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And now a needlessly detailed oral history of The A.V. Club's reviews of The Office

Courtesy of Emily VanDerWerff and Myles McNutt


Emily VanDerWerff

Apr 01 2020

24 min read


(Many of you who subscribe to this newsletter have been reading me since the A.V. Club days, and if that’s true, then you are probably deeply invested in A.V. Club minutiae. If so, I thought you might enjoy this look at a handful of events surrounding our coverage of season eight of The Office that have now somewhat improbably surfaced in an excellent new oral history of the show as a sign of how people had turned on the show. If you are not invested in A.V. Club minutiae, I’m sorry. You might find this very boring. Babylon Berlin recaps will be back Friday. —Em)

James Spader’s run as Robert California was… controversial, let’s say. (Credit: NBC)

Emily: Myles, I've had Andy Greene's new oral history of The Office sitting on my shelf for a few months now, but in this time of coronavirus, I dragged it down to have something to flip through while otherwise occupied. And imagine my surprise when, the first time I opened the book, it was to a page talking about how your A.V. Club reviews were so harsh, a thing I didn't quite remember that way but also a thing I had numerous meetings and emails about back in the day.

Before we dig into that — with our own oral history of those surprisingly controversial reviews — tell me how you felt about finding yourself in the pages of Greene's book? (You are interviewed for the book as well.)

Myles: We can talk about this as two different emotions. The first was when I learned I had come up in the interviews for the book: Andy emailed me after he had interviewed a few of the writers, and so I was in part meant to be responding to their characterization of my reviews, which I went back and reread in preparation for the interview. And in that moment, I was like “Okay, I’m definitely a bit harsh, but someone had to say it, and I’m proud of the work I did and sort of honored that I was able to become the symbol of the critical resistance to the show’s late-series struggles.”

Then I actually read the book this week, and I felt like I had a better understanding of the writers’ characterization of my work as I saw myself deployed as the token hater (who is also completely correct, of course, but that doesn’t always matter in this context). I’m still mostly proud, honestly, but I think even when I was interviewed I didn’t understand the gulf between my understanding of what I was doing and the writers’.

Emily: Right. And it's not as if Robert California didn't have many, many issues that lots of other critics pointed out. I recently had the chance to be on an Office oral history podcast as the Token Critic, and there were a surprising number of Robert California defending questions.

On the one hand, I get it. Feeling like a big swing you've taken didn't connect is never fun for anybody. On the other hand, it's very bizarre to me how people stick up for this character that even a lot of fans will tell you didn't work. The section of the book we're talking about ends in a place of, “Well, Myles might have been a jerk, but Robert California just didn't work,” which is an admission on the part of the writers.

Myles: Obviously, hindsight gives everyone different perspective, and even then I’m not sure the writers who were reading my reviews necessarily disagreed with everything I said: Owen Ellickson has a bit in there where he admits a balance of agreement and disagreement while reading them, which is all I would ever expect from a writer’s room.

But what struck me was the seeming confusion that someone was taking the show as seriously as I was taking it, and not coming at it from an approach of adoration, and while I experienced a lot of that in the comments of the reviews from the moment I started writing them I guess I wanted to believe actual TV writers (especially a TV writer who came from writing for The A.V. Club) wouldn’t find that approach so confounding.

Emily: I mostly wanted to talk to you about this, though, because it semi-confirmed a thing I've always suspected. Right around the time that's being talked about in Greene's book, I got an email from the higher-ups at The A.V. Club asking me to remove you from the Office beat. It was rare for my bosses to interfere that much in the day-to-day of TV Club, so I had always had my suspicions there was contact between Amelie Gillette (formerly of the A.V. Club and an Office writers room member) and my bosses. But I never had any real proof of it until the book made me read between its lines.

What do you remember of that time? Because by the time things trickled down to you (spoilers: we didn't remove Myles from the beat), I had been dealing with it for a lot longer.

