Perhaps it's the combination of Sunday night's Mad Men finale and the flurry of Sopranos discussion that followed the death of James Gandolfini, but it's hard not to be struck by the explosion of writing about television that's occurred in the last 15 years or so, facilitated (of course) by the ability to go from rolling credits to publication in an hour (if necessary). After any major episode, there will be a flurry of commentary, and even after minor episodes of minor shows, there are write-ups here and there.
But while these pieces — whether you call them recaps, reviews, essays, commentaries, whatever — may look the same, there are a bunch of different ways to do them, and understanding the kinds that are out there might help you find the kind you like. So here they are: the seven ways people commonly write about television.*
The Craft model. In a lot of ways, this is the kind of criticism with which people are most familiar. It's focused on the quality of work that goes into a show — how strong is the directing, writing, acting, lighting, scoring, and so forth. The higher-brow the show is, the more Craft writing there is; nobody spends a lot of time writing about the direction on NCIS or The Big Bang Theory, even if they like those shows.
That doesn't mean there is no craft — it just means either writers are usually not interested in writing about it or they don't have the familiarity with the form to analyze it effectively. Craft writing probably requires the most background knowledge and the most experience, and it's where you're most likely to fall into a hole if you don't actually know which pieces of a show's quality are the result of direction, for instance, versus writing. To give you an example of Craft done well, Matt Zoller Seitz is a Craft writer, mostly. (Although, I should note, everyone I know who's a good writer incorporates elements of all these models. But Matt is a Craft guy.)
The Ethical model. It's almost a subspecies within the Craft model, but it deserves its own section, I think. The Ethical model is where writers address the sociological implications of how the show is made. In the reality setting, this is pretty obvious — were people subjected to terrible conditions, and so forth. But Ethical writing also tends to incorporate issues of gender, race, sexuality, politics, and so forth. Perpetuating stereotypes, representation behind and in front of the camera — this is where Ethical writing gets its strength. Alyssa Rosenberg does a lot of Ethical writing at Think Progress; she's probably the only writer I can think of where that's what she sees as her primary beat (perhaps unsurprisingly).
The Puzzle model. This is the writing that tries to uncover hidden meanings and explain symbolism. The idea is to take your sharp eye, as the writer, and note things that other people perhaps wouldn't notice. The absolute best Puzzle writing I'm aware of at the moment is Mad Style, the weekly column breaking down the costuming of Mad Men, found at the fashion site Tom and Lorenzo. Most costume commentary, other than this, is part of the Craft model — admiring the sheer beauty of wardrobe choices or the skill in matching them to the period. But Mad Style treats fashion like other writing treats any other kind of messaging and applies specialized knowledge to surface pieces of the storytelling that aren't obvious.
But whenever writers are pointing out callbacks, metaphors, symbolism, lines that have double meanings — that's all Puzzle stuff. In many, many episode recaps, you'll find bullet points at the end, some of which will be Puzzle content that doesn't fit anywhere else.
The Maker model. These are the pieces of writing that focus on the relationship between a show and its creator, in spite of the fact that lots of people's work go into the final product. It's kind of like auteur theory in film, although it tends to be a little more from-the-hip with television, and it doesn't necessarily indicate that anyone is sophisticated enough to be considered an auteur. These are things like Emily Nussbaum's marvelous New Yorker piece on Ryan Murphy, "Queer Eyes, Full Heart." There are makers who attract much more Maker writing than others — Shonda Rhimes, oddly enough, attracts less of it than you might expect, given her massive impact on the ABC lineup, while Lena Dunham attracts outrageous tons of it, despite her relatively small audience. (Aaron Sorkin gets more of it the more he complains about it, which is sweet justice for someone, but I'm not sure who.)
The Riff model. This is writing that sees television primarily as a jumping-off point for jokes. It's what Television Without Pity was when I worked there, it's what Previously.tv is, and it's what a lot of Vulture recaps are, including (for instance) Dave Holmes writing about American Idol.
The Vignette model. On a personal note, this is probably the model I use the most. Monday's piece about the Mad Men finale falls into this category; on a less serious note, so does the Scandal piece I wrote about how everyone in the world should dump Fitz. In the Vignette model, you look at a piece of television as a little story, and then you address a bunch of discussion questions. Can Don be saved? Is Megan misunderstood? Can Walter White turn his life around? Should Alicia Florrick get back together with her husband? These aren't really about the quality of the product, exactly, they're questions the product provokes. The episode, in this case, just exists — it's like an essay question on a test. "Discuss."
A lot of people are completely baffled by Vignette writing. This is where you get the "What are you talking about THESE ARE FICTIONAL CHARACTERS!" stuff, as if you'd never talk about what the people in a story did unless it was true. The irony is that Vignette writing freaks people out, but it was the first literary analysis most of us ever learned: Why does this character lie? What should this person have done? What motivated Iago?
Vignette writing is also what animates just about everyone who likes writing about reality TV, because while there's a lot of craft involved in differentiating good reality from bad, that's not what most of the writing is about. Most of the writing, whether serious or funny, is about the people in the story and what their behavior says about the way people act. I don't remember ever having an incredibly fascinating conversation about the crafting of reality shows except with people who make them or appear on them, but I've had many, many great discussions about (for instance) the distinction between the kinds of men who win Survivor and the kinds of women who win, or why The Bachelor contestants act like being divorced is scandalous, or why you can't have alliances on The Amazing Race. Again, you just take the story as a story. Discuss.
The Service model. There are people who really do spend a lot of time just telling you what happened without comment, where the primary purpose of the piece is to fill you in if you missed it. This is basically a human taking the place of your DVR if you forgot to set it.
So there you have it: the seven ways to write about television. Of course, this is less a set of distinct areas with sharp boundaries and more a color wheel where one thing blends into another, because you'll usually see elements of all of them in a good and comprehensive piece of writing, but most of us are more interested in some of these kinds of writing than others, and it's good to have a sense of the landscape when you're looking for a home.
*These are ways, I should note, to write commentary. There is also a world of more traditional reporting, including profiles and breaking news, that's a separate issue entirely. That, in turn, is subdivided into business reporting (who's got a deal with which studio), show reporting (stories about production and creation), and the weird world of plot reporting (news stories about fictional characters — so-and-so will die, so-and-so will have an affair with so-and-so).