Goodbye to 'Atlanta,' but not to recapping
A farewell to one of the great shows of this or any era, some 'Andor' and 'Mythic Quest' thoughts, and a look at the state of modern TV recaps
Welcome to week two of the new What's Alan Watching? newsletter! Links and thoughts coming up just as soon as I move from New Orleans to New Jersey...
As I explained last time, the plan is to stick to a weekly newsletter, published Friday morning, with links to what I've written and a few other random thoughts. One of today's thoughts is much longer than I intended it to be; future newsletters may be a bit more concise. We'll see.
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What's Alan Writing?
Three Rolling Stone pieces this week, two of them on the end of one of the great shows of this or any other era:
I reviewed Amazon’s The English, a revenge Western miniseries starring Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer, which reminded me in many ways — both good and bad — of watching creator Hugo Blick’s 2014 miniseries The Honourable Woman.
I recapped the final episode of Atlanta, and was amazed by how a show this idiosyncratic and unpredictable landed on the exact perfect concluding idea.
I also interviewed chief Atlanta director Hiro Murai about the show’s evolution over the years, some famous episodes like “Teddy Perkins,” and what he and LaKeith Stanfield talked about before filming the series’ final shot. An excellent conversation.
Odds and/or ends
The third season of Apple’s Mythic Quest debuts today with a pair of episodes, followed by weekly releases after that. I'm very fond of this show — which I wrote about at more length at the start of Season Two — and the new episodes continue to hit the sweet spot between silliness (particularly from Charlotte Nicdao and Jesse Ennis) and genuine emotion. I also appreciate that the new season doesn't try to walk back the end of last season to return to the old status quo. And in the process, we get one of the more amusing pieces of production design I've seen on TV in quite a while. Also, there is the requisite anthology/flashback episode, and it's lovely.
Meanwhile, my colleague Brian Hiatt interviewed Andor creator Tony Gilroy, and kicked a hornet’s nest by mentioning some of my criticisms from early in the series:
I imagine I'll have much more to say about this season in a few weeks. But in the meantime, two thoughts: 1)The phrase "I'm a disruptor" has gone beyond parody by now; and 2)When he asks whether the recent episodes would be as satisfying as they are if we hadn't seen the first few, my answer is, "Yes!" All of the big emotional stuff in recent weeks has involved characters who are not Cassian Andor, and I still don't see the value of wallowing with him for multiple episodes at the start of the season before getting into the actual story. And I have come to really like the show!
So, to recap…
This week, I thought I'd touch on a question I get asked periodically: why don't I recap as many shows these days?
If you followed the blog that shares its name with this newsletter, then you know I built my reputation writing episodic recaps. Back in the mid-late 2000s, I would cover almost anything — not just the prestige-y dramas like Breaking Bad and The Wire, but broadcast network sitcoms like The Office and How I Met Your Mother, more lighthearted hours like Chuck and Burn Notice, and, for a while, even reality TV like Survivor and American Idol. In an especially busy week during that era, I might offer thoughts on a dozen different shows.
These days, meanwhile, I am usually only recapping one or two shows at a time, and there are stretches of the year where I don't recap anything. Back in the spring, I was recapping three shows simultaneously — Better Call Saul, Atlanta, and Winning Time — and it felt just as hectic as when the rotation was much fuller in the Blogspot or HitFix days.
Now, with the end of Atlanta coming so soon after the end of Saul, I'm not sure what will be the next show I give episode-by-episode coverage to, at least until Succession Season Four rolls around in the spring.
So what's changed over the years? There are several factors:
1. Most importantly, as you may have heard, there is vastly more television than there was when the original What's Alan Watching? launched in the fall of 2005. This not only means that I spend way more time simply trying to watch as much as I can, but that the audience's primary need has shifted from "Please go deeper into this thing I just saw" to "Please, for the love of God, help me find something good to watch that will not leave me feeling like I wasted 10 hours of my life." So the mandate is to focus on reviews first and foremost, and do recaps only in very specific circumstances, which we will get back to shortly.
2. Not to sound like George R.R. Martin, but the recaps simply take longer to write now than they used to. If you go back and look at those early years on Blogspot, oftentimes my "recaps" would be a paragraph or two of fairly superficial thoughts on one show or another. Over time, the thing I found I did best, and that the readers enjoyed most, was when I could really dig into an episode of something like Mad Men, not just in terms of quality, but in terms of character and theme. To do that well is not often a fast process, so I've opted for quality over quantity.
3. The binge releases of the streaming era have proved pretty confounding to the idea of recapping. You may recall that for a season or two, I attempted to cover Orange Is the New Black episodically, going one week at a time with a show that most of my readers had watched over a single weekend. It was a failed experiment, as by the time we got to the third or fourth recap, most of the comments would be along the lines of, "I have almost no memory of this anymore." So for the most part, I've had to approach binge release shows as something I will maybe write about twice: once prior to release to discuss the good/bad of it, and then a few days later with full spoilers, like this essay about the end of Fleabag. And in many cases, these are the kinds of shows most similar in spirit and substance to the material I most enjoyed recapping in the old days. Which brings us to...
