Like the characters on Heroes, Maureen Ryan is an ordinary person who can do extraordinary things. She has the power to influence thousands. With a few strokes of her keypad, she can change people’s minds. And, to top it all off, she can see the future…at least when it’s the future of television.
As the television critic for the Chicago Tribune, Ryan gets paid to watch as much television as possible and, even better, write about it. Ryan produces a column nearly every day for the Tribune’s print edition and her blog, The Watcher. But Ryan says she had no idea she’d end up with this career. The now-41-year-old first sought higher education at Washington University in St. Louis, intending to become a doctor. But after doing “spectacularly badly,” and grudgingly changing her major, Ryan says she didn’t know what else to do. She spent a year traveling the world and realized how much she liked interpreting things. One Northwestern University journalism graduate degree later, Ryan thought she’d be a rock critic. But an opening at Cinescape, a science-fiction magazine led to somewhere else: Ryan became editor of The X-Files Official Magazine.
“They had a job and I’m a nerd,” Ryan says, “so it worked out.” Worked out is an understatement. Ryan not only got to focus on her passion for science fiction but she could combine it with her newfound love of writing.
While still editing the X-Files magazine, she freelanced and later became a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. But in 1997 her career faced a major interruption: she got pregnant. But “having a baby turned out to be a great career move,” she says. Ryan spent her time away from the office watching television. Her newest habit prompted her to return to the Tribune and focus only on entertainment stories. Then when Tribune critic Steve Johnson went on leave, Ryan happily took over the television beat. “It was just so fun to write about that stuff,” she says.
In August 2006 the Tribune named Ryan its television critic and the rest, as they say, is history. Now she works from home, watches at least four hours of television a day and interviews the actors and creative minds behind today’s hit TV shows. Luckily, she says, television is in a golden age. Shows like Mad Men, Lost, Heroes and Veronica Mars set the bar high in acting, writing and production. These revolutionary shows, she says, aren’t afraid to take chances and, so far, that’s successful.
But Ryan takes issue with those that don’t take her career seriously. “It’s irresponsible not to value television. It’s a way our culture tells stories,” she says. “I view it as I’m the advocate for people who watch television. It’s my job to help sort through the options.” Because free time is so valuable, Ryan wants to lead viewers in the direction of good things. She stresses, however, that she tries not to be elitist. “Your opinion is no less valued than mine,” she says. “[But] if you can’t convey your honest impressions, you can’t do right by your readers.” To complement her thoughts, Ryan is extremely open to reader input. Her blog is interactive and she sometimes sees as many as 300 comments a day on her entries. Some of those include personal attacks but Ryan just accepts that people will disagree. “It's not bad to anticipate the criticisms that readers will have. In fact it can be good to think about that in advance. But [I] never want to find myself hedging what I think so that people won't attack me,” she says.
The Ryan family, which includes husband David, 40, and son Sean, 5, own two TIVOs. Together they hold nearly 300 hours of television. And, yes, sometimes Ryan does watch that much. And in between watching is a whole lot of reporting and writing. She says her deadlines are even stricter than most because the success of her blog created a 24-7 expectation and a “feeding frenzy.” Readers want to devour more and more but Ryan needs time to create it. “The magic of TIVO is the only thing that lets me do my job,” she says. “Magical elves don’t write columns.”
But since watching the shows themselves is a major requirement, it’s fitting that Ryan has the luxury of watching in the comfort of her home, just like regular viewers. Instead of commuting two hours to the downtown Chicago offices of the Tribune, Ryan works from her LaGrange Park home. Sometimes the job requires traveling—a trip to Los Angles for the Golden Globes, another to New York for the network upfronts. Little travel, though, means another bonus: Ryan can be a hands-on mom to Sean. Despite the extensive set visits done by competitors like TV Guide’s Michael Ausiello and E! Television’s Kristin Veitch, Ryan doesn’t think her Chicago location is a disadvantage. “I give them full credit for being extremely good,” she says of Ausiello and Veitch. “[But] we do different things.” Ryan considers them to be more than just critics; they are also on-air personalities. As a result, Ausiello is known as a snarky, Snapple-loving cynic and Veitch is the overly-enthusiastic pretty face who loves to gush about her “TV husbands.” “I want to be more known for my writing than my life,” Ryan says.
And besides, no one can say Ryan didn’t have the market cornered when Fox’s hit show Prison Break started filming in Joliet. Ryan visited the former correctional facility twice. “I thought it was a fascinating place, and a really intriguing place to film a TV show,” she says. With set visits and celebrity interviews, Ryan is the first to point out how cool her job is. “How much of it is work is up for debate,” she says. “I’m living proof that [this can be] flexible and accommodating.” Her family certainly isn’t complaining. Ryan’s husband also gets to experience the superpowers that come with her job. “It’s fun for him to say I’ve already seen the first episode of Project Runway,” she says.
And though Sean is only five, he knows his mom is a bit of a local celebrity. “The other day my picture was on the front page, and that morning as we lined up with his classmates for school, some of his friends pointed that out. My son just laughed and said, ‘She's on the computer too!’”
Maybe that’s the coolest superpower of them all.