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Episodes: Too critical, or not critical enough?


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 05 2016

7 min read



My winter holidays were bookended by the very odd phenomenon of being called horribly uncritical on one end, then being called too critical on the other. Both are at least somewhat grave accusations for someone in my profession. The former suggests a cheerleader whose word can't be trusted; the latter suggests someone who has ceased to take any joy whatsoever in the things they supposedly write knowledgeably about.

Both are worth guarding against, though I believe the latter much more so. I would rather praise a bad work than pillory a good one, but that may be a temperamental thing. I once suggested on Twitter that all critics are, at heart, appreciators or warning signals, more likely to try to find the silver lining in a flawed work versus playing up what's wrong with it. The former see a work's failings as a kind of tragedy; the latter seem a little surprised when works are better than average.

This is, of course, reductive. We all play different roles, depending on the medium or even the work. But I do think there is a temperamental balance at work here. Roger Ebert was fundamentally an appreciator; Gene Siskel was a warning signal. That's why their show worked and why it struggled once Richard Roeper (another appreciator) was added. Some of us just like liking stuff and are always looking for the good amid the bad. Others are leery of the idea of giving a pass to something that is, on some level, mostly crap, because it does a few interesting things.

The best critics can turn on a dime and do something completely unexpected. But even the best of us usually fall into one of those two categories. I'm, broadly speaking, an appreciator. Ebert is the critic whose writing has most influenced me. My mentors have been appreciators. Most of those I've hired and championed have been appreciators. It's just the way I skew.

So consider all of this preamble to the idea that when blogger Kevin Drum held me up as an example of something that bugged him in TV criticism shortly before Christmas, I was more or less sympathetic to what he was struggling with. I did, indeed, list 60 shows on my year-end top TV list, and when looked at as a percentage of all scripted shows on TV (which ended up number 409), that seems way too high. It's around 15 percent, and if you accept Theodore Sturgeon's old maxim that 90 percent of everything is crap (as Kevin does), it's at least 5 percent too high.

(Not to check Kevin's math, but that 409 number isn't the total number of TV shows in the slightest. It's simply primetime scripted programming. It doesn't include daytime shows, late-night TV, reality shows, made-for-TV movies, or dozens of other forms of television. If you count those in, the number runs well into the thousands and is, more or less, uncountable. And I would wager 90 percent of that number really is crap. Because most TV criticism tends to focus on scripted stuff -- because most TV criticism has blinders on -- the 409 number gets tossed around a lot. But the number is probably much closer to 4,009.)

Kevin has also run headlong into the fact that most TV critics are, at their core, appreciators. I know that doesn't sound right, since so much TV is so bad, but it is. In fact, because so much TV is so bad, lots of TV critics tended to be appreciators. For decades, you had to really look for the diamonds in the rough, amid the formulaic pap. But they were always there. And TV is also skewed toward believing that things will turn themselves around. A show could always get out of a slump. A series you hate could air an episode you love. And on and on. Because it's forever unfinished, you always have to leave the possibility that it will get good at some point (or the reverse).

And yet, if you look at critics in other media (especially appreciators), we're all dealing with something that I think audiences are feeling, too: the glut of choice. It wasn't uncommon for film critics to suggest their lists could easily extend to 30 or even 40 titles this year, and the same has been true in both music and books for decades. Movies and TV used to have barriers to entry, gatekeepers who stood in the way of the most esoteric stuff. But those are mostly gone now, and the incentive is to make stuff that's good or at least distinctive, so you'll stand out a little bit from the pack. Are there plenty of shows that eke out an existence being just mediocre enough to continue to attract an audience? Sure. But there are also increasing niches for shows like Rectify, which have minuscule audiences but pay for themselves in prestige.

Now, this doesn't mean that we're off the hook here. The true aim of criticism isn't to separate bad from good. That's, broadly speaking, easy. It's a gut reaction. It's to separate good from great, and the sheer glut of stuff out there is making that harder than ever, or, at least, making it harder to arrive at consensus than ever. A show I believe to be merely good (say, Better Call Saul, a show I enjoy but do not do backflips over) is probably a show you consider to be great. And vice versa. And in this world, it becomes paramount for critics to properly explain why some shows give them backflip fever and others fall a little short. Yet that's the very hardest thing to do!

In addition to that, the sheer preponderance of STUFF makes it that much more tempting to write about the things that fall to either pole -- the extreme successes or extreme failures -- both because they get more attention from readers and because, well, those reviews are usually more fun to write. (It's much less exciting to examine why something only barely just works.)

And yet increasingly among readers (and see Andrew O'Hehir for more on this point), the idea that a work is not pitch perfection is read as an attack on it. I wrote a handful of mixed movie reviews over the Christmas break and had a fair number of interactions with readers on Twitter who read these as outright pans. Because the internet ecosystem is pushing everything toward either end of the spectrum, things that fall in the middle are increasingly being seen as attacks.

I don't know what to say about all of this except, "Isn't it an interesting problem?" but it's something that I wrestle with more and more as I head into a new year in this job. What do you think?


A note on scheduling: I'm going to be at TCA through January 19th, which means that all non-essential work will fall by the wayside. That will probably include this several nights. After TCA, I'm going to reconsider just how often I want to be publishing this. Doing it daily has turned out to be kind of a burden, and I may bump back to two or three times per week.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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