Watch TV with a Critical Eye
Edited by Jasmin, Maria Quinney, Eng
How To Watch TV with a Critical Eye
Do you ever read television reviews or listen to critics talk about an episode of TV, and feel as though the analyses go a little over your head? Or perhaps you understand the analysis but wish you had been more perceptive to those concepts when you were watching the episode or show in question? Don't despair; though not everyone can be a TV critic, everyone can learn to watch TV through a critical lens.
To get started, you need a basic understanding of televisual literacy. That is, you need to know the components of a TV show. Once you understand the essentials, you can begin to unpack the information being conveyed and examine it further. Pick an episode of any show and watch it before, during, and after you read this article so you can apply these tips in a practical setting.
- 1These are the people who allow us to connect with the story world of every show. On some level they should be relatable, or at the very least recognizable. They need strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Fully formed, three-dimensional characters can often save even the most poorly plotted shows from being total failures.Advertisement
- 2Determine whether the show you're watching has characters you feel an emotional connection with. Do you feel invested in these characters' future? If yes, consider why you feel that way. Can you see yourself in them? What about their dialogue or actions makes you want to see more? If not, consider what's missing from these characters that stops you from feeling engaged.Advertisement
- 3Character arcs are very important. An arc is when a character begins as one type of person and, in response to obstacles or story developments, they make small or large changes to become a slightly new type of person. The character doesn't need to be radically different at the end of the arc, just exhibit an ability to overcome and evolve. Characters who maintain the same status quo for too long become stagnant and uninteresting.
- 4Watch for inconsistencies known as character breaks. This is what happens when a character does something that doesn't seem authentic to them. The longer you've known a character the easier it will be to spot. It typically occurs when characters are sacrificed in the name of a joke or plot point. Even though the joke makes no sense coming from a particular character, the writers (or producers) just can't part with the line. Equally as offensive is when a plot point needs an easy resolution, so a character says or does something completely inauthentic to themselves for the sheer purpose of tidying up plot.
- 5Look out for characters that are just walking, talking stereotypes. These were far more common in the past, but they still rear their ugly heads today. It's any character who presents an oversimplified image of a particular person or group. It's often race or gender based, and it's an example of very poor, lazy, and usually discriminatory writing. The only time a stereotype can improve television, is when they are used to satirize or subvert the status quo.
- 6Learn to distinguish between bad characters and bad acting. Sometimes a character is great on the page but the actor portraying them doesn't bring any life to them on screen. If all other elements of a show seem to mesh well but one character continues to fall flat, the fault is most likely in the acting. It could also be the complete reverse; a great actor doing all they can with subpar material. If a character continues to shine despite being surrounded by plot holes and rigid dialogue, the actor is likely to thank. It's not an easy thing to identify at first but it gets a lot easier with practice. When you notice particularly poor or great writing, lookup the writer's name and check out a few other episodes they've written. Watching the same actor in different roles is helpful as well. You might discover that an actor or writer was only great, or not so great, in one situation. The problem then, could be with the direction of the episode.
Direction & Visual Language
- 1Everything you see on screen is part of a show's visual language. The actors, props, lighting, color scheme, everything. Though the showrunner has final say over every aspect of their show, the director is still responsible for the majority of what viewers see and how they see it on their screen. Understanding why things are being presented in such particular ways is a pretty important concept in critical viewing of television. It's the visual in visual storytelling.Advertisement
- 2Television shows have their own unique visual style. Every episode will have some manner of consistency to its lighting, camera angles, editing, dialogue delivery, etc. When something feels out of place, and not in a deliberate way, it can be the fault of direction. As mentioned before in regards to characters and acting, an offbeat character moment may be attributed to a director's instructions.
- 3Look for cues and clues about what's being telegraphed by means of camerawork.
- Slow motion could be an attempt at heightening tension or emotions. If used too often or in an ill-suited moment, it can be jarring or even unintentionally humorous.
- Focus can be manipulated to guide our attention, away from or towards a particular character or set piece.
