The Trouble with ‘Episodic Reviews’

or, How Bad Critics and Terrible Practices by Papers and Websites is Damaging Valuable Criticism

After finishing the latest episode of HBO’s hit, Game of Thrones my girlfriend and I exchanged concerned glances. I felt it was an ‘alright’ episode, and Nata’s view was much the same. We chatted at length about the needless battle in the finale featuring Euron – a character who was introduced in the previous season during a thunderstorm, in the rain, on a rickety bridge between two cliffs. Of course he killed an important character in one of his first scenes. His whole introduction tainted him with aspects of a walking cliche; a slightly unhinged evil ‘someone’ who had sailed in from seas unknown. We were both keen to see what critical views the press would have of the episode in the papers the following day.

What a mistake that was.

I’ve been solidly against episodic reviews since I learnt they existed. The best seasons operate like great albums; a developing narrative that rises and falls as episodes pass. Some songs may be slow and loving, whilst others rough, passionate, even angry. There will be filler episodes – but in turn there will be battle episodes, emotional breakdowns, episodes focused on exposition or world building – but no song should sound the same as the others, else you end up with a dull samey sound. To review a single episode is to review a single track, and the context of that episode/track should never be ignored.

Traditional journalists are like dragons – there’s not too many of them around these days. But their words are like fire on the page.

I’m not sure what I expected when reading through commentary on the second episode of the recent season. I expected some critical angle, an appreciation and realisation by the author that they can only say so much (given that they don’t yet have the rest of the season to consider), and some back-and-forth between what has gone before and what is happening now – maybe raising queries as to what recent changes could mean for the future.

In both articles there was some back-and-forth. That’s about it.

I’ll admit that the two articles I read were from larger papers, which may be why their critical content was nonexistent (though that’s no excuse). Instead, those articles I examined offered up measly summary’s of the plot, as if drafting out the episode prior to production. My question is: who wants to read the summary of an episode they’ve literally just watched? Or, if you haven’t seen the episode yet, then why spoil an episode you haven’t yet watched? Without critical content, an episodic review is pointless.

The most unenlightening of the two comes from the Telegraph (not the greatest newspaper generally, in truth). Claiming to be a ‘review’, it is instead a brief summary of plot points with particular emphasis on the sex and violence. There is more in the Independent (which is surprising given its shift to clickbait following its move from a paper paper to online paper), the article author delves a little deeper; offering insight on how characters may react in forthcoming episodes. Then it falls into plot regurgitation, but picks up at the end with criticism of the development of Arya – her quite sudden turn from ballsy but naive Stark to mysterious ninja. Then the articles ends, almost as suddenly as it began. Where oh where are the ruminations I desire!

Pictured: An army of freelancers speed towards a website, armed with pitches for the most recent episode of a TV series.

…and now I return to the safety to criticism the media…

Traditional journalism is dead. I’m over-egging it with that statement, for sure, but journalism is going the way of publishing. Traditional publishers now have to battle with self publishers or small publishing houses, whilst traditional papers have to contend with millions of other sites producing content – and sites are damn easy to set up if you have the money. As more and more sites begin to find their footing, more and more voices are needed to fill columns with content. The rush to generate content is a plus for some (freelancers particularly), but rarely produces thoughtful or insightful criticism.

This weaves in with a video that rose to prominence on reddit quite recently, which focused on video game critics and journalism.

Many of Dunkey’s criticisms can be applied neatly to the world at large – particularly criticism and journalism surrounding the entertainment industry. Television, much like video games, has had to fight hard for recognition in a world that placed film on a golden plinth. The recent golden age of television (among some other older series) has helped to create television criticism through the generation of works that are capable of being artistically and academically assessed.

However, pseudo-critical episodic reviews damage that artistic potential – both through dilution of the terms we use to locate critical content online (i.e. using ‘review’ when you mean ‘Imma just throw the plot at you’), and through the urgency of papers pushing to have relevant content up on the site seconds after said content has finished. The solution to this is, as of yet, unclear – perhaps the mature reader will learn to move towards more critical content? Maybe there is some value in the way sites are raising walls on their content – for paying subscribers only? What is clear is that the nature of journalism and criticism is changing rather drastically, and currently not for the better.

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