What the Killers Wanted: an Interview with Mary McNamara

New Haven is on one side of the country, and Los Angeles the other. Usually we think of television and poetry as artistic media separated by an equally sprawling distance. Mary McNamara is the fifth television critic to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize; she is the first to win in 28 years, however, as well as the first female to win for television writing. Our email correspondence crossed the distance, real and imagined, as she spoke with The Lit for an interview about television—an industry, a social barometer, and the most popularly consumed form of art in America today.


How did you get interested in TV criticism?


Accidentally. I was working as an entertainment reporter, doing some reporting on TV but mainly focusing on film when the TV editor started one of the recapping blogs, called Showtracker. She asked members of the staff to pitch in and I started blogging about “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House.” A year or so later, one of our TV critics wanted to change jobs and she asked if I would be interested in becoming TV critic. I had just had my third child and was killing myself driving from interviews on the Westside to the various daycares on the east side and I asked “can I work from home?” She said yes, and I said sure. It was such a happy accident—when I started ten years ago, a lot of people seemed to think that TV was dead, so I wound up chronicling the revolution.


The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded five times for television criticism. The first time was in 1973, then ’80, ’85, and ’88—and now you’re the first television critic to be given the award in almost thirty years. Why do you think television seems to have been taken so seriously early on, and why might that level of attention dropped off?


I hadn’t realized the 80s were the golden age of TV criticism, though my friend Howard Rosenberg won in ’85 and in a recent lunch, he said if he had to do what my colleague Robert Lloyd and I do—cover the number of new shows on all the new outlets—he would go crazy! I think some of it was due to what I mentioned above—ten years ago, reality television was such a huge threat that many predicted the death of scripted programming (remember when NBC turned over its 10 p.m. slot to Leno??) while the rise of the DVR and the specter of cord-free “young folk” seemed to spell the economic demise of the industry.

Seriously, to hear people talk then, you’d have thought that by now, TVs would be as obsolete as 8-Track players and everyone would be watching webisodes on their phones. Which they are! But they’re also watching TV which, instead of dying, became the ascendant art form of the 21st Century.

Which may be the other reason—the whole “I only watch PBS” snobbery is finally dead. Again, when I started, otherwise intelligent people found it perfectly acceptable to say snotty things like “Oh God, I never watch TV, it’s all so terrible except maybe ‘The Sopranos.’ Or ‘The Wire. I just love ‘The Wire.’” (The head of HBO programming recently told me if everyone who said they only watched “The Wire,” had actually watched “The Wire” “The Wire” would still be on.)

Now there are just too many great shows to pretend they don’t matter, and television as a medium is more powerful than ever.


One thing that’s interesting about TV criticism when compared with, say, book reviews is that book critics such as James Wood or Michiko Kakutani won’t review something that is typically considered beach reading. In large part, they don’t review some of the best selling books, the kinds of spy thrillers and romances that one finds in airport. On the other hand, vast popularity seems to ensure that a given TV program will be reviewed. Do you think that’s true?


I have no idea how book critics decide what to review but we do our best to review all the big new shows and a lot of the small ones regardless of their popularity or “cultural significance.” Television criticism is different from other sorts of criticism in that, in most cases, you’re not reviewing a finished product. Even streaming services like Netflix rarely supply critics with the entire seasons before they go live and though many TV critics experimented with binging early seasons of, say, “House of Cards,” life is frankly too short, and even if you review a full season, it still does not represent the entire work.

Dealing with the number of new shows is an increasing problem for critics—there were something like 35 new shows in January. January! Especially since a large percentage of television criticism is overview, rather than review—stories on trends, shifts, notable characters etc. So I think we are going to see more pre-sorting and round-ups, at least until the amount of content drops off.


It’s really interesting to think about “television” as a unified form because today it seems so diffuse. As a college student I know a lot of people who “watch TV” in some meaningful sense, but no one I know has a television. How do you think the way we engage with content associated with TV affects our reception of it? Do you, for example, as a professional TV critic always watch on a television?


