By some cruel convergence of fates, two of the Internet’s best sources for culture criticism closed their doors yesterday. First, Grantland’s Alex Pappademas bid farewell to his colleague longtime and friend Wesley Morris, who’s departing for the New York Times, on the series finale of their podcast Do You Like Prince Movies?. Just hours later, current HitFix TV critic Alan Sepinwall and now-former HitFix editor Daniel Fienberg dropped their 302nd (!) and last Firewall and Iceberg podcast.
Both episodes were fitting farewells, combining a last attempt at the show’s typical rhythms followed by a more introspective look back at how the podcasts came to be and what they meant to the people who created and listened to them. No one cried, though Morris came closest, or so it seemed. There were thank-yous, callbacks, jokes, running gags and moments of sentimentality.
(Thankfully, none of these writers will be far removed from the audience their podcasts served. Less than 24 hours after ending his Grantland podcast, Morris appeared as a guest in the third episode of the long-awaited Bill Simmons podcast revival. Sepinwall and Fienberg have both expressed interest in podcasting together or apart in the future. And Pappademas basically works at the podcast capital of the world, or at least the west coast.)
Both episodes served as a poignant reminder of what they brought to the landscape of culture criticism. Over six years of weekly shows, Sepinwall and Fienberg’s TV podcast set the template for all the ones that came after, dedicated as it was to reviewing all kinds of television, of widely varying quality, and with a blend of thoughtfulness, insight and accessibility that only criticism at its most effective can offer. Morris and Pappademas had fewer years and fewer episodes, but they honed their rapport and expanded conversations well beyond what appeared to be their initial scope, discussing everything from the insults of Robin Thicke to the wonders of Wes Craven.
And, silly as it might sound, the end of these podcasts makes me quite sad, not only as an observer of pop culture, but as an aspiring culture writer and a person. It’s not just that two of my favorite weekly routines have ceased to exist, or that I won’t get to hear what Sepinwall and Fienberg think of the new great new HBO drama and the mediocre new ABC comedy, or that I won’t get to enjoy Morris and Pappademas trading honest cross-genre observations and provocations about the complex cultural landscape. These podcasts, and many of their imitators and co-conspirators, have helped me hone my sensibility as a critical thinker, improved my ability to translate thoughts into words, and affirmed my belief that thinking about pop culture is a valuable, productive, intellectually stimulating use of my time. They’ve challenged me to find new ways to express my opinions and inspired me to think about my favorite art forms through new lenses. And there’s no doubt they’ve played a curatorial role in my life as well — I can think of numerous TV shows I never would have looked at without the Firewall & Iceberg seal of approval.
I’m grateful that for the last half-decade or so, smart people in the media industry have encouraged podcasts like these to blossom and grow. I owe an enormous debt to the work these four critics did every week to broaden and deepen the range of culture criticism. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Firewall & Iceberg was one of the principal inspirations for The M&M Report, the podcast I started with my friend Devin Mitchell in September 2013.
These departing podcasts leave two gaping holes in the never-ending cultural conversation. Their respective conclusions are a reminder that what was a job for four men who work for media companies was also a pastime for me and many other people who aspire to do what they do, or at least to think the way they think. I’m grateful that they existed, and that their archives remain online for future generations of curious cultural consumers to explore. Whether we see them in the next life, Jack, or not, whether we ever find out if you like Prince movies or not, the cycle of criticism spins on, a little sadder than it was, but with an eye towards a hopeful future.
(Note: there are plenty of podcasts with similar appeal that I highly recommend. Among them: Hollywood Prospectus, Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Slate Culture Gabfest and the New York Times Music Popcast.)