4. Again, I want there to be a purpose to the things I recap. I want to have more to say than either "this part was good and this part was bad," or, worse, to take the recap concept literally and just rehash the plot. And I've found some shows more conducive to this than others. I used to recap a lot of comedies, for instance, and now tend to only do ones like Atlanta where there's a lot more going on than just humor. Similarly, it's why I recapped The Good Place to the end while passing on the final season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine; the latter wasn't a qualitative judgment, but me having run out of things to say. (Abbott Elementary absolutely would have been a weekly thing in the old days; now, I prefer just watching and laughing with it.) Sometimes, I aim for the very best shows, while at others I pick something whose imperfections are more interesting. Reservoir Dogs is going to be near (or even at) the top of my best of 2022 list, while Winning Time probably won't be on it at all. But Winning Time felt like a more fun conversation to have about its many highs and lows, and the ways it was and wasn't faithful to history. Sometimes, I simply make the wrong call; while I don't love Euphoria, that second season is absolutely something I could have covered really well from week to week. Same with the incredible third season of Barry. (I probably would have done that one if I didn't overlap with some of my other spring recaps.) At others, shows I expected to recap turned out to be uninteresting to me. Nobody wants to read the same complaints every week about House of the Dragon (though I checked back in again after the season finale), while I found the new White Lotus season too disappointing to do. But most of the time, it becomes like Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: I know if I want to recap a show when I see it.
5. Getting back to the Reservation Dogs vs. Winning Time point, it’s also tricky to find a show that enough people are watching to make the conversation feel worth it. There can be a chicken-or-egg thing here — I once decided to recap Brockmire, an obscure little IFC comedy, and heard from a number of people who only watched it because they saw I was recapping it, and thus had put some kind of seal of approval on it — but in these days of infinite entertainment options, plus streamers that don’t report their ratings, it’s harder to identify the shows that a lot of people are talking about. That’s one of the reasons I recapped most of the early Marvel and Star Wars shows on Disney+, before Moon Knight made me decide to take them on a case-by-case basis going forward.
6. Finally, there is just a lot more to my job these days than the written output. I'm often given full seasons of shows before I write my reviews, which allows for more accurate reviews but is much more time-consuming. I also spend a fair amount of time watching things that I ultimately don't review, sometimes because I realize after a few episodes that I would rather not watch any more, or because I realize it's too unremarkable to be worth the effort of writing about it. (This holds especially true for mediocre shows that are also lower-profile to begin with, whereas there's real utility to telling people that a series with a ton of hype probably isn't worth their time.) I watch a lot of stuff for potential review in the Rolling Stone print edition, and in many of those months wind up only reviewing one of them, or not at all. (I also periodically write features for the magazine.) This means that I am often watching something that won't debut for another two months, which makes it more challenging to respond to something that aired last night. Too Long; Didn't Watch (and no, I do not know when the second season will premiere, unfortunately, due to business reasons beyond my control) is a much more labor-intensive podcast to make than Firewall & Iceberg or TV Avalanche were, etc. I am working much more than I ever have in my career, even though it may not always look that way from the outside.
Saul and Atlanta both ending this year feels in some ways like the end of an era. But HBO is still releasing things weekly; ditto for most of the FX/Hulu/Disney+ content. I imagine I'll be recapping some upcoming Marvel and/or Star Wars shows, or eventually choose something on Apple that feels like it can cut through enough to be worth the weekly conversation, etc. Plus, I love writing these things when I've picked the right show. It's maybe my favorite part of the job. But I also want to pick my spots with it, for all the above reasons.
TL;DR — way more TV than there used to be, much of it not released weekly, lots of other parts of the job make it harder to do, etc.
See you next week!
As the editor of a Substack dedicated to episodic television criticism—Episodic Medium, which folks can find at my profile—AND as someone who forced my way into criticism through the comments on What’s Alan Watching?, I obviously echo much of what you reflect on here.
One thing I’ll add is that Twitter obviously changed these dynamics considerably, as it grew into a space where you could excise a few thoughts about something without dedicating a formal review to it.
But this again raises the issue with the binge releases: in addition to destabilizing episodic coverage (I’ve only reviewed Heartstopper at Episodic Medium on principle, I’d never pay someone to cover), it also destabilizes social media conversation, with everyone moving at different paces. I wrote about this for an academic journal a few years into covering Orange is the New Black for The A.V. Club, and the point basically stands. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fc/13761232.0040.120/--binge-reviews-the-shifting-temporalities-of-contemporary-tv?rgn=main;view=fulltext
With Twitter basically on its last legs, I’m obviously personally invested in us moving the dialogue to platforms like this one, so I’m thrilled at being able to relive our blogging days and put our critical dialogues in conversation.
I miss the recaps - a part of my enjoyment of watching your recapped shows was from trying to guess which phrase would be referenced at the beginning of your recap (especially true of Justified) - but understand there is so much to choose from now, its hard to know where to begin. Just want to offer my thanks for helping me sort out the wheat from the chaff in the days pre the streaming wars.