So the CPGs and the SADs are ruining the discourse for those of us that would like to have critical conversations about things without it being turned into a contest1. At this point, it’s probably necessary to take a step back and say: I don’t think this is the product of intentional malice. Or, at least, not the way I’ve made it sound. I think it’s a failure of the discussion to evolve in the same way experiential habits have.
Much hay is made of the arrival of television that is taken seriously as a critical subject2. Even people that don’t whisper about the “golden age” are still fairly well-prepared to talk about David Chase or David Simon or Mitch Hurwitz or JJ Abrams or Amy Sherman-Palladino, and even people whose general television approach is relatively-uncoupled from the showrunner/writer/creator can probably find something to say about The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development, Lost, or Gilmore Girls3, 4. And this is rightfully so: I’ve never been a particularly-close study of television, but the existence of stories that take on dramatic and emotional weight (and, honestly, it’s mostly emotional weight, about which more later). I’m not here to take anything away from anyone’s achievement in the field of television, but I think that there’s a bigger force at play, and it also plays into some of the spoiler-aversion (and, to a lesser extent, the photo-gathering, at least in an abstract form).
Television is episodic and is, really, one of the last episodic media we have. This means that it is the last place where there is a scarcity: you only have as much of the story as has been produced, which means that the “experience” aspect that I talked about last time is the most in effect with television. But television’s business model hasn’t progressed as rapidly as storytelling developments, so we’re still left with this idea that television is a thing that happens once a week for the first few and last few months of the year. And so they’re still reliant on the “make people talk about it so they watch it when it airs”.
Now, even I’m not so paranoid that I would believe that the SADs started as shills for the networks, but I’m not stupid enough to not see that the way shows are written is starting to reflect the constant clamour of the SADs (and also the CPGs, and we’ll get to those in a moment, I promise). It’s most notable in the cable drama (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Mad Men), but it’s happening across the board that the incentive to watch every week is basically the fear of spoilers. Which is all well and good, except that it’s developed to a point where it seems that somewhere in the show bibles is the order to create something that could be spoilered every week – beyond the marketing/teaser stuff (the stuff that you see in the trailer every week, which is generally treated as “premise,” and not greeted with the howls of the recently-enspoilered5), there seemingly must be that thing that would, if mentioned, cause people to jump off bridges for finding out too soon.
This, then, is not damage done to the discourse around the art, it’s damage done to the art. An interesting (and, for the person writing this, somewhat heartbreaking) object lesson is that of Doctor Who. Over fifty years old, the Doctor has survived more changes in television habits (including several that left him benched for years at a time, and archival indifference that resulted in the loss of many hours of his own backstory), and for the first several decades, the show was a joyful, often-campy, sometimes-surprising show in the adventure story tradition6. It was revived, and maintained the joy and the adventure for, oh, twenty episodes or so, before promptly jettisoning all of that to be a high-action space opera7. And sure, “Blink” and “The Doctor’s Wife” and “The Waters of Mars” are all fine examples of space opera done well. But they’re also crafted for an audience that expects a big ol’ wham every episode, so there’s (ostensibly) something to talk about and (practically for our purposes here) an incentive to watch so you can avoid hearing about it outside of its native environment.
This could be seen as regular evolution, except for the change in (and sameness of) tenor. There are no more “thought-provoking” episodes of Doctor Who. There are no more real worlds, there is no more intrigue. What there are, instead, are feelings, settings, and veiled surprises. The approach to the proactive that made Logopolis8 feel like a place you wanted to see more of and think about. It’s also what made the Cybermen9 so terrifying: they weren’t interested in the free-thinking world that you were literally being entertained by. It made you feel for the worlds that the Daleks10 had destroyed, knowing that they were sketched and populated by people. And, ultimately, it’s what made “The Warrior’s Gate”11 so effective – we cared, and we cared because we were allowed to fill in.
That has been traded for a dictatorial approach to emotional response (it’s actually a response that’s evoked in much the same way as films12) – latter seasons of Doctor Who rely heavily on setting things up in a way that we imagine that we feel for them, because that’s what the show is telling us. And the stakes are ratcheted up so high, and the tension-inducing musical cues and camera swoops and serious close-ups and heavily emotional language is in place so that at the end of the episode we have what is known, lexically, as feels. And that’s appropriate – it’s not “feelings,” and it’s certainly not “emotion.” There’s nothing at stake, no part of the viewer is invested in it, there’s just the opportunity to go through some no-risk, high-reward entertainment.
It’s certainly nothing new that such things exist, and become popular: the soap opera is older than television, the melodrama is a couple hundred years old, and it was a seventeenth-century playwright who said that human life itself is “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The whole idea of popular entertainment is to be able to have the experiences, mentally, emotionally or whatever, that one chooses in a safe environment. What has changed is the idea that there is that it all needs to be given the same sort of weight, and this is because the “everything is ok” democratization has taken with it critical language.
