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Westminster grad wins Pulitzer for television criticism

Mary McNamara
Mary McNamara (HANDOUT)

For her work in television criticism, Mary McNamara, a 1981 graduate of Westminster High School, won the Pulitzer Prize earlier in April for her work with the Los Angeles Times. McNamara is the first television critic to win the award since 1988 and competed against writers across the country in various forms of criticism. The Carroll County Times spoke with McNamara about the golden age of television, diversity on broadcast networks and the violent pleasures of "Game of Thrones."

Q: In the past three years, you've been a finalist twice. Does it feel any different to actually take home the prize?

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A: It's thrilling just to be nominated by your editors, especially at a paper like the Los Angeles Times, where there are so many critics. Then, to be a finalist is amazing, because it's a committee of your peers picking three people out of hundreds of writers. The critics category is so diverse, and there are so many amazing writers out there. But I have to say, when you're a finalist two years in a row, you feel oh so close but yet so far. It was gratifying to win, not just personally but because I've been supported by editors and colleagues. It feels great to bring one home to them. It's a way of telling them their faith in me was well-placed.

Q: A lot of your work uses television as a jumping-off point to discuss social issues. In what ways do you see television as a reflection of the world, and in what ways do you see it as an agenda-setter?

A: It's both of those things at once. It's like when you use a mirror to start a fire. It's a multipurpose medium. I was fortunate to become a television critic right when it was taking off. The best American stories are now on television more than ever before. There's an increased focus in exploration of themes, and with changing delivery systems. All bets are off for television now.

We're coming into a period where we're ending the silence on women's issues and diversity, and I think that when you begin seeing that on television, it causes more conversations. It's an endless cycle of cause and effect. For a long time, television was criticized as too male and too white, and that is still a problem with the prestige cable dramas, but broadcast has been able to separate themselves from cable by telling a wider variety of stories. The easiest way to differentiate yourself is by telling stories of the majority of Americans versus the minority of upper-middle-class white men.

Q: Why is this differentiation occurring now?

A: Television told itself that the conventional wisdom was to have a big audience, you had to hit certain markers, and a lot of people were left out of those certain markers. One of the advantages today is nobody is going to get those big audiences anymore. We're not going to see days of 30 million viewers for anything. Now, you're going after these smaller audiences, these more sophisticated audiences. You have the freedom to not hit all of these marks. It doesn't have to be "Friends" over and over again. "Empire" comes on and it's an all-black cast telling a very black story, and it does well and it crosses demographics, and we learn that the American audience isn't as narrow-minded as we thought they were.

We're seeing changes in terms of women as well. There weren't that many female leads, and then "Homeland" premiered and that was a big one. Another kind of myth television told itself was that you couldn't have women be damaged and remain likable. Women had to be likable in a way men didn't. You couldn't have a female Tony Soprano because she'd be a slut and she'd be crazy.

Q: How did you come to write about television?

A: We had an editor who started a Show Tracker blog, which was recapping popular shows. It was totally smart and saw what was happening to the business. They asked if I wanted to recap anything, and at the time I was really into "House" and "Grey's Anatomy," and at a certain point I was asked if I wanted to be the new TV critic. I was so lucky. I'd like to say it was because I foresaw the oncoming television revolution, but it was completely fortuitous. One of my first reviews was the end of the "Sopranos," and then "Mad Men" came on and television became insane. The industry went through an amazing renaissance. It's the greatest job in journalism. Not only is it wonderful watching all of these wonderful stories, but everything happens on TV. You can write about anything — the economy, politics, anything.

Q: Is there a show from when you were younger that you can always return to?

A: I was a big "Cagney and Lacey" fan and "Hill Street Blues." I watched a lot of "Days of our Lives" and "Masterpiece Theater." Saying "Masterpiece Theater" was a huge influence makes me sound pointy-headed and smart, but it was an early show for me. I loved "Get Smart," "Gilligan's Island," "The Partridge Family," "Patty Duke," "All in the Family," "Maude," "Mary Tyler Moore." Like any industry, these amazing things can happen, but then different forces cause people to forget. I think television reminded itself of how great it can be when the digital revolution came about. Now, there's an idea of permanence. Television doesn't go anywhere now. I interviewed Candice Bergen, and I was trying to find "Murphy Brown" and I couldn't find it on Netflix or Hulu or on DVD. I became really incensed that I couldn't find anything I want. I was literally personally outraged, and that's where we are with TV. When we want something, we want to be able to access it immediately.

Q: Is there any piece you are particularly proud of?

A: No matter what I'm doing, I try to do the best job I can do with it. I'm just excited my bosses found 10 pieces worth nominating. The first piece I did after I won the award was so hard to write. You sit down and you think to yourself "Is this Pulitzer-worthy?" People told me this was going to happen, but I thought I wasn't like that. But sure enough, the first piece I had to do was about the Bruce Jenner interview, and by God, I turned in a piece of crap. It took me a full rewrite because I was suddenly a deer in the headlights. My editor told me, "Not everything you do has to be huge and world-changing. Just write like you write. Keep doing what you've been doing."

Q: You're the first television critic to win the Pulitzer since 1988. How does it feel?

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A: A lot of critics saw it as a nice validation of television. There is still this prejudice against TV. I was reading a piece in a respected publication that referred to TV as the boob tube. There's always been intelligent programming and there's also crap. To dismiss it as a cultural force, or to be proud of not watching TV is like saying "Oh, I don't read books," or "I've never seen a play." It's closed-minded.

Q: Where would you like to see TV go from here?

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A: I want to see — and everyone can see the trend going this way — creators starting to tell a wider variety of stories. I want to see them working on gender inclusiveness and racial diversity. Television should reflect the deep and amazing complexity of the human experience.

Q: What's the one show you would recommend people check out?

A: Television is so broad, I'd need a personality profile to make a recommendation. For me, "Game of Thrones" is the most amazing piece of television in terms of breadth and ambition and hugeness and the ability to juggle multiple storylines and even deal with dragons. Fantasy falls apart so easily, but I love that genre, and I can deal with people getting their heads cut off. But whether it's "Moon Boy" on Hulu or "Madame Secretary," no matter who you are, there's a show you will love.

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