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Episodes: Friday mailbag (April 21)


Emily VanDerWerff

Apr 22 2017

9 min read



I'm back! But I'm also really sleepy, due to the after-effects of jet lag, and a cold Libby and I seem to have picked up in our travels. So this might not be as thorough as you're expecting! Regardless...

Charles writes:

You write a lot of great stuff in your newsletter. How do you decide what lives on here and what goes to Vox? Does Vox not care that you're giving away good content for free? Is there ever any pressure from Vox to host your TinyLetter on a Vox blog or something so you get more clicks?

This is kind of interesting because I've never once gotten pushback from any of my editors or the senior management at Vox about this newsletter. Some of that is probably because I try very judiciously to make sure that nothing I write about here couldn't better serve my employer. There have been a couple of newsletters that I later thought, "Oh, that might have been a good Vox post." But I think I'm pretty good at finding the line.

Episodes has evolved, more and more, to be a place for flights of fancy, first-person musings, writing advice, and criticism of things so limited in their appeal that it's just as well to write about them here as it would be on Vox. I started the newsletter because I would find myself posting these long, long musings on Facebook, and this just seemed like a better outlet for those musings than anything else.

The voice of Vox is a little less goofy than the voice of The A.V. Club, so Episodes has become a real outlet for a lot of my sillier ideas, or for the first-person takes that don't fit easily at Vox any more. We obviously have room for both at Vox sometimes, but the kind of freewheeling playground that TV Club always was just doesn't really exist at Vox. So this is a good way to burn off those creative energies, though as I've been working more and more on some creative projects, Episodes has become harder to find time for.

Maybe this will change. When I started at Vox, it was still this exciting experiment that might crash and burn. Now, three years in, it's pretty clear the site is here to stay for a good, long while, and there's a requisite taking stock as we determine what the future of the site looks like. But many of my bosses subscribe to this newsletter, and I've never talked with them about pulling the plug or turning it into an official Vox publication or anything like that. I think it's too obviously a creative writing exercise, and if I were going to turn it into a Vox organ, I would probably rethink how the publication worked. (It would have more links, for one thing. And probably be edited for another.)

Dan writes:

The Americans has been a show that seems to promote actors to the opening credits quite readily—every season brings a new opening credits cast configuration, and Susan Misner and Brandon J. Dirden have both been up there despite not all that much screen time. And yet, it puzzles me that Frank Langella is still listed as a guest star after the opening credits, even though he's been a vital part of the show for a few years now. What are the politics behind starring vs. guest starring placement in opening credits?

"Series regular status" is one of those things that a lot of TV fans (myself included) geek out over. But in the era of Peak TV, it's started to seem like it means less than ever. The time was that if you were listed in the opening credits of a series, you got paid for every single episode of the show, even if you didn't appear in every single episode, and that's still largely true. But then you'll have things like Game of Thrones or this season of Leftovers, which credits regular cast members in the opening credits, but only in episodes they appear in. Slowly but surely, these old rules are changing.

Now, in general (not always, but in general), a guest star is someone who signs on to do a set number of episodes per season. The vast majority of guest stars sign on for just one episode, but you'll always have a few recurring guest stars, like Langella, who appear frequently, without appearing frequently enough to pop up into the main credits.

For the most part, this is all budgetary. With another actor, The Americans would constantly have to weigh what happened with Margo Martindale after season one: They didn't have her under an exclusive contract, so they couldn't stop her from leaving for a CBS sitcom, which led to the lengthy process that landed Langella in the role of Gabriel eventually. But with an actor like Langella, who's based in New York and probably isn't going to suddenly decide to become a regular on a network sitcom, there's a certain level of breathing room built in, which meant the show didn't have to pay up to get him in the main cast. (And -- who knows? -- he might not have wanted to make that big of a commitment.)

The Americans has generally been good about scooping up promising supporting players who are early enough in their careers that the show can a.) get them for a little less salary wise and b.) give them interesting story arcs. That's what happened when it added both Annet Mahendru and Alison Wright as regulars in season two, and it's what's happening with Dirden (who is popping up in lots of other projects, which necessarily have to ride in second position to his Americans work, most likely) right now. Sometimes, the show will wind up with a situation like what happened to poor Susan Misner, who just didn't have enough story to justify adding her to the regular characters list. But more often than not, having some of these players in the roster offers the show a deeper bench. (And the fact that Dirden is a regular offers, I think, some hints of where the story is going.)

(Sidebar: When I saw Wright had gotten a role on Feud, I thought, "Oh, she'll be back on Americans." It was an easy way to keep the actress on the FX payroll -- for just one season! -- in case she was needed again on Americans. I don't know if she'll pop up in a big way in the future, but I'm inclined to think she will.)

Mark writes:

I'm 22 years old, and I constantly feels like I have an endless list of movies, TV shows and other entertainment products from the past that I "need" to see in order to be "caught up," especially if I want to eventually pursue a career writing about pop culture. But there's only so much time in a day/week/month/year. Do you have any tips for getting a better grasp on less recent pop culture while continuing to stay abreast of what's happening today? At the beginning of your career, how did you find time to watch shows and movies from the past without missing out on new stuff?

I'm "lucky," in that I came of age in the narrow strip of time when just about everything (even old TV shows!) was pretty readily available, but there wasn't such an endless explosion of content that it felt overwhelming to keep up. Every year, there were several dozen films you needed to see, and probably 10-20 TV shows worth keeping up with, if we're being very generous. Doing so left plenty of time to watch older stuff.

That's... not really the case any more. I frequently feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options and by everything I have access to from the past that I maybe didn't before. What's more, I don't think our current cultural gatekeepers do a very good job of suggesting hierarchies of importance, relying on algorithms to tell me what they think I'll like, instead of taking their best guess. (Call me old fashioned, but I like the sense that somebody is trying to guess what I'll like, not that they're serving me something they're 95 percent sure I'll like.)

I realized at some point last year that I had just stopped reading books and playing video games, and I was sad about both of those things. I've managed to reintegrate reading into my daily routine this year, but games may be gone to me forever.

Yet I would say that looking back is one of the most important things you can do as a budding culture writer. It's important to know where we've been to think about where we're going, and to realize that the moment we live in isn't as unusual as it might seem in the grand scheme of things.

I think what I would suggest is to de-emphasize the current, to some degree, because this stuff will always be with us, or at least the stuff that really matters will be. What's the purpose of diving into Santa Clarita Diet if you've never seen Cheers? I'd say there's very little of one.

And here's the other thing: You should never feel like you need to watch it all. We started the AV Club feature "TV Club 10" to give people a streaming service cheat sheet (though it was almost never approached as that by readers). Go back through the archives of that feature and see what you can find. You just might discover something worth enjoying!

I will be back next week with a hopefully normal schedule. Though who knows!


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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