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Armour native writes TV reviews for Onion-related publication

Armour native Todd VanDerWerff makes omelettes with Martha Stewart at the 2012 Television Critics Association summer press tour. (Photo by Rahoul Ghose/PBS, courtesy of Todd VanDerWerff)

Todd VanDerWerff loves telling people he gets paid to watch TV.

"People stare at me like they've seen a rare mountain gorilla," he said with a quiet chuckle.

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While a simplistic explanation of VanDerWerff's career, it's true: the Armour native now lives in California, working as a TV editor for the A.V. Club, an entertainment/pop culture publication. The A.V. Club provides articles and commentary on film, television, music, comedy, books and more. As a TV editor, VanDerWerff writes and edits content for the TV section of the publication.

He admits it's an interesting profession for a South Dakota farm kid who wasn't allowed much TV time.

"I grew up on a farm. There was always a need to be doing chores," VanDerWerff said. "My parents really tried to limit my media intake as a kid."

Then, when he was 11 or 12, VanDerWerff said his family got a better satellite package with more channels.

"That was just like suddenly like this faucet turning on," he said.

Through dedicated Nick at Nite viewing, VanDerWerff became an aficionado of classic programs like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Green Acres." But what really solidified VanDerWerff's love of TV was "The X Files," a science fiction horror/drama series that ran from 1993 to 2002.

"From there, it just proceeded," VanDerWerff said.

He started out working for the Collegian -- the student newspaper -- during his time at South Dakota State University from 1999 to 2004.

After graduation, he worked for newspapers writing and copy editing, while also maintaining a TV blog during his personal time. His work eventually got noticed by the right people, leading him to one of his dream jobs: writing for the A.V. Club. He started as a freelance writer, and now is one of the TV Editors for the publication.

VanDerWerff resides in Long Beach, Calif., where he plans, assigns and writes pieces on TV for the A.V. Club, which reviews episodes of an eclectic group of shows like "Fargo," "The Office" and the "24" reboot. VanDerWerff said he loves newspapers and journalism, but commentary and opinion pieces -- like TV criticism -- are his forte.

"I guess my writing tends to be a little more to the opinionated," he said. "It's probably good I found criticism because it gave me a chance to mouth off."

The A.V. Club is published by The Onion, a satirical news publication that features headlines like, "Elderly Man Hailed as Alert," and "Girlfriend, Girlfriend's Brother Look Way too Much Alike." VanDerWerff described the A.V. Club as the "pop culture arm of The Onion," but noted the two publications are distinct from one another, maintaining separate staffs and separate websites.

But, VanDerWerff's job isn't just about getting paid to watch TV. It's about contributing to a conversation about the arts, which VanDerWerff said help people examine their place in society and the world.

"We've had criticism as long as we've had the arts," VanDerWerff said. "I think what's valuable about what I do is that it's about starting conversation."

He said TV, and entertainment, are bad when people mindlessly consume, rather than taking a moment to think about what they are watching.

"That goes for any show -- that goes for the best show on TV," he said.

Criticism at its best, VanDerWerff said, facilities a conversation to combat mindless consumption, and he takes pride in the A.V. Club's role -- a role you might just say is critical.

"The Internet is so beautiful for that, because it allows us to have that conversation in real time," he added.

His other dream job, to write and create for a TV show, isn't something he's given up on -- but VanDerWerff admits it's a difficult arena to break into and is happy where he is.

"That is not a thing they just let anybody do," he said. "It's still something I'd love to do, but I've been more than satisfied by my work as a critic.

"If someone walks up to me and says, 'Hey, do you want to write for my TV show?' I'd probably say, 'Sure, OK.' "

Among what he loves about his profession, VanDerWerff said one of his favorite parts is working under pressure, and the rush that comes from a last-minute writing deadline.

"Sometimes something amazing will pop out, and sometimes something terrible will pop out," he said.

VanDerWerff said he typically writes 10 to 15 pieces per week, in addition to his management duties. He tries to keep up with two to three shows per night, plus a backlog of things he plans to "binge watch" -- watch multiple episodes at once -- later.

"Obviously I can't watch everything on TV," VanDerWerff said. "A lot of my day is just spent writing."

But, if it's a popular program, like CBS' ratings juggernaut, "NCIS," VanDerWerff said he still tries to keep track of who is on the show and what the main themes/characters are up to. Some of his favorite shows on now include "The Americans," an FX series about Soviet spies in the 1980s; "Mad Men;" "The Good Wife;" and "Fargo," a revisit, of sorts, of the 1996 film of the same name.

He's attended events like the 2012 Television Critics Association summer press tour, where he made omelettes with Martha Stewart. And he attends Comic-Con every year. Though the annual entertainment and comic book convention in San Diego, Calif., has expanded to include celebrity panels from popular TV shows and movies, the convention is still famous as much for its over-the-top fans as its events.

"I enjoy it, but with a question mark," VanDerWerff said with a laugh. "It's basically the nerd state fair."

It's a light-hearted jab at the comic book fans, but the easygoing writer is just as willing to poke fun at himself. VanDerWerff notes he "knew he was a nerd" when he started paying attention to the writing credits on "The X Files."

"Other people are really nerdy about actors, I was really nerdy about writers," he said.

Unlike many trying to escape small-town life for the lure of Hollywood, VanDerWerff said he loves his home state. But Long Beach, Calif., the suburb of Los Angeles where he now lives, makes more sense for a TV critic.

"To do what I want to do, you have to be in a big city," VanDerWerff said.

His wife, Libby Hill, is a Beresford native and a freelance writer for the A.V. Club and other sites. VanDerWerff's parents, Gail and Mary, still live near Armour, and VanDerWerff said he tries to get home at least once a year.

"I really do love that area of the country. I love being able to sit out in the middle of nowhere and have nothing else around for miles and miles," he said.