When I interviewed for the job of Culture Editor at Vox in the spring of 2014, then editor-in-chief Ezra Klein posed a dilemma to me. He had just finished watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix, and he went looking for great stuff to read about it online. But most of those articles were specifically tied to the show when it had been on the air. (After all, it had only ended three years prior at that time.) He didn’t see the thing he really wanted, which was a piece that looked back at the show as a whole, from the point-of-view of someone who had just finished the whole thing.
And even more importantly, he didn’t see a clear path forward from Friday Night Lights to whatever show he should watch next. The Netflix algorithm wasn’t finding him the show he wanted, but he also couldn’t find the kind of person-to-person recommendation that would really make him sit up and take notice.
I hemmed and hawed my way through an answer that amounted to something about how hard it is to target people who’ve just finished watching an older show on streaming, because the greatest concentrated audience for a thing is right after it’s gone live, and after that, you’re just chasing whatever stragglers turn up to grab hold of the show’s long tail. But what Ezra was talking around was a thing that the online culture media would become more and more drawn to in the years to come. If you’ve ever wondered why we celebrate every semi-major anniversary of a film or TV show like the Queen herself has deigned to visit our publication, this is why. If you’re just watching Friday Night Lights now, a piece published on the show’s 10th anniversary might be just what you want to read.
The recommendations part of Ezra’s query, though, is a far trickier thing to manage. It’s a question I posed in an interview to the woman who is now our Culture Editor (and, thus, yes, my boss), and I don’t remember what she said, because the truth is, publications have essentially lit tons of money on fire chasing the gigantic theoretical audience for the publication that nails how to tell you exactly what you should watch next on Netflix.
My earliest realization that pursuing a strategy like this could blow up like gangbusters was in 2013. That Labor Day weekend, my A.V. Club colleagues and I realized that it had been a really great year for TV so far, and as such, we could run a quick list of those shows, with short descriptions, and details on how to watch them. The piece blew up. It was one of the biggest things we put on the site all year, thanks to a timely Reddit link.
We kept trying to replicate it. Every time a holiday weekend rolled around, we did some variation on the post, trying everything from shows you could watch in a single day to great classic TV shows that would make for satisfying marathon watches. These posts never did nearly as well as the original one, and now I realize why that was. Inadvertently, we had stumbled onto a formula that works: tell people what the “best” of something is, then tell them how to check it out.
In theory, just tell people what the best stuff is should make for foolproof content. But the more stuff there is, the more scattershot recommendations become. Vox’s sister site Vulture has a regularly updated set of features about the 100 best TV shows and 100 best movies on Netflix right now, and they’re absurdly popular, I would guess. (During our time of pandemic, they have routinely been in the site’s most read articles.) But they’re also so huge as to be sort of unusable. I really trust the taste of the guy who writes them, and by the time I’m in the B’s of such an alphabetical list, I’m already skimming. Having so many choices replicates the problem I face every time I turn on Netflix or any other streaming service — I have no idea what to do next.
Maybe my response here is atypical, but the more I’ve been asking others about their own reactions to various sites trying to recommend what to watch next, the more I’ve been struck by how similar their responses are. These articles are fun to read, and they might let you know an old favorite is available to stream, but if you’re actually looking for a new thing to watch, they’re not helpful, not precisely.
Couple that with the fact that all of these things are written by people — whose own idiosyncratic idea of “best” might be wildly different from your own — and you have a situation not unlike that of my much loved, much lamented “Best 18 Shows on TV Right Now” feature (RIP). For the most part, people seemed to really love that feature, and it was always well read. But I got more than a few responses from people asking why [X] show wasn’t included, and my answer was always, “Because I don’t like it as much as these 18 shows.” But what if my taste doesn’t overlap with your own? How do you find something to watch then?
What all of these publications — including my own — are trying to replicate is the power of a word of mouth recommendation. But the relationship between me writing a piece and you reading it is fundamentally different from if a friend or family member recommends something to you. Presumably your loved one knows you; I have no idea who you are, unless you’re already someone I know and love. (And if that’s true, you’re already listening to me rave about Babylon Berlin.)
