If you were to ask me, say, 10 years ago if I would have taken the side of Socrates or the people of Athens in the former’s trial, I would have given the most expected answer from someone of an intellectual or basically decent bent. Of course I’d have taken the side of Socrates, for it is the side of truth over sophistry, freedom over uniformity, virtue over vice, and curiosity over indifference. True, I could have taken the side of Athens, but infused that position with such irony as to make the forefather of all clear-eyed intellectuals rightly proud.
Ask me again today, however, and my answer would favor the people of Athens much more readily and be wiped clean of any put-on. Oh, how times change you. Now waist-deep in my 30s, Socrates’s grand project doesn’t seem very compelling. “Pursuit of truth” feels either like a futile crafty hobby that leads to boredom and arrogance or a dangerous impulse attracting misery and trouble. In the long barren winter of my maturity, anyone who prizes the power of thought and the reach of ideas must accept that “corruption of youth” is a pretty substantial charge.
My conviction on this point only grows more resolute today when you switch out “Socrates” for “Alan Sepinwall.” Sure, Alan Sepinwall doesn’t have a lot in common with Socrates at first. He’s not as clever and has no sense of irony; indeed, he’s earnest to the point of agony. Like Socrates he has a deceptively casual style, though in this case it lacks those (likely Plato-inflated) allusions, dialectics, and turns of phrase. Socrates was an independent critic of ideas; Alan Sepinwall is an indentured critic of television. Despite these differences, though, Alan Sepinwall’s vast influence on scores of readers and writers drags grave concern over intellectual influence back out from its tomb; now standing outside our windows, draped in rags and chains, it practically begs us to act.
Ours is an age that finds the authority of the critic in a very precarious position. Making a living off of it was never as easy as the cultural nostalgists like to think, but it is much more difficult, even laughable, now that the internet offers the clearest proof of Harry Callahan’s opinion-asshole dialectic. Standing against this trend, however, is Alan Sepinwall, who has staked out a long and prosperous career as the leading media critic of our day. Surveying his career, his place in our culture seems almost destined. He started critiquing television while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, which got him hired to the New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger. He remained at the Ledger for 14 years before moving to HitFlix, later absorbed into Uproxx. Now he is at Rolling Stone. In every venue he has done the same thing: review and analyze the most relevant, substantial, and interesting television now on offer.
Sepinwall’s appeal is in his passion. Some critics are known for their derision; others are known for their advocacy. Sepinwall falls decidedly in the latter category. If he’s laid hatchet jobs against shows he hates, they shrink next to his many crusades for the shows he loves. He is a man of deep fixations that started in college with NYPD Blue. His skill in making The Sopranos palatable to his New Jersey readership vaulted him nationally. He became the golden voice of the platinum age of television. He is credited with saving Chuck and throwing life preserver after life preserver to Community. Shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men were not just uncommonly intense outlets of Sunday night diversion, but complex works of art, embodying the fraught character of our times, demanding active, close viewing. “If you wanted thoughtful drama for adults,” Sepinwall writes in The Revolution Will Be Televised, “you didn’t go to the multiplex; you went to your living room couch.”
Sepinwall’s message has proved persuasive; not just among television viewers, but among the media. While publications online and off routinely hemorrhage staff, TV reviewing — or “recapping” — is a solid mainstay. I don’t have any exact figures but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that recappers are so profuse in the industry that their skulls may well fill a TV critic equivalent of the Capuchin Crypt. On multiple platforms, shows are recapped episode by episode, often in fathomless depth and excruciating detail. They are eagerly clicked-on and skimmed at the very least. It confers a new kind of authority; not only of the expertise of the writer but the discretion of the editor. Publications have the fair but arbitrary power to pick and choose what shows are worth their time. In July of 2017, The AV Club announced that it was ending its coverage of Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here because it did not live up to expectations. “Sadly, some of what the show has been attempting to do is exactly what I want out of a TV show,” the show’s assigned critic Jesse Hassanger writes, “at least in theory. While it does attend to some ongoing plotlines, I’m Dying Up Here allows its character focus to shift from episode to episode, and has yet to turn overly serialized.” In September of 2018, the show was cancelled.