A confession: I love American Horror Story. I also love Nashville, Helix, and, despite it all, Doctor Who (I know). But I’m not unwilling to consider them as artistic specimens, and I see no reason to defend loving Helix (which is pretty execrable in any realistic sense) because I want to see how The Rocketeer and his band of Merry Pretty Doctors (and Possibly-Evil Science Guy) escape the arctic slobber-zombie cult. Because I sign on to be taken on that ride. It’s exactly like getting on a roller coaster and also being willing to see how a roller coaster is engineered. The fact that I’m not actually hurtling toward my death does nothing to change my feelings about the experience, nor do I think that they should.
But when so much of what is discussed and agreed-upon to be considered “good” is actually just designed to provoke a reactionary response, and any attempt to say to people with similar television-viewing habits “hey wait this is actually kind of monotonous” is shut down by people hollering that if you say so much as the hair color of one of the characters you’re giving away too much and “spoiling” the viewing experience, then where is the ability to, conversationally, develop any kind of critical language? I’m not talking specifically about professional critics here: they’re doing fine, and a discussion of the state of professional criticism would be a fairly different thing13. I’m talking about the ability to, over cocktails or pie talk about why something does or doesn’t work.
So you become a CPG, except this time instead of literal photos, it’s social message statuses and tweets and tumbls. And that was less-obtrusive (actually, liveblogging and, later, live-tweeting looked like they were going to be a pretty cool thing there for awhile), until it, too, started requiring writers rooms to start picking out scenes and phrases to hang at the bottom of the screen as a recommended hashtag, or to bumper shows with announcements for following the show. And then you’re already spending your time documenting – I was there, I am here, I did this – instead of watching. And then you’re a speed-reader again: you’re watching because if you don’t you’ll be spoiled, but instead of watching you’re talking about watching (at the behest of the production company, even).
I’m making no argument for the purity of television, nor do I particularly blame people for doing something other than watch tv (seriously, my Threes score has much, much more to do with whatever I’m ignoring on television than it does with my devotion to the game itself). This was also not an attempt to pick on television, specifically. It’s actually wrestling with something that comic books have been dealing with for a couple of decades now (single-issue readers vs. trade paperback readers being the over-air vs. netflix of the comic book world). But the fact that there is now a burgeoning trade in talking about it publicly means that it’s all coming to a head at once, and it’s beginning to reach a point where there is very little space for anything critical.
NEXT: Can you believe there’s more of this? There totally is! But this time it’s about individual opinions and the role of criticism therein. Doesn’t that sound like more fun? I bet it does! Stay tuned!
1 well, at least without turning it into that kind of contest. There is still the possibility that it could be a contest of the use of critical language, which is its own thing that frankly, I’m not getting into here.
2 there has always been television criticism, at least in the form of reviews (although also in a great many “this is almost certainly terrible” tomes, the most famous of which is Amusing Ourselves to Death
3 admittedly, people whose general television approach is relatively-uncoupled from the showrunner/writer/creator probably won’t find much to say about Deadwood, Treme, Running Wilde, Undercovers or Bunheads.
4 this list is by no means comprehensive, and was mostly picked so that I could make the point in FN 3 that shows are much more than their creators as revealed by their difficulty with second acts. So not present are: Jenji Kohan, Aaron Sorkin, Rob Thomas, Mike Schur, Larry David, etc. etc. etc. and on and on and on.
5 although if this continues to get worse before it gets better, the same mindset will be applied to television that’s applied to movies, and we’re going to have nothing but titles and air-times as a basis to decide whether or not to watch
6 the adventure story tradition itself is a discussion for another time, but is another victim of the amped-up nature of people’s demands on popular entertainment.
7 “space opera” is, here, a term of art – it’s the glorious descendant of “soap opera” and “horse opera”, and it refers to stories that are, well, more operatic in tone. Whether you think that’s a good thing or not is entirely up to you, but the easiest way to explain “science fiction” vs “space opera” is that it’s precisely the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Or, actually, Star Trek as it existed prior to J.J. Abrams and Star Trek since J.J. Abrams. In fact, if it helps and you’re not familiar with Doctor Who, you can replace every instance of it with “Star Trek” and you will have the exact same situation. It’s a rough time for science fiction franchises.
8 or the Mirror Universe, for you Star Trek people
9 or the Borg (or even The Romulans if you want me to stick to TOS, it’s the same thing: the pursuit of logic above actual creative thought)
11 “The City on the Edge of Forever,” or, more similarly “The Inner Light”
12 perhaps most infuriating about the whole thing is the way that dramatic television has forgone the things that it actually can do better than any other medium – that is, exist in the same place with the same characters week after week – and given it up to be more like twelve-hour movies. When it works it’s really something to see, but when it wobbles it’s almost impossible to not be frustrated with.
13 albeit a more heartening one – non-academic criticism is one of the only areas of reportage that has actually gotten more even-handed and less emotionally charged over the last few decades. I have ideas why this is the case, but I’ll spare you another several-hundred-word footnote