- Close-ups or shots that linger on a character's face can be used to increase our intimacy with them, or provide further details about a current situation. By contrast, the further the camera takes us from a character, the less intimacy we can develop with them. This could be an effort of depicting a character who is guarded or emotionally closed off.
- Quick cuts can be used to ramp up suspense, or give the viewer a sense of disorientation. The latter is sometimes purposefully and effective, sometimes not.
- 4Color schemes and palettes can be used to convey tone, add character depth, or indicate flashbacks or flash-forwards. Mad Men was very deliberate in its use of color and style, taking cues from a real time in our history. Think of the bright charm on display in the Draper home, which was used as an excellent contrast to Don and Betty's actual dark and gloomy behavior and emotions.
Plot & Dialogue
- 1All stories need structure. Though a good number of television shows are trying their hand at character-motivated stories, plot is still at the heart of it all. A show still needs a story, no matter how basic or complex it may be.
Music & Sound
- 1Everything you hear in an episode of television. This includes original scores, song choices, sound design, and sound effects. It's widely believed that if a show's sound is any good, you won't notice it. This is true in some senses, like when a sound effect is so ill fitting it causes confusion. But in some cases, music and sound becomes so entangled with the rest of a show's elements it's impossible to ignore.
- 2A well-placed song can amplify everything about a scene. An ill-timed song can throw viewers off and take them out of the story completely. Sometimes a cheerful song can be used to highlight the dark or depressing context of a scene. When done well it can be haunting, when done poorly it can be laughable.
- 3Two shows that have essentially made a character out of their original scores are The Leftovers and Westworld. From early on in both, they use their score in certain ways to almost train the viewer in what to expect. By the finale of each season, the first note of these scores can bring you to tears or make you feel excited.
- 4An excellent use of sound, or lack of I should say, is in an episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fourth season, titled "Hush." I highly recommend watching this episode to see how even the absence of sound can count as superb work with sound.
Read reviews & listen to podcasts.
- 1Immersing yourself in the world of television criticism is the quickest way to learn. No matter how long you practice developing your own skills, there will inevitably be details you don't pick up on or don't perceive in a particular way. We all come with our own set of biases, after all. So, keep reading and listening to what other people have to say. If nothing else, it may help confirm that you're on the right track.
- 2Check out this VisiHow article for a list of my favorite TV critics and podcasts.
Watch More TV!
- 1When getting started, re-watch episodes of shows you already know very well. By having a prior grasp on the subject material, you allow yourself to focus elsewhere on aspects like directorial choices and nuances in performances.
- 2Cultivate your TV palate. Gain an understanding of what's considered great television by watching some of the highest rated shows, past and present. When you know what television is truly capable of, in all aspects, you can use that knowledge as a helpful gage to determine how other TV measures up. My personal recommendations for this activity are:
- The Wire
- Breaking Bad
- The Leftovers
- Orphan Black
- Happy Valley
- Arrested Development
- 3Watch as much television as possible. Watching a lot of TV can help you get into the rhythm of watching critically. Through repetition, it will familiarize you with patterns and tropes so they become more easily recognizable. Eventually you'll be quick at discerning between what's original and what's cliché.
- 4Diversify your lineup. Watching many different styles of television will be even further beneficial. If you only ever consume comedies, then that's all you'll ever get a firm grasp on. If you watch comedies, drama, sci-fi, fantasy, etc., you'll start understanding how different shows "work." It's especially fun when you start noticing how genres overlap and when a particular show is bringing something new to the table. Of course, you can always spend more time consuming a genre you love, but to gain a truly critical eye you need to cast a wider net.
Television has grown into a medium that's worthy of our active engagement and criticism, in much the same way literary texts have been receiving for centuries. It's established itself as a means of connecting with and drawing parallels to our society and culture. Even if a television show is simply telling a story though, it still holds value; story is a fairly universally loved concept. If visual storytelling is something you feel particularly passionate about, learning to watch it critically can only enhance your enjoyment. Sure, once you become more practiced in it, you might eventually discover a show you once loved isn't all that great. But you will undoubtedly also develop an even deeper appreciation for many other shows.