A Former TV Critic Puts Himself Under the Microscope

Making sense of what’s going on with television these days, even for those of us who write about it, can feel like going rafting with a rake. No matter how hard you paddle, you’re still barreling toward a cliff.

So it was on an afternoon this spring when, feeling optimistic, I clicked an article about the dispute between the Hollywood groups representing screenwriters and agents, which had set the television industry on edge. Each paragraph — on the inscrutable mechanics of “packaging fees” and production stakes — intensified that familiar cliff’s-edge feeling. I closed the tab.

But the next day I caught a lifeline. It was an episode of “The Watch,” a TV and pop culture podcast from The Ringer, hosted by Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald. Greenwald, the former television critic at The Ringer’s predecessor Grantland, is now a screenwriter himself and creator of the coming USA Network series “Briarpatch.” On the podcast, Greenwald broke down the writer-agent conflict in about 30 seconds, using his own recent experience with deal packaging to describe the controversial practice in terms that were coherent, succinct and personal. Then, it was on to regularly scheduled recaps of “Veep” and “Barry.”

Few other entertainment podcasts could naturally cover TV from so many angles at once. But for Greenwald and “The Watch,” it’s become routine. All year, the show has held open an unusually intimate window on the modern television factory, as what began in 2016 as a twice-weekly conversation show featuring two best friends — an update of their Grantland podcast, “Hollywood Prospectus,” which ran from 2012 until the site shuttered in 2015 — has evolved into a kind of experiment in improvised immersive journalism.

Though “Briarpatch” doesn’t premiere until January, regular listeners to “The Watch” are already deeply familiar with the program. Last year, after USA ordered a pilot episode of the show — a neo-noir murder mystery starring Rosario Dawson and Jay R. Ferguson, based on the Ross Thomas novel — Greenwald became the podcast’s man on the inside, calling in to share his experiences while shooting on location in New Mexico.

This summer, he filed new field reports from the production of the show’s first season. They ranged from the esoteric (the misery of vehicle-mounted “process trailers”) to the introspective (what it feels like to have an army of artisans hang on your every word).

As a former critic, he is a kid who has inherited his own candy store, and the dispatches have a winsome, fairy tale-come-true quality that would not be unfamiliar to fans of skills-based reality competition shows. In one episode, Dawson, a more natural Hollywood persona, turns up to give her unlikely leader a mock performance review.

“He doesn’t get it: You’re supposed to be super cool in Hollywood, and all he does is keep grinning and saying how happy he is,” she says, with an audible eye roll. “I’m like ‘No, no, no. You’re doing this all wrong.’”

Ryan, Greenwald’s friend of more than two decades, said the decision to document the making of “Briarpatch” in real time never required much discussion. (Perhaps this was an oversight on Greenwald’s part. After I contacted Ryan for this story, Greenwald said that his friend sent him a text: “Don’t worry, I’m gonna get you canceled.”)

“He has all of this inside information now,” Ryan said. “And I think he feels like telling the larger story of television, which now includes the story of ‘Briarpatch,’ is a part of his life’s work.”

I called Greenwald last month to talk about that work, reading TV Guide “for the articles” as a child, and criticizing his own show. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

There’s a history of critics making the leap to screenwriting, but the metaphor doesn’t quite fit in your case. You still kind of have one foot in each world.

A little bit. I’m definitely saying I’m no longer “a critic” — I’m not writing criticism anymore. But one of the things I always tried to bring to my criticism was a kind of 360-degree view of the industry. And so the further that I’ve gone into this other side of the world, I guess I’d like to think that I’ve got my mining helmet on and that I can send radio reports back to the surface about what I’ve encountered along the way. I’m incredibly grateful to Chris, who has carried the show while I’ve been in production, because his attitude has always been: “Why not keep this opportunity open for us to keep talking and just see how it grows and evolves?”

My guess is you’d be forgiven if you took getting your dream job as a cue to bow out of the podcast. Did you ever think about leaving?

I never wavered, honestly. The thing is, for me, the podcast is primarily about a chance to talk to my best friend on the microphone for however many hours we get to a week. The show is really just our friendship — as much as it’s a show about watching television — and that’s not going anywhere. It’s exciting for me because there are friends in my life that maybe I haven’t spoken to in a week, or a month, or six months, but I know I’m always going to get to talk to Chris.

You wrote about music for Spin and other places, and have written a book about emo. Was television always the goal?

It’s funny, because even before I was writing about music, I used to read TV Guide for the articles whenever I visited my grandparents house as a kid. I made a “Twin Peaks” fanzine in my middle school computer lab on dot matrix printers. But I sort of ignored the thing that I always cared about. It took me a weirdly long time to figure out that this is what I always wanted to be doing.

What did you learn from your years of reviewing television that you most wanted to bring to “Briarpatch?”

I definitely think a lot about what people have an appetite for and what I can do to engage them. As someone who used to watch every pilot, I remember what would get me excited and what would make me fall in love with one show versus another. With the mystery shows that I loved, like “Twin Peaks” or “Lost,” they all had a community of characters who you wanted to spend time with and who you’d get excited about whenever they appeared onscreen. “Who did it?” is kind of the most boring question you can ask. It seems like the most important question, but it’s really just the engine that fuels the deeper dive into the weirder, richer emotional lives of the characters and the community.

And I don’t like things that aren’t funny. I believe serious shows much, much more if they acknowledge that there’s a whole range of emotions, some of which are lighter and some of which are inappropriate or surprising. So I care as much about the jokes on this show as anything.

Not that anyone in Hollywood or the media would be spiteful, but do you worry that you’ll have a target on your back, having crossed over?

I think it’s inevitable, but I don’t know what one can do to prepare for it. I do hope, for the most part, that I was fair-minded as a critic and tried to be empathetic and hopeful and didn’t set myself up for attack. But that’s for others to decide. Unlike some creators who may say it and don’t mean it, I definitely understand the value of criticism and welcome it. I gave some lumps, so I should take some lumps, too.

Here’s the thing, though: I know what’s working really well on the show, and I know the things that aren’t working as well as I want them to be. I’ll probably see as many flaws as anyone, and I have a lot to learn still and there’s a lot to improve on. But it’s been a thrilling journey even to make it to this point. I’ve deeply believed that this was all going to be taken away from me at every second, so I’ve just tried to enjoy it. Right now, we’re five days away from finishing the finale. But if someone came in tomorrow and said, “Well, it was a good run,” I’d be like, “It was worth it!” I really do feel that way.

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