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The loop

Or: things I learned from reviewing TV at The A.V. Club


Emily VanDerWerff

Mar 22 2021

15 min read


The thing about the loop is it was the easiest thing in the world to get trapped by. One day, you’d be reviewing a cool TV show; the next, you’d somehow have inextricably tied your identity to your opinions about said cool TV show.

To some degree, this might have been inevitable with the way we reviewed TV at The A.V. Club. When one person reviews every episode of a season of television, week to week, a kind of performance art Stockholm syndrome sets in. You want the show to be good, because when it’s good, your job is easier. And if the show is good, it becomes all the easier to pretend you don’t notice the missteps. After all, you are reviewing this show, and you don’t want to be trapped with something that’s going downhill.

Yes, every so often, just the right reviewer would find just the right trash show and turn that into a high-wire performance of gleeful rage, but usually, the right reviewer for a show was someone who could hold it with a kind of hopeful skepticism. You wanted it to be good but were willing to accept it might be bad. And if it was bad, at least you could hope it was interesting.

This setup was a good one. It gave me a career, after all, and it gave careers to many of the other best TV critics currently working. But it also set up the loop, and once you were in the loop, it was all but impossible to escape.

The best way to demonstrate the loop is to talk about a time when I got stuck in it myself — the second season of Girls.

Second seasons of shows that had great first seasons are particularly dangerous places in which one might become trapped in the loop, and this was no exception. To be clear, I don’t think the second season of Girls is bad television, though it makes some unquestionably bad decisions. (What is Donald Glover doing there anyway?) “One Man’s Trash” is one of the show’s best episodes, and the performances remain rock solid throughout the season.


Remember when Girls premiered, and it was just another TV show? (Credit: HBO)

But where season one was made largely in a vacuum, where all involved were only chasing their very specific creative muse, season two was made after the show randomly became a central part of the early 2010s zeitgeist. Suddenly, you couldn’t just watch Girls. You had to have thoughts about Girls. Combine that with a second season that was still quite good but off somehow, and you can perhaps see the trap I fell into already shaping up.

In season one, I had really, really, really loved Girls genuinely and purely. I loved how unabashed it was in being a series about womanhood. I loved how it seemed to present an alternate universe version of myself, who had been born cis and had moved to New York. I loved its occasional daring departures from form and its note-perfect cast. I loved the series so much I insisted that I should cover it weekly, over the protests of one of the other women on staff. (Sorry, Marah. I was working through some shit.)

I don’t know if you know this, but Girls was controversial. The show got constant brickbats from the internet, some of which were fair — its hermetically sealed worldview might have been an accurate representation of how its characters would see the world, but the show could have done a better job of indicating its awareness of that fact — and some of which… weren’t. (No, the show wasn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy, but it wasn’t trying to be.)

Because I wrote for The A.V. Club, I was asked to monitor the comments for the show, and those comments were often awful. Yes, there was substantive discussion of the show going on, but there was also a fair amount of snark. Some of that snark was driven by how Lena Dunham wasn’t conventionally attractive, and even more was driven by how unfunny she supposedly was.

One week, I just… snapped. Someone wrote something along the lines of “Lena Dunham is too ugly to be as unfunny as she is,” (I’m paraphrasing, because the original has been lost), and I wrote a comment that somehow went viral. (You can read the full thing here, but beware my dead name.) Here’s a brief excerpt:

You reject the most basic premise of our critical dialogue, which is that a work of art is worth considering and discussing, especially when evident effort has been put into that work of art by someone who wants to express some piece of themselves. Please note this doesn't mean you have to like it. I really don't like, say, Whitney, but I'm aware that the people behind it have tried to do something expressive of what they want (within the confines of the network TV sitcom). We owe the art respect. More important than that, we owe the people who make it respect. That doesn't mean we automatically praise it because somebody made a good effort. It means that when we criticize it, we criticize it like we would want our own stuff to be criticized, even when we think it sucks. Everybody goes in for snark because it's easy. I know I have more than a few times. But when you just snark, you absolutely shut out whatever's going on onscreen. You're not open to it. And that's no way to approach anything. It's cynical and lazy. I think it's self-evident from this that Dunham and her collaborators are putting a lot of thought and time into this show to make it something that I and a lot of your fellow commenters and a lot of my fellow critics think is pretty special. You're dismissing it as if it were a crayon drawing by a particularly irritating 5-year-old. At least engage the work.

