Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
As a New York Times television critic, I’ve spent the last 10 years working at home. Not just at home, but alone, sequestered in front of a TV set and a laptop for hours a day. So when the pandemic hit, it didn’t feel as if my work life changed all that much. Instead, a lot of other lives were becoming a little more like mine.
This sense of sameness was buttressed by the ability of the TV industry, relatively speaking, to maintain some semblance of business as usual. Colleagues who covered arts that depended on the physical proximity of audiences — theater, dance, live music, art museums and galleries, even movies, which is to say just about all of them — suddenly found themselves scrambling to find things to write about. On TV, meanwhile, new shows kept coming out.
One result of that continuity is that we can provide readers with a summer TV preview, in today’s Arts & Leisure section, that is as varied and full of information as ever. It takes a look behind the scenes of the hottest new streaming service, HBO Max; offers an elaborate guide to binge-watching your way through classic TV for those who are still hunkering down; and includes my opinionated roundup of new shows to look out for, winnowed down from a typically long roster of premieres.
But the truth, of course, is that everything is changing, and change is quickly catching up to TV. The absence of live sports has been the most obvious effect of the pandemic, but the near-total shutdown of production on most non-news programming is already rejiggering schedules and playing havoc with the fall season (if that designation even means anything now). Creators are just beginning to explore new and safe methods of making shows. (A leading-edge example, the dramatic anthology “Isolation Stories,” made it on the air this month in Britain and comes to BritBox in America in June.) The next time we do a TV preview, it will probably look a lot different.
And while TV critics have had it easier than just about anyone during this troubling and sometimes terrifying period, we haven’t been untouched. No matter how well practiced you are at sitting on a couch and staring at a screen, you’re not doing it with the same level of comfort that you had before. The urge to check the news is stronger. Any susceptibility you might have to feelings of general uselessness is doubled. Worst of all, everyone else in your building is now home during the day too, and instead of watching TV they’re doing dance aerobics or practicing the cello.
If the rigors of enforced isolation start to get to you, though, despite your long and meticulous training for them, you can remind yourself of a few things: You are being paid to do something that nearly everyone else in the world does for free and wishes they could do more of. On top of that, you’re being given a platform to dispense your opinions on a subject about which nearly everyone has their own, deeply held opinions that they would love to share more widely. I get it. So does the restaurant critic.
Occasionally, despite the evident perks of my job, I will rashly begin a sentence with, “Well, it’s not always a picnic …” and the person with whom I was having an animated conversation will suddenly go quiet. There is something about the idea of watching TV for a living that enraptures people, and no discussion of hours spent bingeing mediocre shows is going to change anyone’s mind. They don’t want to hear it, and they’re right.
So, time to hunt down the link for the screeners of that new series on that new streaming service and settle in for the next four or eight or 12 hours on my laptop. (I can hard-wire or Bluetooth it to my flat screen, if I don’t mind the colors being slightly off.) If the pandemic has given you your first taste of what it’s like to be home all day in front of the set, it’s nice to have you with me here on the couch.