The Lessons You Learn When You Write About TV For Money

by Claire Zulkey

I started writing TV recaps and reviews a few years ago when a friend of a friend at a major newspaper told me they were expanding their TV coverage and needed people do cover a few shows, so I picked up two programs I already watched a lot, ‘The Office’ and ‘ER.’ It sounded easy enough, writing my thoughts on shows I already had opinions on anyway, although it took several tries to get the tone right — sometimes it still does. Some publications want a lot of recap, and some prefer that you assume that the readers saw the show and just touch on the major points. Some editors encourage plenty of sassmouth and snark, whereas others won’t tolerate even a hint at a swear word.

Typically, I’m assigned to review either an episode or a series of a show. I watch the show, and as quickly as possible, but as thoughtfully and with as much “voice” as possible, record my impressions of the quality of the episode along with the recap.

It’s a fun job, one that I’m lucky to have, period, let alone make a few bucks off, but like any writing gig, it comes with its own writey lessons.

Long scripted dramas and reality TV shows are the easiest to cover. Half-hour comedies are some of the hardest. It can be difficult to stretch a recap of a half-hour show into several good paragraphs and you can only say “…and it was funny when…” so many times. Also really hard to turn into something: results shows that aren’t finales.They’re usually all filler except for the results — the best reality TV competition shows are figuring out how to make the results shows worth watching because otherwise people will just skip and read about what happened online. With a drama, though, you can usually find something to say about the season (or series) as a whole even if the episode didn’t give you a ton to work with.

Screeners make life so much easier. I think I automatically relax and like a show more if I know I have a day or two to think about it after I watch it than if I only have an hour or two to write it up. Knocking out a writeup on a two-hour episode of ‘American Idol’ an hour after seeing it and making it comprehensive, entertaining, and spelling-error free is sometimes a challenge.

Livechatting reality TV show finales is way more fun than writing about them. As great a job it is to write about television, actually talking to like-minded people in real time and trying to one-up each other with jokes and observations is more fun. They’re like TV-watching parties but without that pesky real live interaction that goes along with that whole having-to-put-on-a-bra thing.

If you truly love a show, don’t review it. I get asked occasionally to review ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ but I won’t, at least not full-time, because I like saving that show as pure entertainment, just me and the TV and no notes or observations. Because even though writing about TV isn’t especially grueling work, it’s still work, and if you really love letting a show take you away for a little while, it’s best just to keep it as entertainment without turning it into an assignment, to remember what it’s like to just watch something without taking notes. I do like subbing for people who cover shows I watch just for fun, though. There’s less pressure to come up with something new to say, and you get to come at it from a fan’s perspective, not a critic’s. Plus, if for some reason you rub the readers the wrong way, it was just a one-time thing and they won’t be back next week to tell you what an ass you are.

Commenters will eat your soul if you let them. I have other critic friends who can avoid comments completely or not let them get to them. I am not one of these people. Why do I read comments on my pieces? Because I’m a masochist, that’s why. I guess I should stop being surprised when people use the internet’s anonymity to be jerks. Being told that your mother should have had aborted you when she had the chance because of your opinion on ‘Lost’ (this didn’t happen to me, it happened to a colleague) never goes down easy. I learn to laugh a day or two later but I’m still naively shaken sometimes by how rude people can be (My opinion on one episode of ‘SNL’ made one person decide that I am “literally retarded”). That said, I also feel crappy if a commenter politely points out that I made a mistake or missed something.

Whenever people find out you’re a TV critic and ask you what’s good, without fail, you draw a blank and then you feel like an idiot. I feel like I can’t keep saying ‘The Wire’ for forever, I’m afraid to admit to how loyal a ‘Bridezillas’ viewer I am. Alternately, they haven’t heard of any of the shows you do recommend. Or, they watched a few episodes of your favorite show and hated it and then you say “Oh, well,” and secretly judge them.

Network swag is fun to receive, and then you throw it away. It’s entertaining to receive a big silly package from a network in the mail, until I realize that I have to dispose of all the packaging that it came in and what do I need with some of this swag, anyway? Except the time that a network sent me some pancake mix and syrup for Christmas. That was great.

Going out and having a few drinks before you go home to write sounds like a much better and more enjoyable idea than it is. For something that sounds so fun and easy, you have to take it pretty seriously in order to do a decent job at it, especially since there are probably 200 people who would gladly take over covering for you. This goes double if you have a day job and can’t afford to sleep in because you started watching the two-hour ‘Idol’ “event” at 10 PM.

Change is good. ‘American Idol’ is only two episodes in but the consensus amongst reviewers is that, so far, it’s not too terrible. In my experience, a reality TV show changing up its format, if even slightly, is a good thing, at least from a writing perspective. When ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ incorporated its All-Stars last season, it might not have been for the best of the show, but at least I could evaluate the changes and ask the readers what they thought. When a show rests too long in format you can get too comfortable (Eventually I had a hard time finding much to say about ‘Project Runway’ for the first 75% of each episode, since it started to feel like everything prior to the runway was pretty irrelevant, unless Tim Gunn did something noteworthy).

Tim Gunn, over the phone, is as nice as you’d hope he’d be. Better, even. Classy, charming, intelligent, friendly: I was so excited after I interviewed him that I did a horrible job spell-checking the interview and let it get posted when it really shouldn’t have. I just wanted to brag to the world that I talked to him. Also very nice, despite probably being richer than anyone else I know: Nigel Lythgoe.

Claire Zulkey lives in Chicago. You can learn so much more about her here.

Photo by Powi, from Flickr.