Episodes: Friday mailbag (March 3)

Let's make it snappy this week, because I'm on the road, and all I want to talk to you about is how good Sunday in the Park with George is. But you don't care about that! You care about your questions being answered!

Jordan asks a two-part question:

A long time ago on Twitter you asked for advice on how to get together equipment and other stuff for shooting your own short. Did you ever end up shooting anything or have since then? Also, have you read any biographies, memoirs, etc about makers of TV that you've really loved? What about ones you've hated?

Toward the end of my AV Club tenure, I decided I really wanted to make a cheapo short film, less because I wanted to direct and more because I thought the process of doing so would help me better understand filmmaking, something I had struggled with a bit. But then I left, and I never did anything with the idea. (It wasn't like I had a script or anything either.) It's still a thing I think about from time to time, but I've done more reading on how films work, and I feel more confident in my understanding of those principles. And I'm still not at a place where I could, say, take a weekend to make a short film.

I did a lot of stage directing in college, and almost went to get my MFA in directing for theater, so it's a thing I'm at least mildly interested in. But in the grand scheme of things I would love to do, it's pretty far down the list.

As far as great books about makers of TV, there are surprisingly few. Sid Caesar's book is pretty good, and I've enjoyed a surprising number of books about Lawrence Welk. But contemporary TV creators with good memoirs are few and far between. I really like Phil Rosenthal's book, You're Lucky You're Funny, but I dunno that you'll learn much about how to make television from it.

I tend to like the bigger picture TV books, usually the reported ones. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and Seinfeldia are two terrific tales of great American sitcoms, and there were a lot of really good books written about the TV industry in the '70s and '80s, which is also a fascinating era for TV, because everybody could see the cable era coming, but nobody knew how to understand its impact. (A few people with great foresight even saw the rise of on-demand culture.) Of these books, my favorite is probably The Sweeps, which can be very hard to find. It's worth it though.

Matthew asks:

Why did you choose to give videogamedunkey in particular a shout out [in your year-end top 10 list]? How long do you see youtube being a viable platform for independent creators? Bonus: Could a G4-esque or Adult Swim style streaming service give them the larger exposure that word of mouth cannot ensure?

The first question is easy to answer: I find dunkey incredibly funny, and I consume a lot of my gaming content via YouTube videos. I've put video game review shows on my various lists before (Zero Punctuation made my list in 2008 or 2009), and when I was staring at my honorable mentions, trying to think of one more show to make the list an even 15, well, Dunkey came to mind.

The second question is more interesting, because it presumes that what YouTube creators want is increased mainstream exposure, and I'm not sure they do. YouTube itself boasts that its users watch more video on it than any platform other than television -- and it's rapidly catching up to TV. YouTube celebrities get mobbed at shopping malls. Lots and lots of people are doing well for themselves on YouTube financially (though far more are doing poorly).

But I suspect what Matthew is asking is something closer to: How can these creators be successful when mainstream culture doesn't know they exist. I would argue that they are part of where we're heading -- away from 20th century monoculture and toward a world where everybody is really into one or two specific things, that maybe their next door neighbor doesn't even know exists. The idea was once that the mainstream media could turn its gaze upon certain things and grant them instant cachet, but I dunno that this is true any more. After all, it's not like Rectify was particularly well known.

So I'm not sure YouTubers have a "problem" here, so much as they've found a way to make the shit they want to make, get paid for it, and have an intense (if small) fanbase. I think a lot of people might take that trade-off.

Finally, Jeff asks (and we need to get more ladies writing in!):

What is the one thing you would change about Peak TV?

I could probably come up with a host of things if I really thought about it, but they all, eventually, wend their way back to the same thing: the return of the standalone episode. The way TV stories are told at this moment in time is often really, really sloppy, and the easiest way to fix that problem is just to go back to making sure each episode is a discrete unit. This doesn't mean that the episodes need to be formulaic, or case of the week, or anything like that. But most of the seasons of TV I love best are serialized arcs that break down into singular episodes within that arc. It's a great format, and I'm sad to see TV move away from it, though there are encouraging signs here and there.

And I've fallen asleep four different times writing the answer to that last question. Thanks for reading, and I'll be back in LA next week, to answer more questions!


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.