I just reread that comment, and I basically stand by all of it. It’s as pure a distillation of my critical process as anything I’ve written — the work is the work is the work, and it’s worth engaging with in good faith, even if you hate it. But by making that comment, I had tied my own personal opinion on the show to myself. And from there, it was far too easy to grow more and more defensive with every criticism the series endured, because it was like the criticism was criticism of me.

I had entered the loop.

You enter the loop by taking a strong stand that attaches a considerable emotional component to something that should, theoretically, have some detachment. Once you’re inside of it, you end up getting trapped running in a circle that grows tighter with every cycle. Your original idea must be right, because it’s core to who you are, so criticism of your idea is criticism of you, so you have to defend your idea even more vociferously. Everybody has to understand! Soon, almost without realizing it, you’ve made yourself the subject of your writing, instead of the thing you are writing about. (If you want to know just how far I ended up going down this road with Girls, well, here’s a newsletter I wrote about that.)

Within criticism, flirting with entering the loop is a regular thing. When you love something nobody else loves or hate something everybody else is cheering on, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where “what you love” becomes synonymous with “you.” And I think a little of this is good! Impassioned stands make for great criticism, and the best critics know how to weave in the emotionality and personal nature of entering the loop without getting trapped by it. They’re able to see that even if they love Girls and bring lots of themselves to it, the rejection of the show isn’t the rejection of themselves.

But I do think episodic criticism made the loop a particularly dangerous place to exist, because it was so tempting. You were the one reviewing this show every week, after all. That made the temptation to turn yourself into the main character of your reviews way too easy to give in to. The ideal version of this was something like what Joshua Alston had with the last season of Dexter, where half the fun was reading to see just how much the show was making him lose his mind in any given week. But it was also a shortcut to bitter, defensive criticism, driven by a belief that the critic was right, everyone else be damned.

And when you’re the protagonist of your own journalism… that’s a dangerous place to be.

I’ve fallen into and out of the loop many times in my career. I like to think I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I’m susceptible to it and pulling back, but I still find moments when I’m conflating my own personal opinions with who I am as a person. (I try to mostly have these moments on Twitter now, and how dare you say anything mean about Taylor Swift??)

I do think the loop is so endemic to criticism that it’s impossible to set it aside entirely. We want to see critics wrestle with their opinions a bit, and we want them to become so emotionally and personally engaged with a work that they’re willing to go to the mat for it. But we don’t want to see them become so trapped by that opinion that they’re unable to see things any other way. The best critics navigate this dance more nimbly than any other journalists I know, but all of us fall prey to the loop eventually. It’s the cost of doing our business.

But the loop isn’t exclusive to criticism. It’s everywhere in journalism, where being wrong is a constant risk and where doubling down on the thing you’re wrong about is a natural, human response to being called on your bullshit. And I think other journalists are often even more susceptible to the loop without realizing it. You’ll stake out a position based on reporting, and then people will tell you the reporting is wrong, and you’ll hear, instead, “I’m wrong? How dare!” And then you’re running around in circles and spiraling toward doom.

And, look: The loop is profitable! Taking such a strong stand for Girls won me a lot of plaudits from the internet, particularly from women, whom I desperately wanted to like me (for some reason). The readership started to boom. The A.V. Club got so many ad dollars. But I chased off a bunch of people who didn’t like Girls and had reasons for not liking it better than “Lena Dunham ugly lolol.”

When you take an iconoclastic stand, the more aggressively you can take that stand the better. That’s what the audience wants. But what you end up doing is creating an audience of sycophants who live in the loop alongside you. And once that happens, you can become almost impossible to reach.

