The Maureen Ryan interview

June 29, 2012

Today I chat with Maureen “Mo” Ryan, one of the country’s top TV critics and an all-around cool lady (confession: We are friends in real life). She’s best known perhaps for her work at the Chicago Tribune, where she championed shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica that eventually became huge hits. She continues her funny and insightful work as a critic for AOL/Huffington Post TV, like with this recent post on the backlash against the HBO show Girls. You can follow her on Twitter here.

How much do you try to keep up with what other critics have to say about shows you cover, vs. how much do you try to stay un-influenced?
I have one big, unbreakable rule that I almost never violate: I don't read other critics' reviews — or even features about those shows — before my own review is finished and posted. Otherwise I'd be afraid of unconsciously copying someone else's language or ideas. In a perfect world I wouldn't know what others anyone else was thinking when I sit down to write my piece. Aside from that, I read critiques and coverage of TV voraciously.

Who are some of your favorite TV critics?
There are so many. I will spend the next six months beating myself up over the names I forgot: Alan SepinwallEmily NussbaumKen TuckerMatt RoushHeather HavrileskyLinda HolmesAlyssa RosenbergEllen GrayAndy Greenwald, my podcast partner Ryan McGee and the guy who goes by the name Film Crit Hulk, among many others. Basically, everyone I follow on Twitter is worth reading, or at least arguing with, heh. 

What about your favorite websites,  both for TV and for stuff in general?
Again, this just a partial list: Badass Digest for great film and TV commentary; Topless Robot for the finest in informed, well-written nerdery; The Mary Sue for nerdery from a lady perspective.

Tom + Lorenzo: not only do they write terrific TV recaps and reviews but they write amazingly fun, funny and smart fashion coverage — this is the site I probably spend the most time on. Go Fug Yourself: The Fug Girls always make my day. TV Tattle for lots of links to TV news and features. 

What are your TV guilty pleasures? Like, shows you love that you can’t defend to your readers as being “good.”
I honestly don't have any shows I feel guilty about watching. My constant guilt comes from not watching enough TV. The sad fact is I watch less TV than people think I do, and a lot of what I do watch tends to be new shows that I have to watch for reviewing purposes. I'm constantly running into people who are disappointed that I don't watch or have only rarely seen their favorite shows. The shows I feel worst about having seen are the atrocious tween programs that my son, Sean, occasionally watches. Apparently these hit the spot if you're ten, but if you're me, they give you a migraine and make me lament the future of our civilization.

What are some shows you and your kid both enjoy?
We are both obsessed with Regular Show, a Cartoon Network show about a raccoon and a blue jay who work at a public park. It's very surreal and frequently funny in a very 5th grade sort of way — I call it Archer for middle-schoolers. We also like Adventure Time with Finn and Jake and Phineas and Ferb.

As a family, our favorite TV ritual is to get takeout and watch Doctor Who. My husband is English, so it’s a way for all of us to experience a British classic. Sean's favorite Doctor is Matt Smith, and once after an interview, Matt offered to give me an autograph for Sean. This made me the coolest mom in the world for about 45 whole seconds. 

What are some series that your colleagues have sworn up and down are groundbreaking and amazing that you just never got?
Big Love. I just never liked it and couldn't get into the characters. I gave it a lot of chances, but it didn't speak to me. If anything, I found it off-putting and vaguely annoying. Another show I never got was Desperate Housewives. I like a good nighttime soap, but this one just never did anything for me. 

What are some series that you’ve flip-flopped opinions on?
Breaking Bad — I always liked the performances, but I thought the first two seasons were patchy and not quite as tense and consistent as they needed to be. I'm so glad I stuck with it and by the time Seasons 3 and 4 were on board, it had become such a thrilling ride. Same goes for Community. For a long time, I just thought it was too cold and meta and pleased with itself, but I kept giving it a chance and it eventually clicked with me. 

Why do you think the comments on TV critics’ posts get so heated and personal?
I think it's because we develop personal relationships with the shows that we watch. We watch them for years on end, we get psychologically attached to the characters and stories, and we feel on some level that these shows are "ours." I can and do get freaked out some times by the emotion and vitriol that I see in comment areas, but I'd be lying if I said I never wrote my reviews or assessments or rants from places of emotion or even anger sometimes.

Who have been some of the nicest TV stars you’ve interviewed?
Robert Sean Leonard from House was incredibly fun and hilarious to interview. Mary McDonnell from Battlestar Galactica — I could talk to her for hours. Walton Goggins of The Shield is one of the more articulate and smart people in Hollywood I've ever talked to, same goes for Bryan Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito. Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Christina Hendricks from Mad Men have all been not just intelligent but very amusing, and I have to give a special shout-out to the cast of Friday Night Lights. I visited the set of that show for four days in its first season.

You have a now-infamous story about hearing back from a showrunner who didn’t agree with your review. Have there been other TV writers or producers who have contacted you directly after reading your reviews?
Yes, it's not that uncommon. A few years ago I dashed off a quick piece about where I thought Ugly Betty was going wrong. The post was fairly harsh but I made it clear I was still on board with the show. The next morning, the show's creator, Silvio Horta, had emailed me to say he agreed with a number of the points I'd raised, and I interviewed him. So that was interesting. If there's one thing I've learned in the past decade, it's that sometimes the concerns you raise are shared by individuals that work on that show. The thing is, now contact can be even faster, which is weird. A review you've written can be tweeted to an actor or writer for that show within seconds, and sometimes you get DMs or emails from people who work on the show within an hour.

How does it feel to be the 318th person interviewed for WBEZ/Zulkey.com?
The responsibility I feel is pretty crushing. I feel like there are 317 different ways I could have done a better job, but at least I've set the bar a little lower for the 319th person. So there's that.

Read an extended interview with Mo Ryan here