Though I studied film in college, I came to TV criticism through comics criticism. In comics, everything on the page is intentional. Character design, line weight, color, panel size and arrangement, backgrounds, lettering: A human being set all those things to paper. Every aspect of the image is considered, deliberate. (Obviously personal style is not entirely within an artist’s control, but that’s basically how it works.)
So when I started writing about television, I realized my writing was informed by this not just in terms of how I talked about cinematography, editing, and the like, but with regards to the actors. The look of a face, the sound of a voice, the size and movement of the body, physical comportment: I discuss these as the equivalent of line, design, and so on in comics. This has played a major role in how I’ve processed any number of shows; for several (Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey) it may well have been the central thrust of my writing on them. I’m happy with the writing I’ve done driven by this rubric, but the larger point I’d like to make regards thinking about actors visually. Since television and film are visual media, I think this is valid and vital and, if anything, underdone. But there’s a way to do it without objectifying actors, either sexually or as “other,” as several recent high-profile essays on women actors have done.
If you’re a straight man, for example, write about the physicality of men, to whom you’re not sexually attracted. See how it shapes what you say. How Jon Hamm looks, how James Gandolfini sounds when he breathes: These are important aspects of Mad Men and The Sopranos respectively, but not of your sex fantasies. When you write about women actors, you can talk about how they function physically on-screen in the same way—observing, not objectifying. Do this in the context of their work, not how they look eating lunch. Don’t lead with it. If sex/sexuality is part of the role, fine, but try not to sound like you’re sexting or seducing, and talk about their male partners too. Fold your discussion of actors’ physicality into the show or film’s physicality as a whole—wardrobe, set design, sound design, good old-fashioned shot composition.
We need more film/TV writing that’s about more than plot, dialogue, line readings, showbiz talk, and political subtext. Actors are a part of that. We need to write about the appearance of actors, women and men, without it devolving into Penthouse Letters. It can be done!