promotion. What I propose is commentary only on things that have already aired and therefore allowed every audience member a chance to see or DVR it.
What I propose would bring a massive amount of critical intelligence to a network an hour a week.
In fact, it is one of ESPN’s more entertaining shows – “The Sports Reporters” – that helped give me the idea. The other two things that spurred my imagination are David Edelstein replacing John Leonard for occasional movie reviews on “CBS Sunday Morning” and “Talking Bad,” AMC’s half-hour fan show on Sundays where members of the cast and crew of “Breaking Bad” deal with what is, in effect, fan gushing.
It certainly isn’t the fan tone of “Breaking Bad” worship on “Talking Bad” that gave me the idea; it’s how much room for genuinely intelligent comment is left by current television – especially current TV drama – which has become one of the most exciting subjects in America.
In Brett Martin’s superb recent book, “Difficult Men,” he notes the massive amount of great 21st century drama on cable and calls this “television’s Third Golden Age.” Critic Alan Sepinwall in his book, “The Revolution Will Be Televised,” matter-of-factly refers to the period since “The Sopranos” as the TV revolution of his book’s title. Television has gone way beyond the water cooler as an American subject.
And that’s precisely the point of what I’m proposing. Three very unusual things have happened simultaneously to change the whole landscape of commentary about television: 1) Television, especially cable TV drama, has become one of the most exciting subjects that can be covered in American media – often as exciting as movies and even more when you consider the long forms TV works in and the number of eyes trained weekly upon it; 2) The deeply unfortunate putsch of critics from the ranks of newspapers and magazines in the current nervous breakdown of contemporary journalism has left some of American journalism’s sharpest critical minds “at liberty” as they say in show business; and 3) Correspondingly, the ranks of Internet magazines and blogs have introduced a ton of incoherent painful babble but also some uncommonly sharp observers of American television.
The timing, then, couldn’t be better for a weekly hourlong discussion show of some immensely smart critics talking about everything they want that has any relationship at all to the massive amount of television these days that is, by any assay, fascinating to talk and think about.
Consider the TV landscape merely on Sunday nights in the year 2013: On HBO, “Game of Thrones,” “The Newsroom,” Boardwalk Empire” and “True Blood”; on Showtime, “Dexter” and “Ray Donovan” and all its ribald comedies a la “Californication,” etc.; on AMC, “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad” and the new “Low Winter Sun,” along with the gloriously dark noir “The Killing,” etc. And that’s just Sunday nights.
Add FX shows during the week “The Bridge,” “American Horror Story” and “The Americans,” etc.
And then consider the immense number of subjects that come up every week that cry out for both sharp and cunningly nuanced critical thinking – for instance, this week’s entry of the Al Jazeera network on the cable dial after Al Gore sold his old network. We’re not even talking about the widespread sentiment, for instance, that “Dexter” has gone seriously astray in its final season on the air – and not just because Time Warner Cable has made it unwatchable while it dukes it out with CBS in the boardroom.
And then consider the number of exceptional critical minds that could be trained on any or all of this, if they’d agree to be: Ken Tucker, Tom Carson, John Powers, Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker; Matt Zoller Seitz of New York magazine and Roger Ebert’s old website; the Washington Post’s old stalwarts Tom Shales and Stephen Hunter; James Wolcott of Vanity Fair; Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice.
The cadre of truly interesting critical minds is so large and the television subjects so prodigiously plentiful – especially with a new season coming up – that an extraordinary hour of weekly TV could be made of it for a substantial minority audience.
Put Greenfield or Burns or Gabler in the moderator’s role. (Charlie Rose would have been ideal, but he’s busy enough these days.)
And then collect subjects and watch some of the smarter people in America have their say on them.
All it needs now is some network to commit to letting them say what they want without interference – always a tough thing to establish anywhere but far from impossible, as history has abundantly and gloriously proved.