Dwight and Robert are judging you silently. (Credit: NBC)

Myles: To back up a bit, for context: the whole reason I was brought in to write about the show was the fact that Amelie joined the writers room, and it was determined that Nathan [Rabin] continuing to write about the show represented a conflict of interest. And it was immediately clear to me that what Nathan was doing and what I had been doing on my own blog for a number of years were…not the same thing. I met up with Nathan at a book tour event shortly after I took over, and he admitted that he didn’t really think of himself as a critic when covering TV. And so because there was no general “house style” in terms of reviews at the time, I had the freedom to embrace what I saw as the logical approach to writing about a seventh-season sitcom entering a period of immense transition.

And I immediately ran into pushback in the comments, but it was coming from both directions: some people thought I was being too harsh, that it was “just a comedy,” whereas others were convinced I was being too easy, and that it was a trash shell of its former self. My goal was to work in the middle of those two responses to connect the show’s successes and failures to what makes it tick, but some people couldn’t or wouldn’t look past the grade, and despite my efforts to use words—sweet, beautiful, thousands upon thousands of glorious words—to express where I was coming from there was a Quixotic quality to my writing about the show.

If I had to describe my approach, I was writing reviews that I thought would stand up a decade later as we reevaluate the episodes in a larger context, but it was clear at times that the week-to-week audience for the show (and maybe the reviews) wanted either an adoring recap of the best jokes or a scathing diatribe about how it sucked now because X or Y.

Emily: It's worth noting that we looked at a bunch of other people for that job, some TV Club regulars, some who would have been newcomers, all of whom had never worked with Amelie, and decided you were the best fit. The reason I liked you for the job was because it was going to be precisely what you said: something a little more rigorous when it came to an aging show. Plus, the series was always a readership draw for us, and I wanted to give you a high-profile assignment.

As I recall, the other finalist for the job was a young woman who turned in a writing sample that was fun and breezy, and there was some concern she didn't fit A.V. Club "style," which was nebulous and ever-shifting. So it was somewhat ironic to me that we ended up having a lot of conversations about if you fit A.V. Club style.

Myles: It was my first assignment for the site. But I’d obviously been reading the site for a long time, and knew you and most of the senior staff at that stage, and so I definitely came in feeling like I was able to just “do what I did,” as I hadn’t been told otherwise. And I wrote about the show for pretty much a whole season without much in the way of notes, although probably mostly because it really was a bit more of the Wild West at that point: we were all doing different things, some of us tilting at windmills while others were writing pretty much straight plot recaps, with 700-word reviews sitting alongside 3000-word reviews.

But there was a (logical) push as more and more freelance contributors became involved with the site to standardize more, which I thought was totally understandable right up until it applied to me, at which point I was furious. (Not really. But it was easily the most tense set of exchanges we ever had.)

Emily: Right. I occasionally had conversations with my bosses about standardizing the TV Club voice more, but at the time, the section was driving a ton of traffic, and nobody wanted to mess with it too much. That Wild West quality was a huge part of the success of TV Club, and it's still a part of the site's DNA to this day. Plus, there was an open acknowledgement that to actually standardize the section would require hiring one person whose sole job was to edit recaps, a thing we didn't have the money to do. (As it was, the TV editorial team would just copy edit things after they were on the site, sometimes long after they were on the site.)

But the email I got from my bosses (which I was unable to locate) that said, in no uncertain terms, that somebody else needed to be on the TV Club beat other than you was one of the few times anybody actively tried to change something I was doing.I resisted the impulse, both because I thought you were doing good work — if work that could be improved (weren't we all) — but also because changing reviewers midstream in a season was always such a hassle. I promised my bosses we'd revisit the issue of your continued employment in the role at the end of season eight, but it never came up again. (We’ll discuss why in a moment.)

Myles: Yeah, what I received when you sent the “We have some notes” email was you (very generously) trying to save me from myself, without being able to outright say that you were trying to steer me away from whatever issues were causing problems up the chain. But I remember being so angry when I received that email (and not just because I talk about being angry in my reply, it is a vivid memory), less at the idea that my reviews had to change and more because of how your argument for this reinforced some of the things I hated about how my reviews were sometimes received.

