Interview with Maureen Ryan

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Maureen Ryan recently joined AOL Television as its lead television critic after 13 years at the Chicago Tribune covering television, primarily, but also popular culture, the Internet, media, and music. Her Tribune website, The Watcher, has been nominated for an Editor and Publisher Espy Award for Best Entertainment Blog, and Variety in 2007 named her one of the six most influential critics in America. She also has done commentary about television for NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and other media outlets. Helena Vann sat down with her to talk genre.
In what ways is the science fiction genre a good way to explore deeper philosophical, cultural, and political issues?

Science fiction is a great vehicle for exploring those issues because it shows societies interacting with other cultures and with people whose beliefs, values and customs may be radically different from our own. It forces us to examine core ideas and principles that we assume are universal, though, in fact, those beliefs are often far from universally shared. The characters end up figuring out what they believe and why when they’re confronted with situations that don’t match up to their experience, and in my opinion, those kinds of encounters and transformations can make for great drama.

What elements should be incorporated into sci-fi shows to better appeal to people who may not typically like the genre?

Really interesting characters. That’s where it begins and ends for me. I think people are willing to go along with almost any premise or setting as long as they’re involved in the journeys of the people involved. We have to care about the characters’ needs and goals if we’re going to buy into the wilder elements of what sci-fi can bring to the table.

Opinions differ on whether there should be spaceships involved. Some networks executives don’t like them, because they think the presence of space ships instantly gives a show ┬áthe “for nerds only” label. I look at the box-office receipts for the most recent Star Trek film and I disagree with that. Space shows can offer a great canvas for action and adventure, and I think there’s always an appetite for those kinds of grand adventures.

As a television critic, is there anything you would like to see more of in this genre (e.g., more cross genre shows like Firefly? More episodic sci-fi shows along the lines of The Twilight Zone?)

I really do miss shows set in space. There are a few shows now — notable Falling Skies and Terra Nova — that have sci-fi premises but they don’t really take place in space itself. There’s something grand and optimistic about space operas in the old tradition, though I fully recognize that by the time it went off the air, the TV incarnation of the Star Trek franchise had run out of gas. But I hope it’ll be revived by some new, creative writers who have the itch and the ability to explore that kind of territory again.

There are so few sci-fi shows on network television and most new sci-fi shows end up on basic cable, especially the Syfy channel. Are major networks shying away from these shows?

Yes, I think so, though the relative success of Falling Skies may change that. The trouble is that the bigger networks don’t ever want to alienate potential audience members — they try to make everything as non-controversial as possible. But the problem then is that you have neutered sci-fi, which disappoints fans of the genre and usually fails to win over anyone else, even non-genre fans. And the smaller networks have decided that they want to ride other trends — vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. ┬áSpace is just not trendy right now, though I hope that the success of ‘The Walking Dead’ convinces the more adventurous cable networks (and the broadcast networks) that rigorous, well-made shows with genre elements can be big, mainstream hits.

How do you think the Science fiction genre has been affected by serialization on television?

I think it cuts both ways. Sci fi shows usually sell well on DVD because the fans love that sort of ongoing story, but network executives think that standalone episodes are better because they can air them as reruns. Fringe is a good example of a show that got more creatively successful the more it serialized, but its ratings went down, so that was a problem. The show that best balanced serialization, standalone stories, and character development was Battlestar Galactica, but no one has really tried to create a successor to that, because for all the critical praise and awards it got, it wasn’t really a ratings success.

Why do you think a show as successful as Lost has not appeared yet?

I don’t think the networks are as willing to be adventurous as the Lost creators were. There are signs that that’s changing — the success of Grimm and Once Upon a Time show that networks are finally starting to loosen up a bit after several years of badly conceived Lost imitators and the kind of by-the-numbers procedurals that the networks tend to make when the economy goes downhill.

Network executives constantly make a classic mistake with Lost — they say to themselves, ‘Let’s make a show with a lot of people and a big, complex mythology!” But Lost wasn’t really about the mythology at first, it was a character drama with some interesting, mysterious questions at the heart of it. And the characters in most Lost-imitating shows have been pretty boring or just derivative. That’s where they constantly go wrong — they don’t imitate the things that made Lost great (adventurous ideas, good characters, amazing production values). They just think “Hey, throw a mythology in this slightly spooky drama” and hope for the best. And those shows usually fail.

I know you’ve visited Columbia and spoken to students. Why do you do this? Why do you think it’s important?

I love hearing what other people think about what I do — and if they have ideas on how I could do it better, I want to hear about that! Writing about TV for the Internet is a job that changes all the time — it’s evolving through social media, and I’m not entirely convinced that people even care about pre-debut reviews of TV shows. I view talking to students as not just a fun exploration of the shows we all enjoy, but it’s also a form of market research. I want what I do to be relevant and helpful, and talking to potential readers is one way to get advice on what I’m doing right or wrong.