Prose pros: Read ’em and reap

Diverse clan of critics captures TV nuances

Ask industry types to identify their favorite (or most feared) critics, and the list doesn’t always begin and end in New York and Los Angeles.

What follows is a list of some of the critics most frequently mentioned, omitting anyone from Variety to avoid charges of nepotism.

Robert Bianco, USA Today

While the critics at the New York Times carry more weight in media circles, Bianco is more feared in network corridors because his reviews reach a wide spectrum of demo groups in cities across the country. If Bianco were to suddenly turn against “CSI,” for example, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ PR team would no doubt feel the pressure.

In addition to reviewing several shows each week and writing a daily best bets column, Bianco has managed to transcend USA Today’s McPaper rep with regular extended-length essays on everything from the state of the Emmys to an analysis of shows that overstay their welcomes. His editors are good about playing up such packages, giving Bianco ample (and, since it’s USA Today, well-illustrated) space to gently lecture the business on what it’s doing right and wrong.

Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

Few critics are as blunt as Goodman, whose conversational style of writing seems perfectly matched to a populist medium such as television. While other big-city crix seem engaged in a game of “top this obscure literary reference,” Goodman just says whether a show is good or bad, throwing in a healthy dose of humor to boot.

He doesn’t take himself seriously, which makes his frequent lambastings of smallscreen execs seem like justified rants rather than meanspirited attacks. (Those who’ve been the subject of his harshest broadsides — like NBC’s Jeff Zucker — might disagree).

James Poniewozik, Time

With his love for the medium evident, Poniewozik resists the natural urge to bash popcorn fare such as Lifetime’s “Army Wives,” respecting the fact that some of his readers may want what he gently labels “sappy melodrama.” He writes about the latest “American Idol” brouhaha with genuine interest as well. And he’s versatile enough to pen 2,500 words on the larger meaning behind the firing of Don Imus.

While he gets plenty of ink in print — going beyond TV to explore bigger media and pop culture issues — Poniewozik has established an equally credible voice as a blogger, posting often on a wide range of topics, from what he plans to watch on a given night to a reader poll of favorite TV theme songs.

Matt Roush, TV Guide

Many still mourn the death of the old TV Guide, with its unabashed determination to cover the serious side of TV along with the silly, but the mag’s chief critic remains an essential read for TV bizzers. Because of his publication’s high profile, Roush is the closest thing TV reviewers have to a Roger Ebert type — a mascot of sorts who sometimes seems to spend nearly as much time talking about TV on TV as he does writing about it. (He’s even got an IMDb entry.) Next up: a role as a judge on TV Guide Channel’s “America’s Next Producer” reality skein.

Roush does plenty of writing, however, with weekly reviews in print and a heavy blogging presence on the mag’s website. Rarely nasty, Roush isn’t afraid to gush over shows and never hides his love for the medium.

Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune

A relative newcomer to the beat, Ryan’s won fans for her populist approach to the medium and a writing style peppered with lots of dry wit. Despite writing for a paper as large as the Tribune, she seems truly interested in making readers a part of her columns — writing for them, rather than at them, via frequent posts on her “Watcher” blog. A recent “Viewers’ Bill of Rights” column should be required reading for TV execs.

Alan Sepinwall, Newark Star-Ledger

One of the youngest critics at a major paper, the Newark Star-Ledger scribe comes from a generation accustomed to obsessing over TV via the Internet. In particular, Sepinwall has applied a superfan mentality to “The Sopranos,” becoming the critic-reporter of record for the show — even landing the only post-finale interview with David Chase. Sepinwall also does a good job of mixing reporting with criticism, penning columns that, like Goodman’s, reflect a certain savviness about the biz.

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