Nope. I watch it on every screen available, though I still refuse to review from my iPhone. As more networks move away from screeners, I watch mostly on my laptop. I think the digital change has had a huge affect on the content and our relationship with it. I wrote several big pieces about this— when television became permanent, portable and collectable, people began treating it like art, which encouraged the creators to experiment in tone and form and content. Vince Gilligan repeatedly credited Netflix with the success of “Breaking Bad”—not only did it create new audiences, they were able to watch it in a new way, as a story moving from one point to another, rather than serialized entertainment. When television became something we could own, rather than something we did, everything changed.


You wrote a really interesting article this year in the wake of the on-air killings of Allison Parker and Adam Ward. In it, you wrestled with the idea that TV and its intersecting internet culture can motivate sick people to horrifying things in order to get famous; while at the same time processing boycotts of the footage as a kind of concession to the terror of violence:

Their deaths should remind us that every act of violence, every killing, occurs in moments of disjointed horror. Just as images of police brutality against black Americans recently reignited protest and investigations, the tragic last minutes of these lives should prompt as many serious conversations as prayers. About guns and mental illness, about safety in the workplace and whatever other issues come to light as the story evolves.

Not everything that occurs on television or social media is there for our enjoyment, and when the unacceptable or the outrageous occurs, we should draw as many eyeballs to it as we can. When we’re too afraid to see what violence really looks like, or too worried that our horror will encourage it, that’s when we’ll know the barbarians have won.

Do you think we have ethical responsibilities as consumers of television?


I do, especially right now when a well-timed Twitter campaign can instantly affect what we see. Which is very cool, but requires thought and calm on both sides. I have no problem with graphic violence on scripted television if it serves the story, but I do think it is important to separate fictional violence, and our reaction to it, from actual violence and our reaction to it. Like the Ray Rice video, this terrible shooting was a perfect example of what gun violence really looks like. I certainly wouldn’t say people should watch it, but to suggest that the airing of it was necessarily exploitive, or that those who watched it were morbid, or “doing what the killer wanted” is just absurd. Journalism in particular should not be dictated in any way by the possible motives of crazy people.


In a recent review of the Netflix Documentary “Making a Murderer” you write about our present-moment fascination with true crime stories. They have always been a popular part of TV, as you note, citing “To Catch a Predator” and the Paradise Lost trilogy. But these stories have never been so widely popular and profitable as now—“Serial,” “The Jinx,” “Making a Murderer,” and now it seems “The People v. OJ Simpson.”

However, you end that article in an ominous place. If you don’t mind my quoting liberally again:

Whether or not these people, and their terrible ordeals, should be offered up for our binge-loving entertainment is a whole other issue.

Clearly, Ricciardi and Demos are on the side of justice, attempt- ing to shed light on the dangers of imperfect police work and the very real potential for conspiracy. But when they showcase the awful thrill with which some members of the media reacted to the “great story” of Avery’s second arrest, it’s tough not to see a double standard.

It is a great story, which is why they and Netflix chose to tell it. Even more worrisome is the marginalization of the victims, and their families, in these sorts of series. Although they focus on men, “Serial,” “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” are all bound by dead women, who remain dead no matter who goes to jail for it.

Do you take issue with points you raise?


I am actually going to write a piece about this. True Crime has always fascinated, even before Truman Capote turned it into a literary art form. But some of the issues raised by “In Cold Blood” remain—the victims are almost always a secondary part of the narrative because, well, they’re dead; the action involves those who are not. Which is fine, but I do think those who choose to tell those sorts of stories have a responsibility in choosing their subjects—why are the victims of the stories that fascinate predominantly women?—and, in the case of fictional accounts like “The People vs. OJ,” not falling prey to the same sort of circus atmosphere that they are ostensibly condemning.


“The winner of the 2016 Oscar in practically every category is … white men facing adversity.” This began your first article after the 2016 Oscar nominations came out. You’ve written insightfully about how the lack of gender and racial diversity is not only a matter of Hollywood executives correcting a system that overexposes some stories over others, but also a matter of these corporations being in touch with the consciousness and concerns of our present moment. Our stories—the important stories shaping our historical and artistic moment—are being overlooked to some degree. “Tyranny comes in many forms, and offering people only one tiny window through which to view the world is one of them,” you write. While that’s certainly true, a number of other, larger systems make it so that there are far more white writers, directors, actors, and other television-and- film industry people: what responsibility do you think Hollywood has beyond award shows and green-lighting?


