Sunday, November 6, 2011
I've been writing this column more or less weekly for the better part of a year now, and it has been a lot of fun. I don't harbor any grand visions of my relevance in the broad scope of things. In that year, maybe I've convinced two or three people to watch Breaking Bad, and two or three others to avoid H8R. And maybe those numbers are wildly inflated.
Over the year, I've been paying attention to the psychological impact of having to write about an art form on a regular basis, and I've noticed a few things, which I will list after a jump.
- I get tired of writing about the same thing. Most of the shows I love air on four networks: HBO, AMC, FX, and NBC. I love writing about how great those shows are, but I can only write 500 words on how Community is awesome so many times before it gets boring. Sometimes I have to mix it up by giving shows I'm fairly certain I won't enjoy, like Last Man Standing, a shot.
- Writing about TV has changed the way I watch TV. Call it cynicism or what you will, but the more I've learned about television and story, the more I look for flaws. When I hear other critics praising a show like Homeland to high heaven, I'm going to be extra wary when I watch, and I'm going to be more aware of slips in the narrative. Where someone else might just sit back and enjoy a show without nitpicking, I'm suspicious. The flip side of this is the jubilation I feel when a show sweeps me along in a story like a raft on a river, which happened during Louie's entire second season, Community's multiple timeline episode, or Homeland's most recent episode. Learning more about television may have a downside, but it also causes me to appreciate the highs in ways I didn't before.
- It's more fun to be negative. I had a blast writing about my favorite opening title scenes a few months ago, but I had even more fun writing about the worst opening credits a week later. I get to fit in jokes about the Bradys, and chuckle at my own wit even if no one else does. I admit: there's something pleasurable about panning other people's work.
Here's an example: last week, I said Homeland's opening credit sequence was "like a freshman film student's initial forays into avant garde, only if the film student had no sense of hearing, was the most pretentious person in his class, and the film school was University of Phoenix." That was my favorite sentence to write in that whole article, but it is also a gross and rather mean-spirited overstatement. I may not like that sequence, but whoever put it together is probably an extremely competent and intelligent visionary and film editor. For all I know, that person graduated top of their class at NYU, and will go on to make some of the finest shows on television. In my defense, I sincerely hope that happens, and that person feeds me crow by making a piece of art I love.
(Here's a recent example: Max Greenfield played a cop on Veronica Mars, and I couldn't stand him. He was supposed to be likable, but he couldn't do anything other than smirk. Just 24/7 smirking, to the point where I nicknamed him "Smirky" and I would yell "Stop smirking, Smirky!" at the screen whenever he came on. When I first saw Greenfield would be starring in New Girl, I was like, "Oh, great. Smirky's back." But he's has been awesome on New Girl. Last week, after a hilarious scene where he tries to guess his roommate's penis size, I cheered, "HOORAY! Good for you, Smirky! I'm proud of you!" So, yeah, I like being proven wrong on stuff like that.)
It's that temptation to tear down that gives critics a bad name, and it's the mark of a great critic to get beyond that, to write write joyously about art they love while still pointing out how work could be improved without resorting to cheap shots. I suspect every great critic battles their base instincts constantly.
The temptation to pan is also why some artists — like James Franco — rail against critics. Putting art out there for consumption is a courageous endeavor, and when you've put considerable time and effort into a project only to have it picked apart by a writer who's never risked the same production, indignancy is understandable.
But here's why criticism is important: no one has time to experience every album, film, game, or TV show out there, and it is in everyone's best interest to utilize their entertainment time in the best possible way. If someone comes to me and says, "What show should I watch?", I'm not going to rattle off my ten favorite programs. I will ask that person, "What do you like? How much time do you have?" and I will tailor my suggestions accordingly. If that person lists their favorite show as Arrested Development and they just recently had a child so time is limited, I will recommend Up All Night over, say, Always Sunny in Philadelphia, even if I think Always Sunny is funnier.
Look, if I'm buying a vacuum cleaner, I want to know which vacuum is the highest quality for my budget. I'm going to go on Amazon.com, read customer reviews, and see what people have to say. If someone says, "Vacuum #3 couldn't even pick up a Skittle, and it broke after six uses", I'm not going to fire off a comment accusing that critic of being a hater since they haven't invented a vacuum cleaner. Granted, art is not a vacuum cleaner, but it's not wholly subjective, either. A person may enjoy Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out" more than The Beatles' "A Day in the Life", but only an idiot would claim "Who Let the Dogs Out" is a better example of songcraft.
That's why it's important to find a critic who's tastes reflect yours, who's opinion you trust, and to give them some leeway when you disagree. By pointing out differing opinion respectfully, as commenter Johh Johnson did last week in debating the merits of Homeland with me, it actually helps me get better at my job. I don't consider criticism as art, per se, but it's something I want to improve at, and I have to be open to getting a rock thrown at me every once in a while if it's going to help. All artists should have the same mentality. No one — not critics, artists, or internet commenters — will be on 100% ofl the time, and we'd do well to better understand each other in that.
One completely unrelated thing: Hell On Wheels debuts on AMC this Sunday! Anyone who pines for Deadwood should be hopeful.