Matt Zoller Seitz on Inspiring Damon Lindelof and ‘Breaking Up’ With Bad TV

'Lunch' with the esteemed New York magazine TV critic and host of IFC Center's inaugural Split Screens Festival

This week’s ‘Lunch’ date at Michael’s was a chance to indulge my fanatical love for television. I got to dissect the minutiae of many of my all-time favorite shows (and one that disappointed me on a spectacular level–more on that later) with Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic for New York magazine and vulture.com as well as editor in chief of rogerebert.com.

If you’ve ever read his “Best of” lists, you know this guy really knows his stuff. When he was 25 and working as a film critic for the Dallas Observer, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. He’s written for The New York Times, salon.com, New Republic and Sight and Sound. Matt is also the founder and original editor of The House Next Door, a film blog and now a part of Slant Magazine, and the co-founder and original editor of Press Play, an IndieWire blog of film and TV criticism and video essays.

Diane Clehane and Matt Zoller Seitz

His books include Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical CompanionThe Oliver Stone Experience, and TV (The Book). He is currently working on a novel, a children’s film and a book about the history of horror, co-authored with rogerebert.com contributor Simon Abrams. His CV doesn’t end there, but I only have two hours to write this column.

My ‘Lunch’ with Matt was particularly timely because I was very interested in talking to him about his piece posted on Vulture this past Sunday entitled “Why Sunday Night’s Episode of The Leftovers Was Inspired by Matt Zoller Seitz,” in which he has a lengthy conversation with Damon Lindelof about how his writing about the show had affected the series. “He blindsided me,” said Matt when I mentioned it the minute we sat down. Matt recently learned Episode 5 of the series (which was, to say the least, a real doozy) was a response to his writing, and in fact, some aspects of it were drawn from his life (or imagined one) in the years following his wife Jennifer’s sudden death in 2006. Matt wrote in April of last year on rogerebert.com about that time, marking the tenth anniversary of Jennifer’s passing. Talk about meta.

In the Vulture item, Lindelof talks about Matt’s review of the Season Two finale, for which he both made the case for a third season of The Leftovers and lauded the episode as an opportunity for the HBO series to go out at the top of its game. Matt argued that the show should be renewed “not just as a vote of confidence in the kind of challenging popular art that built the cable channel’s fortunes, but because there have got to be a lot of people working there who sense just how dazzling and special the show is, and suspect that it still has compelling stories to tell and fresh notes to strike.”

Lo and behold, they got the green light for Season Three the very same day the Vulture piece ran. When Lindelof got the call from [former HBO president of programming] Michael Lombardo, he told Matt he “was very tempted to ask, ‘Did you read the Vulture piece?'”

That’s the kind of influence Matt has. Impressive, no? (Ryan Murphy, Kevin Smith and Billy Bob Thornton have all tracked Matt down to discuss his reviews of their work.)

Equal parts avid fan and entertainment scholar, Matt told me he is “notorious for not caring about ratings,” adding, “All I care about is what is on my screen.” His criticism is intellectual without snobbery and his analysis of his favorite shows tends to examine the emotional aspects of a program (both from a character’s and viewer’s point of view) rather than merely recapping who did what to whom. “A lot of my favorite dramas are not real in any journalistic or documentary sense, but the characters’ emotions feel real to me.”

This is very evident in his writing about The Leftovers, a TV series that is felt as much as it is watched. “It’s very dream-like,” said Matt between bites of salad nicoise . It is one of those shows with a fervent but relatively small fan base that appreciates the multi-layered but far from linear approach to storytelling. I’ve never missed an episode. Truth be told, I have no idea what the hell is going on with the show at the moment, but I am devoted to finding out.

While Season One was a deep dive into the issues surrounding grief, guilt and loss, the show’s third–and final season–has morphed into something else entirely.  “It’s very mysterious,” Matt agreed. “The Leftovers and Lost have more in common than [viewers] realize.”

Earlier during lunch, I’d told Matt I first came to know his writing through his exhaustive Mad Men pieces for New York magazine and Vulture. We’d been in agreement, I told him, right up until the end, when I thoroughly hated the series’ finale. “I went back and forth and decided I liked it,” he told me. “I thought it was true to the character of Don Draper.”

I, on the other hand, was resolute in my disappointment because I had hoped Don would find redemption through his relationship with his daughter, Sally. I was left feeling like he’d deserted her in the end. I admitted my reaction was amplified by my over-identification with the Drapers and asked him if he felt his real-life experiences ever colored his criticism.

Matt then told me about moderating a Six Feet Under panel last year at the Tribeca Film Festival with Alan Ball while the final episode of the series was screened on a wall behind them with spontaneous commentary track. That episode jumps  into the future to show the exact circumstances of every character’s death. “It was a fascinating period,” recalled Matt. “It was the tenth anniversary of my wife’s death and I was moving into a new apartment whose address was 427 –4/27 was the date of her death.”