There was a bit about the reviews being “unapproachable,” for example, and yet I was easily the TV Club writer who spent the most time in the comments, and to me the “review” was the start of a conversation rather than the end of one. But if you didn’t read the comments (which, I get it), that wouldn’t matter, but I bristled knowing how seriously I took my role in the “community” created by TV Club.

However, I was particularly furious at the suggestion that my approach represented a lack of “engagement with the material,” given how much I was committed to taking the show seriously. It would have been one thing if I was writing “takes” that dismissed the show, but really the core problem of my reviews was that I was too committed to engaging with my response to the material. I was deep in the rabbit hole during season eight in particular, which definitely needed a course correction, but the way you tried to get me to see that were the same ways that people tried to dismiss the idea of taking the show seriously at all, and I was just so frustrated by that kind of bullshit in the comments.

This is definitely the academic in me, but this idea that a television sitcom shouldn’t be taken seriously just doesn’t hold water, and to see a more critical approach be framed (indirectly, and mostly through semantic choices you made while trying to walk a fine line with the circumstances while dramatically overworked) in a way that tried to read what I knew was a deeply invested process as a dismissive one definitely pushed my buttons.

I’m making my Jim Halpert face right now. (Credit: NBC)

Emily: We're going to circle back to my side of this in a second, but why don't you excerpt a few sections of my email (which is way too long, like everything else I wrote in those days) to show the folks what you objected to?

Myles: Note, readers, that before we started this meta-oral history I had already dug up this email. Receipts!

Don’t be scared of making things a little more personal…I’m not saying you should do it every week, but your voice is so unapproachable, for lack of a better word, that it might help to sort of deflate that sense.

I, uh, clearly felt there was a better word.

Cut back on your standard formula. In particular, you have a tendency to end just about every piece with a disconnected sentence that makes some sort of declarative statement about the show and where it needs to go going forward. This can also contribute to the idea that you’re not terribly engaged with the material.

I started reading this one and I was like “I love me a hanging final sentence to really punctuate my point, so that’s fair” and then I got “the idea you’re not terrible engaged with the material” and did a wild 180 turn. There were totally, 100 percent fair editorial comments sprinkled throughout the email, but I think what rankled me was the idea that these deficiencies were the result of a problem of attitude or commitment, which is a similar feeling to what I had reading the writers’ perspective on my reviews in the oral history eight years later.

Emily: Right. And I was saying the "not terribly engaged" thing not to say that you weren't engaged but that to get too attached to a formula could make you seem unengaged. But, also, the past version of me sometimes struggled to convey her emotions and meaning???? For some reason????

So, anyway, you came back with some responses to that email, and then we had a conversation and ironed it out, and so far as I know, there were no further incidents like this in the rest of your time covering the show (though it's also worth noting that Amelie left the show at the end of season eight, and thus, whatever conflict of interest the AVC staff had was over for the show's final season).

But, yes, I could have handled it all better. On the other hand, I was dealing with my own shit...

Myles: With fuller understanding of what went down, you handled it better than the alternative of just firing me, and so it’s not like I’d ever hold a grudge even if I had (which I hadn’t). And while I was initially a bit peeved to be taken off the show for other reasons before season nine and shuffled off to Elementary (that was our only other incident, although mostly because I hated the optics that I had either been fired or given up). In retrospect, I got three years instead of one and a much more productive relationship with a show’s creative team who read my reviews.

Emily: Right! Erik Adams covered that last season! At that point, if Erik, Sonia Saraiya, or I wanted to cover a show (gosh, we had a good team), I usually went with that option, because we were all salaried, and I didn't have to pay us a freelance fee. But also by the time the last season of The Office aired, I had one foot out the door, hoping it would land in another publication.

