When Quentin Tarantino’s Vulture interviewer expressed surprise at his fondness for The Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin drama many critics loved to hate, he replied: “Who the fuck reads TV reviews? Jesus fucking Christ. TV critics review the pilots. Pilots of shows suck.”
It’s conventional industry wisdom that pilots do, indeed, suck. But even if it wasn’t the sort of conventional wisdom that’s kind of dubious if you squint at it from the right angle, especially in recent years (Breaking Bad, The Americans, How to Get Away With Murder), it’s a strange defense for a showrunner of Sorkin’s track record. It’s also laughably easy to disprove Tarantino’s claim that critics only watch pilots.
The claim itself isn’t surprising, though. Critics—whether of movies, wars, or restaurants—are a time-honored punching bag. Here’s actress Leven Rambin observing that no one’s ever erected a statue for a critic. Here’s novelist Steven Pressfield with a mostly-good book about writing and not letting outside influences get to you, which can’t resist trotting out the tired chestnut that critics are just jealous of Real Creatives. (He also gets pre-Platonic metaphysics wrong, but probably most people do.) Here’s Tony Blair at my alma mater a few years ago, telling 500 graduates trained in critical thinking to maybe just not use it: “be a doer, not a critic. Human progress has never been shaped by commentators, complainers, or cynics.” What does he think the Declaration of Independence was?
I shouldn’t have to spell this out, but “critic” and “doer” are not mutually exclusive. Nor, if you prefer, are “critic” and “maker.” Criticism is—obviously!—doing different work from art, or from whatever other work preceded it. Coming afterward doesn’t automatically make it invalid. Should we not look back at foreign policy misadventures and other great stains on our national self-image to figure out what went wrong and how not to repeat our mistakes?
A predictable retort is that politics is much more immediately consequential than art. My first reaction to that is: If it’s good enough for politics, it’s good enough for pop culture (see: the most exciting comics news EVER). My second, more important response is… well, the short version is that art’s effects ripple out far beyond a Sunday night spent in front of HBO. What follows is Part One of the long version.
CAROLINE SIEDE & BRINGING IN THE POLITICAL
I linked above to The A.V. Club, Onion Inc.’s (non-satirical) pop culture website. You may have recently seen the AVC’s “If you like Return of the Jedi but hate the Ewoks, you understand feminist criticism.” It’s just one of many excellent “For Our Consideration” features by Caroline Siede, who generously agreed to an interview on what we soon realized was an unhelpfully broad question: Why does criticism matter?
Pointing out that criticism has expanded well beyond thumbs up or down, to incorporate not just increasingly detailed analysis of technique but also lenses like feminism and racial justice, Siede suggested that much hostility toward critics is rooted in resistance to the latter. “What I’ve been noticing a lot in the way people talk about this is an argument that we should only talk about art from an aesthetic point of view … and not bring in any outside things.”
If you’re a gamer, you probably know this drill: Anita Sarkeesian dares to have a well-researched opinion about how women are represented in many popular video games (poorly), and terrible man-children flood Sarkeesian with threats of physical violence. Daily.
That’s an extreme—if disturbingly widespread—case of a familiar phenomenon: Critic points out something troubling or complicated in a work, and fans of that work complain that the critic is experiencing it the “wrong” way, or overthinking something that’s not there. Siede disagrees.
It would be silly for me to watch District 9 and not talk about apartheid, when that movie is clearly about apartheid. And you would never have someone argue, “It’s just aesthetic, don’t bring in the political.” That is a political movie. In the same way that to discuss Mad Max without discussing feminism would be absurd to me. That is a movie about feminism. So I guess I would want sort of—and this is the opposite of what a lot of people want—for these social things to find their way more into the sort of aesthetic reviews as well. I do think they’re sort of part and parcel.
In other words, why criticism matters is inextricable from why art matters. And art matters—is not “mere” escapism—because it’s what Roger Ebert called an “empathy machine.” It’s a way for us to experience the world through eyes not our own. Art therefore has a lot of power to shape how we relate to others unlike ourselves. Sometimes what we learn from this act of empathy can be brought to bear on our own lives. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it this way:
[Tragic drama] is capable of tracing the history of a complex pattern of deliberation, showing its roots in a way of life and looking forward to its consequences in that life. As it does all of this, it lays open to view the complexity, the indeterminacy, the sheer difficulty of actual human deliberation…. A tragedy does not display the dilemmas of its characters as pre-articulated; it shows them searching for the morally salient, and it forces us, as interpreters, to be similarly active.
And sometimes the ways in which we empathize with the Other will influence the way we treat them. Which is why it’s so worrisome that even in 2015, the people with whom art lets us (or asks us to) empathize are a somewhat monochrome bunch (pun only slightly intended).
Right now I think the way that white men are presented onscreen runs the full gamut of the white male experience,” Siede said. “What I would like is for everyone else to have the same amount of content that can speak to their experiences.
Siede pointed to The Wire, David Simon’s celebrated epic about broken social systems in Baltimore, with “probably more black characters than I’ve ever seen on any given TV show.” Because there are so many, none feel like tokens, even those inhabiting roles that in other (whiter) contexts would come across as stereotypes. “Because they’re all onscreen, I just take them all as individuals.” None are burdened with representing an entire demographic—unlike the Lone Woman in many action movies.
And so that’s my big call, is to just have more media about more people, because I think that’s the way to end these conversations people are sick of … For people that are frustrated by these conversations, I’m like, join our fight! As soon as we fix this, I would love to stop talking about feminist critiques as well. I would love for it to all be equal, and I wouldn’t need to critique these and say these things over and over.
A more recent case to demonstrate this point is Orange Is the New Black, a critically beloved, much-discussed show with a majority-woman cast, many women of color, and strong LGBTQ representation. Or Empire: mostly black, lots of women, and broadcast’s biggest hit by a longshot. (Look at this writers room! Probably not a coincidence.) Closer to my heart is Fresh Off the Boat, the second-ever sitcom about an Asian-American family, and the only one to live past its first season.
A CRITICAL VOTE
In the big picture, shows like The Wire and OITNB remain anomalies—which, considered alongside their cultural prominence, underscores Siede’s point. Audiences are clearly interested in stories they haven’t seen before, stories that represent their world more accurately and more richly. But audiences of millions can’t individually explain themselves to TV producers.
Over the summer, FX’s John Landgraf told the Television Critics Association that FX decides season renewals based on three “votes”: one from FX, one from the audience, and one from critics. Under Landgraf’s watch FX has been responsible for an unfair amount of excellent TV, from top-flight dramas like The Americans and Justified to innovative comedy like Louie and The League, so this seems like a good model. And where audiences and critics seem to be saying the same thing—or, if audiences go one way but FX and critics seem to be on the same page—good criticism may be the most useful way to puzzle through what strengths and weaknesses cause particular responses to a show, and adjust (or not) accordingly.
So it’s important for people like Sarkeesian and Siede to speak out. It’s not just about being on the so-called right side of history. It’s about telling audiences that yes, you deserve better—and telling storytellers that yes, you can do better, and it’ll probably be good for you.
Postscript: Siede and I spoke several days before this year’s Emmy ceremony, where some of these issues were foregrounded. You can read her take on the awards at Quartz.