Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Requiem for Television Without Pity

Spare the snark.  Spoil the networks.  – Television Without Pity

In the summer of 2003 I was bored.  I was home between my junior and senior years of college and was working a job with really long hours while most of my friends were holding down typical 8-5s.  The result was that I had two or three days each week where I wasn’t working but my friends were, and I had nothing to do.  And then I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I’d heard a bit about the show at school but hadn’t actually gotten a chance to see it.  After all, my school didn’t have cable in the dorms and this was a pre-Tivo, pre-Netflix era, so my only chance to watch anything was live via rabbit ears.  But one summer Tuesday night, home alone, I stumbled across “Hell’s Bells” airing on UPN and I decided to give it a shot. 

In retrospect, “Hell’s Bells” is a pretty crappy episode of Buffy, but I was transfixed.  I hadn’t seen anything like it on television.  It’s not like I hadn’t watched much television to that point in my life, but I was much more into sports than scripted television.  The only series that had any lasting impact on me from my pre-college years  was MacGyver.  But Buffy was something different.  After doing a little browsing online I discovered that FX was airing back-to-back episodes daily in the afternoon and that the pilot was going to be airing the next day.  It was perfect.  I set my VCR to record both episodes while I was at work and then would binge two, four, or six episodes on my days off (yep, I was binge-watching before it was cool). 

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to completely catch up on the show by the time its seventh and final season began airing in September.  Finally watching live, I did what any television-obsessed fan does: I scoured the internet for any and all sites about the show I could find.  That’s what led me to Television Without Pity (TWoP).  I devoured their Buffy recaps, which led me to Angel, and Firefly, the entire Joss Whedon oeuvre, and the whole world of television.  Most, if not all of the shows I watched over the next several years I discovered through TWoP.  Even those shows I didn’t “find” through TWoP, required reading the site’s recaps.  After all, TWoP was ahead of its time in pioneering two of the principal features of today’s internet television landscape: Weekly recaps/reviews and a venue for viewer engagement.

Television Without Pity may not necessarily have been the first of its kind, but it was definitely the best of the first wave of new criticism, which it why it was so sad today to read that NBC Universal will be shutting the site’s doors next week.  No website has had a greater impact on television criticism.  If you have ever read a review of a non-pilot episode of a television series, it’s thanks to TWoP.  If you have ever seen television discussed in a professional setting with a conversational tone, it’s thanks to TWoP.  I also credit the site for popularizing the word “snark.”

The sad truth though is that, while TWoP was ahead of its time, the world of television has moved past it.  I realized that fact today as I considered the site today and realized that I hadn’t visited it in more than a year.  One reason is because I moved beyond the level of analysis that the site had to offer.  As one critic (whose name escapes me) once wrote, “A recap tells you what you saw; a review tells you what it meant.”  As I watched more television and began treating it as a true art form rather than a distraction, I moved beyond the need for recaps (no matter how witty and entertaining they were) and began looking for deeper analysis.  And the TWoP forums were long ago supplanted by Twitter, Facebook, and other websites as the places to go for timely television discussion.

The other truth is that the TWoP of 2014 was not the TWoP of 2003.  In 2007, the site was purchased by Bravo (later to be purchased by NBC Universal).  In 2008, the principal editorial staff left, later to form and throughout the years many of site’s best writers have moved on to bigger and better things.  Most notably from my perspective is Linda Holmes, now a writer and personality at NPR, whose Amazing Race recaps I still reference today. These people have been replaced by capable writers, and some originals remain, but for me it never felt the same.

The saddest part of this story is not that TWoP is dying.  Websites come and go all the time.  The most disappointing aspect is that, while NBC has promised to archive the site, it is not making that archive publicly available.  This is 20 years of work being lost to the ether.  The formative period of television criticism will be gone as of next Friday.  Hopefully, some group will step up to try to make at least some of the content available permanently (and I’ll contribute what time I can).  But it just goes to show how fleeting the modern age of media culture can be.  I can go to the shelves in my library and find a book set with the entire history of Variety’s television reviews, from the 1950s to the early 2000s.  But the principal source for early-twentieth century television criticism is about to disappear, possibly forever.

I would not watch television, think about television, or write about television the way I do today were it not for Television Without Pity.  TV criticism would not be what it is today without TWoP.  Its passing is not an omen for the future.  But it is a warning against critical outlets that would consider selling out to content providers and it is a notice that not all media criticism is permanently available in today’s internet culture.  I hope that TWoP will live on some way.  But at the very least I am thankful that it gave us the lively, relevant television culture that we have today. 

One more thought – 

If you were ever a fan of the show, you owe it to yourself to read Jacob Clifton’s Battlestar Galactica recaps.  They are some of the best television writing I have ever read.  And you only have a week to do it.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic. You can follow him on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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