So there were a few occasions in which my direct superiors stepped in to try to circumvent the regular coverage of a show. There were times when I think it was justified — once an actor wrote to us to say the reviewer's mockery of their appearance was beyond the pale, and I agreed — and times like what happened with you, where it felt like a tail I couldn't quite see but could guess at was wagging the whole dog. What made the situation with you so unique was that I agreed with some of the critiques my bosses made (once I pressed them to say more than "you have to get rid of Myles") while thinking the punishment didn't fit the crime. In other situations like this, we had... actually tried to edit the person involved. That was why I felt slightly like somebody somewhere was getting emails about your perceived poor performance.

Anyway, I made a big deal out of it, because I always do, and I remember writing several emails about it in an airport for some reason. But, really, I was making a big deal of everything in those days, because the site was being consumed increasingly by a push to get page views and to push out more content. Keith Phipps was still around — so this was pre-Dissolve exodus — but I often felt like an exhausted hamster stuck on an infinite wheel.

Myles: In the oral history, Amelie writes that “you don’t think, as a person that’s writing reviews of the TV episode, that the writers from that episode or that show might read your review during lunch,” but I don’t know if that’s expressly true.

First and foremost, I knew it was very possible that she was reading given that she had written for the site, but at that point I’d also had the experience of Bill Lawrence tweeting about my “TV Club Classic” reviews of Scrubs, and so I certainly treated it as a possibility. But even if I had expressly knew they were reading, I don’t buy the idea that this would have changed how I was writing. My approach once I became more aware of writers reading reviews — sometimes via emails, sometimes literally in the comments — was just to do an extra read-through to make sure that I wasn’t being an asshole about anything, a line I don’t think I’ve ever really crossed (especially not to the level of the examples you cite).

But to be honest, when I revisited those Office reviews, there were some moments where my attempt to understand the decision-making behind stuff like Robert California did sort of cross a line into “What is wrong with these people,” and I think that’s a lot of what they seemed to respond so much to. Amelie’s suggestion that they replaced Nathan with someone who “seemingly hated the show” seems so fundamentally disconnected with the fact I teared up multiple times reading the oral history, and Ellickson’s suggestion there was “this kind of real anger underlying my review” makes me wonder how they pictured me at my computer typing away on those reviews.

It was a reminder that for all of the clarity that I felt about my feelings on the show, and all the words — did I mention the words, there were ever so many of them — I put into the world to try to articulate that, the impact of a C- and a deflated headline is often such that people don’t see any of that.And so it was funny to read through the oral history, where Nathan and Alan [Sepinwall] are among the critics saying all of these nice things about the show’s earlier season, and then you hit Season 6 and BAM: there I am, solely the voice of the show’s decline, playing the role of H8r that the writers (and some readers) had cast me in. I still think I’m right, but I definitely see the optics of it more now than I did then.

Emily: This was kind of the nice thing and the curse of what we did. By the time season six rolled around, most critics had kind of moved on from giving The Office the extended introspection it had received from seasons two through five. But there we were, still reviewing the show week after week, and when you came along in season seven, the show had really fallen off in critical circles. But where other critics just might not write about the show outside of big episodes, we were there, week after week, putting up reviews that sometimes felt as if they were getting too far out in the weeds.

I think this was a necessary offshoot of our approach, and I wouldn't change a thing, even if I somehow could. Our colleague Noel Murray referred to the job as filing dispatches from an ongoing news story, and I think he was more or less right. A great finale could retroactively color your feelings on a humdrum season, or a bad episode could tank a good run, or something like that.

But what was weird was the ways that people who made these shows engaged with what we did. For instance, somewhere in the first season of The Mindy Project, a show I never liked as much as I wanted to, Mindy Kaling started following me, and I had the response I always do when a famous person follows me: I got excited, I got nervous, I forgot about it. But a few months later, I tweeted something like, "Reviews are not a report card for TV writers," and she liked it, and I remembered all over again what it is to hear people saying something harsh about your child.

My perspective on this has also shifted because both Monsters of the Week and Arden have had their fair number of reviews I felt were unfair. The top-rated Amazon review for Monsters of the Week, for instance, long said that it was clear Zack and I weren't X-Files fans, and I beg to differ! The response to Arden has been more positive, but even there, I found one review that utterly baffled me for the motives it read in to what we were doing with the show.