With criticism, escaping the loop is always possible, because TV shows end, movies fall out of the discourse, and people get tired of even the best Taylor Swift songs. But with so many other areas of journalism, escaping the loop requires being pushed to examine your own defensiveness. Ideally, you would do this work yourself, but if you’re lucky, a good editor or a conscientious audience will push back on the flaws in your arguments and help you gently escape the loop.

But confronting the ways in which you’re wrong and the ways in which you’ve let people down is really hard. It’s much easier to bask in the praise of those who already tell you what you want to hear. And if you could imagine a kind of journalism that made the loop not just profitable but incredibly profitable, where you could be personally enriched by saying things that were popular with your self-selected audience, well, at that point, the loop becomes a place you want to be, not a place you want to escape.

If you don’t escape the loop, though, if you become so tied to the ideas you had that one time that people maybe asked you to rethink, you can tank an entire career. Spirals only ever end up one place, and it’s not a good one.


Talk back at me: What’s a time when your opinion on a pop culture thing got mixed up with your sense of yourself, making you hyper defensive? We’ve all done it! (I’m going to try opening comments to everyone for now, but if there’s any nonsense, I’ll close them immediately.)

What I’ve been up to: Since I didn’t run this section last week, there’s so much Emily content to catch up on! I recommended For All Mankind and explained a seriously weird pair of Oscar nominations and examined how to deal with problematic older movies without “canceling” them and praised Oprah. But my favorite piece I wrote was this one about WandaVision and what I’ve dubbed “story karma.”

I think these arguments are missing an important point. Wanda is a fictional character. By definition, she cannot face actual justice. But increasingly, we struggle to talk about fictional characters within the fictional contexts they exist in. We debate the military strategies of Game of Thrones characters and argue about the morality and political positions of all sorts of superheroes.

Yet these characters are all created, and they exist in universes that are constructed. Within those universes, the storytellers who create these stories are, functionally, gods. When we say we want Wanda Maximoff to face justice, I think what we’re really saying is that we want the storytellers to show us they know what justice would be, even if she doesn’t face it.

We want, in other words, story karma.

Read me: I love Annalee Newitz on “why Substack’s scam worked so well.” (For the record, I’m leaving my options open, but presume I will be migrating this newsletter over to another service in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.)

One of the most important elements of ethical journalism is transparency at all levels. Writers should share who their sources are, or in those few cases where they can’t share, they should be honest about why they can’t reveal them. Writers should be explicit about any bias they have, too. Editors, for their part, must be honest about what their publication’s policies are, including who they are paying and what kinds of gatekeeping they do to hire those writers. This kind of openness is not complex. For example, newspapers generally share the names of their editorial staff, with ways to contact them, so that anyone can contact an editor with a story idea or question. There is a masthead with staff writers’ names on it. 

All of this is to say that when a story appears in a publication, we know that’s because it has passed through an editorial process -- usually involving payment, but possibly some other arrangement -- and that publication is putting its brand or imprimatur on the story. The publication takes responsibility for what it publishes, in both ethical and legal ways. When this process breaks down, it’s a big deal. People get fired. 

Not at Substack, where their editorial policy is to cover up who writes for them. How can Substack be held accountable for what they pay to publish if the writers they pay -- let’s call them staff writers -- could be literally anyone on the site? The answer is that they can’t. 

Watch me: I adore this long rundown of everything wild about Glee from the YouTube channel Mic the Snare. I covered that show, and I’ve forgotten about half this stuff. It’s well worth the hour-ish it will take you to watch!

And another thing… Speaking of Glee, did you know that the show featured the characters performing “Gangnam Style” at one point? Well, it did! I keep watching this, because I need to remind myself that it happened.

Opening credits sequence of the week: The premise of Big John, Little John is outlined in its opening credits sequence. It’s a horrifying premise the show treats as No Big Deal. I love this sequence so much.

A thing I had to look up: I had to read a lot of A.V. Club criticism to find the show that would best underline the point I was trying to make. (Other candidates: Homeland, Community.) Doing this gave me a weird bout of Glee nostalgia, but it also reminded me that my writing has improved a lot since those days.

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This week’s reading music: “Summer Girl” by HAIM. (That music video is one of my favorites. Watch it for the summer in LA V I B E S.)

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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