A LOT of people took issue with my use of the word “tyranny” in that sentence so it’s nice to see you quoting it. There are many things Hollywood can do, all of which boil down to: Stop repeating yourself, and stop telling yourself lies about why you’re repeating yourself. Conventional wisdom is its all about the bank—studios do what they think will succeed, what will make money and they base their decisions what has succeed- ed and made money before. Even though history continues to prove that this is not a valid business model! Audiences respond to good stories, well-told and there are far more good stories waiting to be well-told outside the margins of what Hollywood has done before than within them.

More pragmatically, studios need to hire a more diverse array of executives, including those who have not risen in the traditional way; networks need to cast their nets wider for writers instead of offering the same five guys multi-year contracts over and over again; established writers need to move beyond their comfort zone in their writing and in who they mentor (“He reminded me of me when I was young and struggling” maybe the single biggest problem with Hollywood, and pretty much everywhere). The onus cannot be put on the casting directors, which it often seems to be.


Also, the critical landscape is also very male and very white. Do you see that as related obstacle?


The best thing about the new status of television is the conversations it provokes. Social media allows for a wider variety of voices to be heard, but critics still have the power to herd, if not quite control, the conversation, and so the more diverse the critics, the more diverse the conversation. Years ago, I wrote a piece about how it was high time HBO stopped with all the naked tits, i.e. ambient nude women who had absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Nudity, I said, was fine when it served the story, but the trope of setting all-male exposition in brothels and strip clubs was ridiculous. Well. There was not a male TV critic in America who didn’t fall all over themselves calling me out for my overly sensitive, possibly censoring ways. It was pretty hilarious actually. Then of course, some male critic coined the term “sexposition” and then all the guys were on the same page.


You wrote about Donald Trump in December, calling him a kind of fictional anti-hero to the imaginary of an American President propelled by a reality-TV sensibility and maintained (paradoxically (and terrifyingly)) by a lack of substance. Spring has come, and like his shiny office buildings Trump still looms over the presidential landscape. We know television can explain a lot about Trump; do you see Trump as revealing anything about television or our the nature of our engagement with it?


Yeah, I still stand by my original point. It’s easy to say Trump is a product of reality television, certain segments of which are built on the entertainment value of pettiness, bullying and other unfortunate human attributes. But I think our recent infatuation with the anti-hero is more telling. Slowly we began to accept all manner of flaws in our fictional heroes, and in doing so, redefined heroism. Which is great, fiction being the way we work out our feelings about a lot of things. But it’s very important to remember that it’s fiction. In fact, most asinine bullies do not harbor the brilliance of Gregory House.


You also covered the Democratic and Republican debates. Is there anything we can or should do to restore televised politics to a kind of intellectual discourse or do you see it as permanently corroded?


What are you talking about? The Democratic candidates were a model of intellectual discourse and, for the most part, civility! You mean the Republicans, anchored by Trump, which is a very specific situation. The biggest problem with the GOP debates is that there were just too many candidates for way too long. Even without Trump it would have been impossible to wrangle. Certainly there was a new attention to ratings that affected the absurdly dramatic promos, but I don’t think the onstage squabbling was the fault of the moderators. Pitting the candidates against each other was a logical solution to a logistical problem—how do you get to hear from as many candidates on as many issues as you can. And breaking down the wall between what the candidates say about each other
on the campaign trail and what they say when they’re standing next to each other is legitimate journalism. So I don’t think the fault lies with television. It was this particular group of candidates.


Do you see reviewing as both a journalistic and literary act?
Do you think the balance shifts depending on what you’re reviewing?


I don’t think journalism and literature are separate entities, particularly when it comes to criticism. Criticism should be informative and thought-provoking, serious and written in a way that people want to read it. My tone certainly shifts depending on what I’m writing about and what I want to say, but the writing itself always comes from the same place as anything I write. Tell the truth as you see it in a clear and engaging way. Doesn’t always work, but I always try.