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.”