I've alluded to this here and there, but working on those projects really changed my relationship to my own criticism. I know I'm just explaining my emotional reaction to a work, but does anybody else know that?Anyway, right around the time this is happening to you is when Dan Harmon starts subtweeting me in interviews he gives about Community. (He had grown angry with me for reasons I never quite understood.) So I think maybe TV writers need to log off?

Myles: I agree that Noel is right about it being an ongoing news story, but the challenge with the TV Club model specifically is that we’re not reporting: whereas someone like Alan or one of the staffers might theoretically be doing interviews with The Office writers and be close enough that the writers could feel there was an ongoing dialogue to be had, as contributors there is typically a bit more distance. I might as well have been some random angry dude with a blog, and I don’t think that a writer would have responded to a Sepinwall review in the same way as they did to something that’s part of a “collective” like TV Club (although Alan might correct me on that, as I’m sure that scenario has popped up on occasion, and would certainly apply more likely to critics who belong to marginalized groups).

You’re also right that the perceived value of criticism shifts as a show ages. When I started writing about shows like Awkward. and Elementary, my (positive) reviews were seen as a validation of shows that might not normally be taken seriously in this context: just hours after my first review of the former went live, there was an email in my inbox from creator Lauren Iungerich, who was just so happy someone was taking a teen show seriously that she would answer questions, scold me for just not understanding of teenage girls think (I mean, fair), etc.

In the case of Elementary, the creator told me at TCA that my reviews were an early signal to producer Craig Sweeny that the show was capable of standing out among CBS’ procedural lineup, and by the end of that season Craig was in the comments answering questions and getting a BIT defensive about Bs for episodes that (as you note) the finale made look better in retrospect but that’s just an unavoidable bug of the system.

I think writers have every right to be defensive. I’ve spoken to TV writers exasperated that things people are complaining about were completely out of their hands, and they just can’t say so publicly, and thus I know that there is a huge amount of hand-wringing and late nights and hard work that goes into things I’m watching live, dissecting for two hours, and slapping a letter grade on. I’m sure the writers of Shameless — my latest Quixotic effort that I will see through to the bitter end because I ain’t no quitter — are exasperated with the fact I’m the last reviewer standing of their show if they’re reading. But I think rather than start subtweeting critics, there’s really two choices: either they actively enter into the discourse (request an interview, show up in the comments, pick a good-natured Twitter fight) or they just log off and slag the critic in their Slack channel and work through their demons that way. We don’t mind, honest.

Emily: I can't wait to get invited to the showrunner slack. I'll bet they have some great custom emoji.

Myles: Yeah, the devil emoji really wouldn’t have been enough to express how the Office folks felt about me, apparently.

Although, jokes aside, my sense based on both the oral history and a few other interactions before the oral history was that the writers who were paying any attention to my reviews were more just trying to understand what kind of person would write about the show the way I was. I remember a few times Kaling tweeted at me it seemed like there was this subtle inflection of “Oh, of course you’re being snarky, McNutt,” despite the fact I don’t think I ever interacted with her in any meaningful way in other venues.

And in 2016 I got the clearest sense that I was a conspicuous figure in that room when I went up to the scrum after a Superstore panel at TCA [Press Tour] to ask creator Justin Spitzer a question, and when I said my name was Myles his eyes *lit up* and he was like “MCNUTT?!” and I was so flummoxed since I didn’t connect him with The Office until after I sat back down. It felt like he was meeting a mythical figure, and if he could have drilled into my skull to inspect my brain to figure out my damage (in a good-natured way) and report back to his former colleagues he would have. And I respect that.

Emily: To be fair, they might have just wanted to meet someone whose literal name is "Myles McNutt."

Myles: Maybe they, like that commenter on my very first review, thought I would be a squirrel with a monocle.

Emily: Thanks for getting all the way down here, everybody. If you enjoyed this, let me know! Maybe I’ll publish more “Inside The A.V. Club” hot takes!

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