You might look upon this development and see nothing but positives. Doubtless, you would surely say, the continued employment of writers of any sort is something for which to be grateful. For someone to cast aspersions on it, you would continue, must come from a place of deep bitterness. To which I would reply, fine, sure. I don’t deny that I am embittered by any number of things at any point of the day. Does my embitterment impact my judgment? Perhaps. But that would hardly change my conclusion, deduced by nothing more than raw logic, that good things can be bad at the same time.
Sepinwall may be pure in talent and intent, but he has nonetheless corrupted not just television viewers and the writers who imitate him, but the whole contemporary culture. People who fear the effects of this corruption are obligated to repel it. There are a few ways to do this. One, for instance, could mercilessly lampoon the whole affair as Aristophanes did. If only I had such ability! Alas, my toolbox is a smaller one, containing nothing more potent than good old moral censure. So I must trudge on, like a fusion of Polycrates, Robespierre, and Newton Minnow — but funnier and more handsome.
If I was tasked with prosecuting Alan Sepinwall for corruption, I would do it on two main counts.
The first count would be the proliferation of superfluous content. The internet has released a flood of language — among other things — unprecedented in human memory; yes, more significant than the rise of the printing press. Sepinwall’s efforts have only intensified the flood to drown just about everyone in words. Take all the episode recaps into a bundle for posterity. How many volumes would that make? Hundreds at the very least. And any good scholar would have to include the fringe blogs committed to Straussian esoteric readings of every hand gesture seen on The Bachelorette. So make that several thousand volumes. For a single person of even higher than average intelligence to give each piece his or her fullest attention would require an impossible demand on his or her time. Whole commitments to work, family, and health would have to be reduced. Society would come to a standstill; no, it would collapse far more quickly than it already has. Of course no one does that. But the material gets written anyway; it piles up in the digital store rooms never to be read, no usable data to be mined for advertisers. All is awash in verbal vomit.
The second count is the effect these words have, whether read or not. In general, TV recapping’s quality requirements are no different from any other criticism besides its speed of production — sometimes an hour after the episode being recapped airs. It is fluid, concise, funny, erudite, firm where it needs to be, impassioned where it can afford to be, and most of all smart. Some of the smartest writing may come from these recaps. But the more it is carried out, the duller the smartness becomes. All the wit, the insight, and the analytical precision dissolves into a fog of sameness. A sameness of aesthetics, psychology, and politics. A show that hits the ground running with positive notices seldom loses speed. One that abuses a collective trust never really regains it. Ultimately the glut of recapping creates a fevered atmosphere where cleverness is confused for smartness and enthusiasm is confused for wisdom.
The sameness of smartness almost makes you long for stupidity. Stupidity is like the lover you let get away because you did not appreciate its affections enough and just took it for granted. That kind of longing makes you think about stupidity endlessly and late at night, looking at its Instagram posts under your covers in the dark. Pretty soon you waste water in the shower masturbating to any object that comes into your head — a swivel chair, a spatula, the PanAm Board of Directors circa 1945 — that will help you forget that in the end you had to settle for smart.
Sepinwall and his defenders will find such charges impossible to overcome, leaving only the manner of punishment to be decided. Obviously it’s not going to be a self-administration of literal hemlock. That is insane. Instead, think of hemlock as a useful metaphor. Everyone gets their own personal hemlock in the end. Bespoke hemlock, you could say. For Sepinwall this is easy. Once pronounced guilty of cultural corruption, he will submit to handing over his DVD player and whatever DVDs he owns, to discontinuing his cable and internet provider, and to destroying all his writing instruments. He will be given a VCR and a VHS of Thirtysomething, WKRP in Cincinnati, or Heaven’s Gate. He’ll probably spend a lot of time fishing.
Now you might be tempted to wonder where, exactly, this all leads, seeing as how the suppression of Socrates didn’t exactly impede the spread of Western philosophy. Dude, I have no fucking idea. The sophists weren’t known for their foresight and neither am I. They wished for nothing more than to dispense with a miscreant who was making their lives harder, which I think is an underappreciated virtue in this age. And who knows? Maybe this time the spirit of imitation that follows Sepinwall’s writing will carry over to his mandated self-abnegation.
In any case, what little I do know about the future is sufficiently encouraging: we’ll all be dead, no one will know how to read, and any sideways glance of a screen will be taken for the damned trying to escape Wrong-Prison.