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Why we need better television criticism.

Why we need better television criticism. (photo)

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For the last decade, a lot of people became convinced that television, not cinema, is the future of filmed narrative. Over at N+1, Richard Beck takes a look at the landscape as it stands now, identifying a key moment in intellectual acceptance of TV — Joyce Carol Oates geeking out in 1985 over “Hill Street Blues,” which she noted as “one of the few television programs watched by a fair percentage of my Princeton colleagues.” As Beck points out, we live in a brave new world. Academia cares more about “The Wire” than probably anyone, and we can’t stop hearing about how TV is the future.

Which raises a problem. Television may have entered its maturity, but TV criticism has not. The most ad hoc of the critical arts, it’s probably the most overwhelming as well. Music critics have a lot to sort through and digest, but at least they have specialties, buzz and like-minded colleagues to confer with. TV, though, is an onslaught: anything and everything can be reviewed.

The amount of copy you can produce is directly proportional to how much you watch (more than any other critics, TV writers are also frequently required to act as amateur sociologists, even to the extent of that being their primary responsibility). And with all that going on, how in the world can you have historical perspective? Keeping up with the present is hard enough. The conscientious film writer — with only a 2,000 film canon to really master — is relatively easy off.

05202010_prisoner.jpgAs magisterial as Beck’s overview is, he still doesn’t go back past the ’80s. The implication is that everything on TV before the narrative serial is pre-history — which ignores, for starters, “The Prisoner,” an unspeakably influential benchmark in the development of weirdness on TV, or the way racial discourse took a nap between “All In The Family” and “The Wire.” And these are just rudimentary ABC’s — digging further back and finding secret influences and forgotten landmarks needs to be done systematically as well.

More to the point: we’re entering a time when TV criticism will be just as prevalent (or, alternately, just as endangered) as film criticism, and we have very few writers capable of taking the long gaze. (The AV Club‘s Noel Murray does heroic work, but he can’t do all the lifting himself.)

TV writers are still largely untested. What we’re going to need are a crop of writers who at least have seen the major shows of decades past and understand how they run into each other. If TV is indeed the new cinema, we need the writers to go with it.

[Photos: “Hill Street Blues,” 1981-87, NBC; “The Prisoner,” A&E Home Video, 1967-68]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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