The way that publications used to be able to replicate that experience was to have well-established critics, whose tastes the readership would be at least vaguely familiar with. But the more that the internet has come to dominate publishing, the more decentralized criticism has become, the more dominated by platforms like Rotten Tomatoes that attempt to “solve” criticism via an aggregate number. In 1990, even if you lived in New York or Los Angeles, the local newspaper’s movie critics were people who felt local in a way that movie critics just don’t today. Thus, the relationship between critic and reader is more distant now, and it has more mediators standing in the way of the one-on-one approach we instinctively crave.
Yet great criticism rarely makes for a great recommendations article, because great criticism often gives you a window into the critic’s process. It requires space and time. A recommendations article usually requires darting along to the next thing. (I will say that we at Vox have been experimenting with the idea that this doesn’t necessarily have to be true recently, with some success.)
Now, I have been doing this long enough that I do have thoughts on how to write recommendations that work for readers, but to share them here would be spilling trade secrets. And yet even then, I don’t think I’ve ever read a recommendations article that left me feeling wholly satisfied at the end, like I knew I was going to run off and have a ton of great new stuff to watch or listen to or read. The way our brains work, they often need to glom on to stuff in odd ways, and this might not be the way to do that.
And yet when I ask folks what they’d like to read in this vein, they almost always say some variation on: “Just tell me what’s good that I haven’t heard about” or “Just tell me what’s good like the thing I just watched.” Hopefully, you can see how hard a target both of these questions is to hit. (This is not to say we shouldn’t try!) To the first one, I have no idea what you have or haven’t seen. Stuff that seems obscure to me might be obvious to you and vice versa. And on the second one, it’s very hard for me to say why you liked Community, because if you tell me you want another show like that, I’m going to say The Leftovers, and you’re going to stop talking to me about that. (Seriously, I will tell you that.)
And yet, this whole thing was just preamble for me to ask you yet again: What kinds of recommendations do you find most useful? What sorts of articles do you want to see? The more specific you can get, the better! But I want to hear what works for you, not what I think should work for you. Please tell me in comments (yes, we have comments!), or email me to offer thoughts.
What I’ve been up to: I’m really happy with how this piece meant to function as a primer on how to get in to tabletop role-playing games turned out. It has big A.V. Club energy, which is a high compliment for a piece like this. I also recommended you watch Battlestar Galactica and talked about how much I love the work of Adam Schlesinger, the tremendously talented songwriter who died of complications from COVID-19.
If you’re just looking to sample a few songs, queue up “Mexican Wine,” or “Hackensack,” or “Hey Julie,” or “Valley Winter Song.” And especially check out “All Kinds of Time,” a song Schlesinger wrote the first draft of that is probably my favorite Fountains of Wayne song. It's about a young quarterback under pressure, who feels time stretch out as he looks for somebody to throw the football to. Soon, it’s as if that one play encompasses everything he might become and every other moment he might experience in his life.
The chorus feels particularly poignant right now, in the wake of Schlesinger’s passing. Over a cascade of guitar, Collingwood sings, “He’s got all kinds of time,” over and over. At their best, Fountains of Wayne made those moments we might feel trapped in a little more pleasant to live through, no matter how unfortunately brief they might turn out to be.
Read me: I’m not made of stone. I adored this Vulture feature where TV writers explain how their characters would confront the coronavirus pandemic.
Jack would try to get Liz to go to the secret GE island off the coast of Connecticut: “It will just be the top executives, any wives under 40, and yes, Lauer will be there, but only because it was built into his deal years ago.” Liz refuses to go because of her desire to be egalitarian but also because everyone would probably be barefoot. Pass. She would shelter in place like nobody’s business and still somehow dodge sex with James Marsden.
Listen to me: I asked my Twitter followers to submit the song they would put on their ideal quarantine playlist. Then I asked some friends (including some Famous People). Then I made that playlist. Listen to it now. I’ve even arranged all the songs so that the thing flows. You’re gonna love it.
And another thing… I’ve recently been poking around on the website Storium, which allows its users to tell collaborative stories in an environment that blends play-by-forum role-playing games and more freewheeling chat. I’m still figuring out everything the site can do, but I’m having fun exploring it. Maybe you’ll want to, too! Membership is free for the next little while.
This week’s reading music: “Hard Times” by Paramore
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