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Episodes: Friday mailbag (Feb. 17)


Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 18 2017

8 min read



Welcome to Friday mailbag, where every week, I answer your questions as best I can. Some weeks, I will do so very poorly. This week, I aim to do so well.

Kim, welcome to the program!

What do you think about the advice column industry? Do you think it offers a valuable service beyond entertainment, or is it just that? And do you have any advice columns you love to read?

What a good question to open up our mailbag, Kim!

Let me start by telling you about my freshman year of high school, when I fell for the little sister of one of my friends. (She was 14, and I was 15. Don't be gross.) At first, I pretended I had fallen for her, thinking it would be a funny joke. Then I decided to ask her to pretend to be my girlfriend to impress some other girl who had broken my heart, because my only conception of life at that point was a bad romance novel. Then I bought her a full Valentine's Day gift suite, and she finally let me know she wasn't interested.

Crestfallen, I pined and pined... and finally thought of how I would win her heart. I would write a letter to Ann Landers, because that was what all the 8th grade girls were reading that year.

Yes, I thought writing to ol' Ann Landers would save the day. Anyway, Ann never published the letter, summer vacation arrived, I didn't see my crush for several months, and by the time the next school year revved up, I had a crush on somebody different. I wish I had a copy of that letter, though, because it was super embarrassing and really sappy.

But the point of this story is that I thought, at least, that Ann Landers was the key to winning this girl's heart, so she must have been providing a service. And I remember reading her column every single day, enjoying the advice she offered to people. And she was also surprisingly progressive for her day, encouraging people to accept their children who had come out and so on. But did she provide a service beyond entertainment? I'm not sure. (I also used to love listening to Dr. Laura. No idea why.)

My wife (yes, I somehow became a person who could talk to women in a way that wasn't embarrassingly weird) loves to read the subreddit r/relationships, where people share their relationship troubles and/or completely made-up but really entertaining tales of woe. And that strikes me as something closer to the platonic ideal of advice columns -- where a crowd-sourced approach to advice wins out, and the best ideas hopefully rise to the top.

But I do think the inevitable need for pageviews or syndication subscriptions essentially requires the letters that get printed to be the most entertaining ones possible, which means they'll be subjects that are of limited interest to others' lives. We thrill at what's essentially gossip, but anonymously presented, so we don't have that little moral queasiness that comes from hearing something about a person we actually know.

And yet I think there are good advice columns. They just tend to be hyper-specific. I like Dear Prudence at Slate, especially now with Mallory Ortberg running things. And I think Dr. Nerdlove is terrific, and providing a much-needed service to people who often desperately need advice. I just don't know that I would ever reach out to an advice columnist myself.

Except if the Ann Landers people want to print my letter to Kara, they should absolutely do so. It would be hilarious to read it after all this time. I was a terrible writer as a teenager. Which brings me to my next question, from Brendan:

What colleges are the best if I'm looking to go into television/film writing or criticism?

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Brendan, but there's no one good school for getting involved in criticism or TV/film writing. As with most things, an Ivy League education will open certain doors that are harder to get open otherwise (I certainly struggled a bit early in my career). But at the same time, I went to South Dakota State University (as did my wife), and I did OK for myself (so did she).

Most of these jobs aren't about getting the right degree and learning the right things. They're about networking. So to that end, going to a coastal school -- any of the Ivys, NYU, USC, UCLA, Stanford, etc. -- can be helpful for meeting people who might give you a leg up in the future. But the actual basics of writing and criticism? You can learn those at any school in the US in any journalism or English program in the US. (I threw in theater as well.)

What you want to be doing is educating yourself. Read good stuff, not just writing about film and TV. Watch lots of movies. Read nonfiction about history and psychology and religion and things like that. Fill your mind with as much stuff as you can. No matter where you go to school, it will be hard. But getting really good is less about knowing a series of tricks and more about opening yourself up to the universe, so you can discover what you have to say. Which brings me to a question from Paul:

I was wondering if you had ever considered writing for a TV show, and if so, what recent TV show would you have wanted to write for?

There's a short and a long answer to this question that I and every single critic I know gets asked all the time. The short answer is yes, of course. If TV came calling, I would be more than happy to do TV's evil bidding. But I'm always hesitant to say anything more about this for a simple reason, which dovetails with the long answer.

The long answer is that this is a common misconception about critics, this belief that we all secretly want to write for the medium we cover. Really, if you want to become a TV writer, being a TV critic is a stupid way to go about it. Plenty of TV reporters (most notably Ryan Murphy and Frank Spotnitz) have crossed over to the world of writing for TV. But precious few critics have, and the few that have are usually very early in their careers, or established elsewhere as novelists (Legion writer and former Grantland critic Andy Greenwald had written a novel, for instance).

When you're a critic, you're tossing all of this stuff out into the universe that essentially says, "Hey, here are some things I don't like," and even if you try to be fair, you can't guarantee those who read them are going to say, "Wow, that was a really fair critique that called my show awful." Most of them are going to be upset.

The truth of the matter is that non-criticism and criticism fulfill very different parts of myself, and when I try to blend them (as in the infamous Hamilton piece), people tend to get sort of freaked out. And most critics I know have no real interest in writing for television or movies; they might dabble in, say, writing short stories, but they're not going to suddenly become the next staff writer on NCIS: New Orleans.

Because that's the other thing: When you want to write for television, the standard path is to break in as a low-level writer on some network show to learn the ropes, then work your way up until you're a showrunner or something. But if you're someone who's gotten used to saying, "I know what's best," it can be very hard to subdue that part of your ego to say, "I'm here to serve the vision of the showrunner of NCIS: New Orleans."

This is not to say it's impossible, but I suspect it would give most of us pause. Critics have great autonomy in the journalism field. Sure, they get told what to review, but their opinion is their opinion, usually. That autonomy goes away the second you're a story editor on a TV show.

But still, there's enough of my creative side extant that I've... let's say... dabbled. If it happens someday, I'll be pleased. If it doesn't, I guess I'll just return to writing Frank Fisticuffs novels.


That's all for this week. I had a few more I wanted to answer that I didn't get to, but we're already well over 1400 words, and I don't want these to be too long. I'll be back next week to answer more of your questions, including maybe the ones I didn't get to this week.


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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