For almost every art form—literature, visual art, film—academic criticism has existed as long as the medium itself. In 1936, a new medium—television—was born. But until the Internet Age, TV criticism did not exist. That is, not until a small team of bloggers created the website “Dawson’s Wrap” (later and more famously called “Television Without Pity”) and began to write detailed criticism of Dawson’s Creek episodes every week.
Their “recaps” of Dawson’s Creek delved into plot summary (in-depth), as well as critical commentary on plot points, characterization, recurring themes and more. Their official slogan—“spare the snark, spoil the networks,”—a play on the adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” set the tone for TV criticism.
This group of bloggers prided themselves on writing in a conversational tone—not sparing any fun-poking or sarcasm. In fact, they often assigned humorous nicknames to the characters of television shows, such as “Five-head” for the protagonist of Dawson’s Creek—a commentary on the actor’s unusually large forehead.
Largely intended as a form of entertainment, recaps by Television Without Pity—and online recapping in general—sparked genuine academic interest in television as an artistic medium. Today, many universities employ scholars, usually in the Literature, Film or Cultural Studies departments, who analyze television as literature and as an essential part of our culture.
Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer particularly interested academics during its run, spawning its own academic subject called “Buffy Studies.” But television scholars analyze many different shows from analytic perspectives including the literary, feminist, colonialist, psychoanalytic, sociological and aesthetic viewpoints.
Even now, when television is taken much more seriously as an artistic medium (partially as a result of television criticism), certain limitations constrict critics’ ability to analyze television as they would other types of art. For example, television writers are constrained by many practical considerations, such as whether actors are available to reprise their characters in later episodes, as well as the often-constant threat of cancellation. Often, showrunners do not know whether their show will be cancelled when the final episode of a season is filmed, so they are forced to make a choice between ending the season in a creatively fitting way and risk an open-ended series finale, or attempting to make the final episode work as both a season and series finale.
Today, television criticism provides a nearly unique opportunity for show writers to get feedback—and they can take critics’ advice to heart for future episodes and fix creative problems noted by the critics. As television criticism continues to provide creative insights, several prominent television writers and showrunners, including Joss Whedon and The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, cite it as a creative influence—and don’t hesitate to use it to improve the television experience.