“I hadn’t realized it. Like an idiot, I hadn’t realized it until I was standing in front of the house.” He continued, “Life is on the nose. I accept it as part of the natural order of things, more evidence of how your life is always writing itself without your asking it to.”

One of his “favorite shows ever,” Hannibal, has nothing (thankfully) to do with his real life. He had a surprising reason (at least to me) for liking the series. “The entire thing feels like a dream. It’s very gory, but the gore is like an art exhibition. An abstract.  The rival serial killers are copycats who are ripping off who Hannibal and the FBI agents are essentially critics. Hannibal is a master artist.” Alrighty then.

If you want to hear more about Hannibal, Matt will be talking to series creator Bryan Fuller at the Vulture Festival at Milk Studios on Sunday.

Matt, who watches between 25 to 30 hours of television a week, told me it’s never just for fun. “When I sit down with the kids to watch something, my son winds up telling me, ‘Just go get a notebook.'”Some of the shows he wasn’t or isn’t crazy about: “I bailed on Glee and The Walking Dead,” he said. “And I bailed on The West Wing and then came back to it at the end for a sense of completeness.”

When he “breaks up with a show,”  he feels terrible. “I feel bad for the show,” he explained with a laugh. “There are ‘bad-relationship shows’–you fall in love, then you discover something about them you don’t like and when you’re ready to quit, they do something to remind you why you loved them.”

Not surprisingly, Matt told me he usually only gets about five to six hours of sleep a night. He’s not a Facebook fan. “I’ve gotten wise to Facebook’s game. They keep you coming back for that dopamine fix. When you go on Facebook it’s, ‘Congratulation to my husband on his new job, our cat died, look at our new deck, someone has cancer. I don’t go on Facebook as much anymore. I can’t take the emotional whiplash.”

Twitter, however, is a different story. “Twitter is a big part of my life but I have a rule–no more than fifteen minutes per thread in a day unless I’m doing it.”

It makes perfect sense that the IFC Center approached Matt to curate and moderate the inaugural Split Screens Festival, taking place June 2-8 at the IFC Center.  The festival will be anchored by four signature categories: Premieres, Close-Up, Showcase and Rewind, revisiting an iconic episode of television via a screening and conversation with the creatives who have brought their vision to life.

The festival’s kick off with a world premiere of HBO’s The Deuce, followed by a Q&A with series producer and co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal, pilot director Michelle MacLaren and series co-creator George Pelecanos.  Showcase events will highlight Difficult People (Hulu), The Get Down (Netflix), Orphan Black (BBC AMERICA) and Search Party (TBS). Rewind panels will delve into The Girlfriend Experience(STARZ) and Underground (WGN America). Close-Up will feature conversations with Asia Kate Dillon of Billions (Showtime), Hank Azaria and Amanda Peet of Brockmire (IFC), Rami Malek, star of Mr. Robot (USA Network), and Michael McKean on Better Call Saul (AMC).

Matt told me he is hoping to add a panel to the Split Screens Festival comprised of various types of artists inspired by Hannibal. “I want to find musicians, painters and novelists,” he said. “I wanted to go off the radar to find people but I wasn’t getting any hits. Then I went on Twitter and got between 50 and 60 responses. Now I have more people than I know what to do with.”

Here’s today’s rundown:

1. The New York Post’s Keith Kelly and ‘Kelly Gang’ members Ed Kelly, Wholesome Wave’s chief expansion officer Mike Kelly, former CEO of the Weather Channel and Lutz &Carr’s Kevin Kelly, the group’s accountant, along with Rubenstein’s Emily Vicker and her assistant Jenna Boufford chewing over the details of next year’s Kelly Gang charity fundraiser scheduled for March 14 here at Michael’s. Mark you calendars!

2. CNBC’s Ron Insana

3. Donald Marron

4. Mark Rosenthal

5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

6. Kim McCarty (proprietor Michael McCarty’s talented wife–it’s her art that adorns the walls of the eatery, in case you hadn’t heard)

7. Vanessa D’Adamo

8. Investigation Discovery’s Henry Schleiff

9. Lauren Della Monica

11. Kerry Kennedy and Andy Stein

12. Michael Kassan

14. BBDO’s president and CEO Andrew Robertson who, it should be noted, is the inspiration for ‘Mr. Robertson’s Breakfast’ on the Michael’s menu

15 The Wall Street Journal’s Anthony Cenname; Act Two: Beverly Camhe

16. EW’s Diane Whiteley

17. Chester Firestein

18. Marc Rosen

20. Estee Lauder’s Alexandra Trower’s and Lisa Caputo

21. Euan Rellie

22. Rory Babich

23. Former NBA commissioner David Stern

27. Matt Zoeller Seitz and yours truly

81. Sarabeth Schrager

[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at lunch@adweek.com.]