Friday, April 04, 2014
BROOKE GLADSTONE: NBC Universal shuttered the beloved TV community, Television Without Pity, on Friday. The forums it spawned will close on May 31st. Television Without Pity started in the late 90s, when Sarah D. Bunting and Tara Ariano launched a Dawson's Creek fan site. What ultimately evolved was a wide ranging, often acerbic television recap and commentary website, which drew a vibrant community of passionate and opinionated viewers. I spoke with Bunting in 2003 about the hilarious and often caustic voice of the site.
SARAH D. BUNTING: I think the meanness, at least on my part, comes from this constant optimism that television is going to be good, that you realize it is possible for television to be important and to be a cultural through line. But there is also an element of laziness in a lot of television, and I think people accept that because television is like the redheaded stepchild of the arts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was the redheaded stepchild, but it’s not anymore. It’s now, arguably, top dog. Did TWOP, that’s what its denizens call it, have anything to do with that?
Ultimately, the TV dissection site was bought by NBC Universal in 2007 and now killed by same. I used dissection and not discussion because while Television Without Pity hosted endless discussion, it was known for its dissections, its meticulous examinations of scenes down to the second.
Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s television critic, came to TWOP early and stayed and stayed.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Television Without Pity really did feel not just like a fan site ‘cause fan sites were where people gathered just to praise the show and talk about their favorite characters. It actually did feel like a slightly crazy graduate school that was devoted to television. I've often referred to it as “Talmudic” –
- that it really did feel like that; TV shows were texts that you would really examine. And it was two-part thing. There were these immense recaps that were often very sardonic and sometimes dismissive of the shows and sometimes celebratory. But for me the forums were the heart of TWOP, and part of it was actually the combination of anonymity and extremely good moderation –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hah!
EMILY NUSSBAUM: - to the point of fascist moderation.
They had these very strong rules, and you could get booted, as I know because I did get booted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You got booted off of TWOP.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: I did because you weren’t supposed to talk about the boards on the boards, not talk about Television Without Pity or the recappers. You had to talk about the shows. And this was to prevent things from going down the horrible internet rabbit hole.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Attacking each other.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Attacking each other. It kept the conversation from turning into just a toxic swamp, as everybody has seen in discussion boards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What show drew you to TWOP?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Buffy is really what drew me to thinking about TV this way because it wasn't just people saying we love Buffy. It really was people thinking seriously about the show as a myth and also people talking about the way the show was made. On TWOP people were very sophisticated about television and television making, and sometimes there would even be leaks. Like I remember reading about a line that was cut from a script. And it just give you a much stronger sense of television as this complicated artistic endeavor, in much the same way that a literature doctoral student would look at first drafts, consider the way that things had been affected by the publishing company. TWOP really had that attitude toward television, where anything about the making of it was also a source of great fascination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there were also forums of Buffy haters, right?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Yes, absolutely. And, in fact, there was a thread that was called The Deep Bitterness thread, I think.
It was, it was actually like a useful way to draw off the poison when people started getting mad at the show.
So I think that was great and very therapeutic. And I would occasionally visit there because I was very curious about those feelings.
The reason I feel like it was valuable was I feel like it did model this whole idea of taking television seriously enough to let it drive you crazy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what’s really interesting is that Television Without Pity started at a time when TV really wasn't that good.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: I mean, there were shows that were definitely worth thinking about in very deep ways in the mid-90s, ranging from the X-Files, Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life. But it always is interesting to me that a show like Dawson's Creek – I’m not saying it was a terrible show but it was an annoying kind of pretentious teen drama – that’s what drove the discussion.
Also, I would like to point out that even though it was an anonymous site, it was filled with people from Hollywood and journalism. They just used anonymous names. And there were constantly people who would post who worked on shows, for instance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aaron Sorkin went on the site during The West Wing.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Yes, to his detriment. He went on and he fought with people about The West Wing, which was a show that they were making fun of. It landed in the press, his fight with people on the site, ‘cause it was taking place in public. And then he wrote an episode into The West Wing that was actually a fictionalized version of his struggles with Television Without Pity.
And he got to take revenge on the people there by describing them as wearing muumuus and chain smoking and all this sort of anti-internet stuff.
GINGER: Hi, sugar lips.
JOSH: I'm sorry?
MARGARET: Donna struck gold.
JOSH: What is it?
JOSH: What is it?
DONNA: There's a website devoted to all things "Josh."
JOSH: You're kidding me.
DONNA: No. Right now, we're viewing the section devoted to the Josh Fantasy Date. This - it should painfully self-explanatory - is where the women, and more than a few men, I’ve gotta say, discuss what they would do with you if they…
JOSH: All right, can everybody who doesn't work here, please go work where they work?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: This has come up in a lot of Sorkin shows but, you know, he wasn’t the only person to go on the site. This was a place that people who made television shows went. It had a fraught relationship with Hollywood. They would be panned by these powerful, yet anonymous figures. It was a sign of that moment that the internet began to shift in power. Sometimes people were literally like, why didn't they listen to us? We told them not to use the word “champion” again on Angel.
Like, I remember this discussion, and I was like, you know, it doesn’t really work like that. Some of the best television creators responded against the fanhood, and actually that often creates the best TV. I mean, there’s David Simon and Joss Whedon, Matt Weiner. Everybody has made these remarks where they just go, basically, I give the audience what they need and not what they want.
That tends to drive people crazy but, of course, that has to be the attitude of an artist. The goal is not to satisfy these ravenous perseverating masses who have gathered online. That’s where madness lies. Even if you care about the audience, nobody can make art that way.
But that doesn't matter. The conversation’s value is not in how it changed the art. The conversation’s value is in both how it changed the people having the conversation and in how it changed people's expectations and response to the art, how people treated TV.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given that there are so many sites that provide an environment for this kind of discussion, does this warrant more than a historical footnote?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Of course, there are millions of places online the people talk about television now, and in very TWOP-like ways. I mean, honestly, even Reddit has really rich, smart discussions about television. I miss TWOP’s centralized feeling where you could go there and every show was there. But, of course, TWOP was bought and it was turned into like a zombie version of itself. There have been problems with the site, I believe, for years. I simply wish that Television Without Pity, in its old form, could still exist because I think the combination of having a centralized place where people can discuss any television show, with highly moderated, well-structured forums is an invaluable thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the legacy of TV without Pity? Did it spawn these other sites, or is it somethin’ else?
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Television is an art form that’s extremely defined by its relationship with its audience, and it's one of the qualities that makes it different than, say, movies or novels. It takes place over time, and the creation of it changes in relationship to audience response.
And Television Without Pity was a site they came out right at the moment that TV itself was going through a big jolting transition, in terms of its ambition. And the crazy thing about that site was it's a record of audience response. Television Without Pity modeled an attitude toward television that was both celebratory and, at times, acridly critical. It was actually a new way of thinking of yourself as an audience member, as somebody who was actually allowed to think deeply about what you were watching and expect it to be beautiful and transcendent. That's what formed the environment that we have today. And I think it's a good one because the best things on TV are fantastic and well worth talking about, in exactly the way that they talked about them on that site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily, thank you so much.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker.