What It’s Like Being the New York Times TV Critic

From a Times Insider column by Josh Ocampo headlined “A Times TV Critic Feels Authenticity Is His Top Responsibility”:

Which television show does James Poniewozik watch for leisure? Lately, the competition reality series “Survivor.”

Mr. Poniewozik, who has been The Times’s chief TV critic since 2015, recently started watching the Australian version of the series with his family. “It’s what we watch instead of football,” he said. During his downtime, he tries to limit his screen time to about an hour of television a day and read a book from time to time, too.

That’s because his viewing habits during working hours are extreme; on any given week, he watches five to 10 pilots of new television series, which adds up to a few thousand episodes in his eight years at The Times. He doesn’t write about the vast majority of them.

But when he screened episodes of “The Last of Us,” the HBO series adapted from a popular video game set in a world ravaged by a deadly fungal outbreak, he immediately knew it was a series worth reviewing. Since the series premiered in January, it has earned critical acclaim and become source material for endless internet memes.

As Season 1 approaches its finale (Episode 7 airs Sunday), Mr. Poniewozik shared his thoughts on the series, the reaction it has received on social media and where the show fits in his critical process.

Why did you want to review “The Last of Us”?

There’s a theory out there that zombie shows are inherently conservative, with this philosophy that human nature is essentially sinful and people can only be redeemed — as opposed to people are essentially good and they are brought down by society.

“The Walking Dead” said when things go bad, people will revert to the state of nature and you can only trust your little tribe close to you. “The Last of Us” — although there are a lot of the same similar dynamics, threats and people who go bad and are predatory — is about the importance of community and the importance of separating your personal interests from the needs of the larger whole. All of that is super interesting to me. Plus, zombies that are made out of mushrooms.

What do you think of the social media reaction to it so far?

I’ve heard about some of the buzz around it and some of the stories and the culture war reactions. Lots of shows get a big social media reaction when they air weekly, like a lot of HBO shows. But I guess I will say that as a critic, it’s kind of a relief to get Twitter out of your head. I think it is possible to be too deeply inside that or drawn into groupthink.

I think you never want to be in a position where you’re writing something and you’re thinking: What are people on Twitter going to think about this? Because your one job as a critic is to be authentic. It’s not like war reportage or investigating Watergate — it’s not that level of journalism. But your one responsibility is to be insightful and to be authentic and correct about those insights. I’m not saying Twitter ruins this for everybody, but I think that it can be a danger if that collective voice in your head replaces your own voice.

I’m sure readers are passionate about the shows they watch. Do you read the comments section of your reviews?

I generally try not to read the comments. I don’t think you can make yourself a raw nerve like that and do a good job. I’m very interested in hearing what everyday TV viewers have to say about TV and what they’re interested in and what they’re not interested in, but what I want to avoid is getting in that mind space where I am self-editing, and thinking one guy is going to get me in the comments if I’m not super precise about wording.

Do you approach your coverage of big, zeitgeist-y shows any differently than you would, say, little-known series?

Only in the sense that it changes the bar for writing about something. If a show is terrible and not that many people are likely to hear about it, there’s not much of a point in destroying or panning it. Something that is very zeitgeist-y that deserves criticism is more worth the effort.

When a show enters the public conversation and becomes the thing the discourse is commenting on week to week, and season after season, I’m also probably more likely to write about it as it evolves over time. In many cases, like with “Game of Thrones,” it’s a very different series by the time it ends. It’s also fun to pay attention to both the evolving work of art and people’s evolving relationship to it.

What are the more challenging parts of being the chief TV critic at The Times?

I think it’s just the incredible volume of stuff that there is to keep up with. A great thing about working for a place like The Times is that it is the most visible platform in the world to be a journalist in general and an arts critic in particular. But I think you have to challenge yourself to not let that get in your head too much. In other words, it can be intimidating to think, can I really say such and such? That’s going to go in The New York Times. So many people are going to see that. Is this serious enough? You have to kind of get past that platform anxiety and just write to your reader the way that you would want somebody to write to you.

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