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

Headshot of Diane Clehane

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.


@DianeClehane lunch@adweek.com Diane Clehane is Adweek's weekly 'Lunch' columnist.
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