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BuzzSaw | Matthew Gilbert

Confessions of an overwhelmed TV critic

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When I started writing about scripted TV 20 years ago, I watched everything. Every single thing. I kept my eye on all the comedies and dramas the networks released, most of them in the fall, and I also found time to explore the then-newish realm of cable, with its chance treats such as “Oz” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”

At gatherings, I was never, ever stumped. No matter which show someone asked me about — the new David E. Kelley dramedy, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” adaptation, that season’s dumbest sitcom ever — I had something to say. I’d seen at least an episode or two, formed an opinion, and was able to natter on about it on demand.


Now, of course, I’m often stumped. People regularly ask me about shows that I’ve heard of — maybe heard of — but never seen. They wonder about this Netflix import, or that cult IFC show, or any number of series that are only available on network pay platforms, such as “The Good Fight” on CBS All Access. They ask me about “Imposters” on Bravo and “Six” on History and “The Guest Book” on TBS. They ask about the season finales of series I’ve just started, such as Netflix’s “Bodyguard,” which has only been available for little more than a week.

They ask, and I shrug my shoulders and put on my best “I try” face, hoping they won’t see the shame lurking behind my eyes. I call myself a TV critic, I get paid to watch, and I haven’t seen “____”? Or “____”?

Life during this TV glut is a crazy thing — for me, and for you, too. For me, it’s literally an embarrassment of riches, as five or 10 new series appear every week, giving me the stink eye and daring me to fit them into my viewing schedule. It’s like I’m sinking into quicksand every day, never caught up, as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, basic cable, pay cable, YouTube, Facebook Watch, Crackle, and the networks, but mostly Netflix, keep breeding content like digital rabbits. Sure, it’s great that we have more to choose from, that we’re not living in a four-network world where “Manimal” or “She’s the Sherriff” might be the best options on a given night. But still, this TV excess can oppress.


They call this moment, with some 500 new shows a year, Peak TV, a phrase first used by FX CEO John Landgraf in 2015. I now call it Pique TV, as it triggers my exasperation. I do want to see it all, like I used to, from “The First” to “The Last O.G.”; I want to be the guy with the detailed TV overview. I want to savor — not merely binge — the good shows and note the problems with the bad. But I also need to walk my dog and do my laundry and, oh yeah, write. I need time to eat, people!

In my darkest hours of Pique TV, you’ll find me secretly praying for a head cold, so I can be couch-bound and catch up on season two of USA’s “The Sinner” and season three of FX’s “Baskets” and all of Netflix’s “Babylon Berlin,” which — more shame — I’ve not had time to start.

Flu shot? No thank you.

For you, presumably a fan of scripted TV, particularly in this Golden or Post-Golden or Post-Post Golden Age where we still wait for the next “Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Wire,” the choices are overwhelming. You want to find the best writing out there, you want to stay in tune with scripted TV — when you’re not escaping into “Friends” reruns for sanity purposes, that is. You don’t want to miss current gems such as “Fargo,” “Black Mirror,” “Master of None,” and “Veep.” But you can’t monitor it all, either, and you don’t get paid to do so.


Meanwhile, TV producers and publicists are working overtime to grab your eyes amid the profuse competition. They know that even a series starring Jim Carrey (Showtime’s “Kidding”) or two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn (Hulu’s “The First”) might fail to cause a ripple these days. Nothing, not even a new animated series on Netflix from “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening called “Disenchantment,” is a PR slam-dunk anymore.

That’s why so many reboots and revivals are being picked out of the recycle bin and thrown in your face. The sounds of familiar titles — “Lost in Space,” “Dynasty,” “Will & Grace,” “Murphy Brown” — break through the clamor of the new. Names such as “The Neighborhood” and “Happy Together,” both new network sitcoms, can’t make the instant impression that recognized brands such as “Magnum P.I.” and “Gilmore Girls” do. Not all reboots draw big ratings, but they arrive on the scene with an important advantage: your awareness.


So 20 years on, as TV has become a weekly monsoon, I’ve changed my approach to covering it, both for my own well-being and in order to serve Globe readers on the lookout for gems. I no longer see the need to watch or review every single thing; instead, I cherry pick. I am a curator, using my eyes and my instinct to find the best that’s out there. My selection of what to watch and what to write about is subjective, of course; criticism is nothing if not slanted. But my goal is to help you navigate the crowded landscape, so that you never have to watch bad TV unless you choose to.

If a series offers something promising, I’ll look into it — Amazon’s “Forever,” for example, which stars two of my favorites, Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, or AMC’s “Lodge 49,” with its strikingly original premise involving a surfer dude and alchemy. But I won’t bother with them any further if I don’t like them. If, through word of mouth, I hear that a show has improved, I may feel inspired to revisit it. But I’m no longer a completist, and I have become quite comfortable ditching shows by the side of the road, unwatched or unfinished.

The only time I feel obligated to cover a series regardless of quality is when it’s a high-profile project — one featuring a major star, such as Julia Roberts in Amazon’s “Homecoming,” or one by a celebrated TV writer, like “The Romanoffs” from Matthew Weiner of “Mad Men.” If David Chase of “The Sopranos” comes up with a new series, I guarantee that I will watch it and write about it.


Otherwise, I’m a winnower now, separating out the likes of FX’s “Better Things” and HBO’s “High Maintenance” and Netflix’s “The Crown” and letting so many others go. I get stumped at gatherings all the time, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m an ambitious gold-digger at this point, and there’s no use in denying it.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.