Tag Archives: Criticism

On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter to the Game of Thrones Fandom

On Winter’s Doorstep: An Open Letter

April 16th, 2011

One of the features I often try to do for highly serialized and widely covered shows is “____ the Morning After,” in which I create a conversation between various reviews of a single episode of a series the morning after it airs.

Given my interest in the response to HBO’s Game of Thrones, I had thought of doing a “Game of Thrones the Day Before” post to try to capture the pre-air response. However, this was a week ago, well before the internet has quite honestly exploded with reviews of this program (and reviews of those reviews). And with fan sites like Winter is Coming collecting those reviews, and with Matt Zoller Seitz doing yeoman’s work in breaking down the problems with Slate and the New York Times’ problematic reviews (the latter of which has already inspired a wide-ranging discussion of women and fantasy that has galvanized a larger fantasy community), the conversation has more or less already happened.

To be entirely honest with you, it’s a conversation that has surprised me in its voraciousness, although I shouldn’t really be surprised. In general, pre-air reviews are growing passe within this industry, replaced with post-air analysis which more readily allows for reader participation – while a pre-air review will draw conversation from those who have predetermined opinions regarding a project, the real discussion can’t really begin until the reader has actually seen the project in question, and things seem to be moving in that direction as a whole.

Of course, Game of Thrones is a unique example given that the most voracious participants in the pre-air conversation clearly have predetermined opinions about the project. This is understandable: Martin’s books have created dedicated fandoms, fostering a deep connection tested by reviews which actively challenge the legitimacy of the source material. As someone who has also read the books, and considers myself a fan of Martin’s writing style, I completely understand where these readers are coming from, and had similar reactions to those reviews.

However, as evidenced by my post last weekend and some of the Twitter conversations I have been having this week, I have found myself interrogating the fandom and their approach to these reviews. I’ve come to realize that this perhaps seems unfairly critical: the worst behavior has been isolated within a small minority, and it is equally important to call attention to those reviewers who have shown contempt for fantasy as a genre or fans in general.

Though this is true, I want to make clear that my criticism comes out of concern, not out of distaste. While the response to pre-air reviews may be understandable, I think the intensity of that response has brushed up against one of the biggest problems with pre-air reviews. Essentially, the reviewer and the commenters are coming from two completely different places: the reviewer has seen the show, and the commenter has not. While this does not mean that commenters are unable to take issue with the nature of the review, one can’t escape the fact that the situation is predicated on a dichotomy between a critic with access and fans following (comparatively) blind devotion to the source material.

I want to take a moment ahead of tomorrow night’s premiere to contextualize my concern, and to emphasize the value of this fan passion in the week ahead – we sit at an important turning point, one that will empower the fans who have been anticipating the show for a very long time, and I do not want my concern to prohibit the kind of discussion that I feel this fandom and this show should inspire.

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Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews of HBO’s Game of Thrones

Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews

April 9th, 2011

We are entering the period in which HBO’s Game of Thrones will be placed under the critical microscope – while a few early reviews (my own included, I guess) were overwhelmingly positive, it was inevitable that some less-than-positive reviews would filter in.

And thus begins the dance of deconstruction, as the reviewers interrogate the text and the fans interrogate the reviewers. It’s common practice in online criticism, although normally centered around films from beloved directors/studios or with considerable fan hype; by the time most television shows build up a substantial fanbase in later seasons, pre-air reviews are not particularly common, and are not nearly as contentious. At that point, the show has already been established, so a negative review is unlikely to make any real impact on a show’s success.

However, Game of Thrones‘ built-in fanbase has created a scenario not unlike the Rottenwatch trend within film, as each review is dissected and analyzed in order to explain – or, rather, explain away – the writer’s disappointment. Now, I have to be honest when I say that I generally find this practice problematic, especially since many of the people who are leading the charge have not actually seen the episodes in question (although I take their point that some of the reviewers make it seem as though they haven’t seen them either). While I think there is value in analyzing reviews of a particular program, and would certainly agree with some of the criticisms that fans have had for the reviewers in question, I find myself uncomfortable with some of the dismissal strategies being used in the process.

And, admittedly, I’m also uncomfortable that it’s only happening with the negative reviews.

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Mildred vs. The Miniseries: Structure and Scheduling in HBO’s Mildred Pierce

Structure and Scheduling in HBO’s Mildred Pierce

March 27th, 2011

The front cover of the press kit sent to critics for HBO’s Mildred Pierce suggests that Kate Winslet is Mildred Pierce in a five-part Miniseries.

The inside cover, meanwhile, touts Academy Award winner Kate Winslet starring in a film by Todd Haynes.

None of this is ostensibly untrue. Kate Winslet is both an Academy Award winner and unquestionably the centerpiece of this project – if there’s a single scene in which she does not appear, I have no recollection of it. And this is indeed a project directed by Todd Haynes, and it will air in five parts over the course of three weeks starting this evening at 9/8c.

However, I’m admittedly quite intrigued by the notion of “miniseries” and “film” being used as synonyms. To be clear, I know it isn’t ostensibly wrong: considering that Todd Haynes directed all five parts of the miniseries, and that they were all scripted by Haynes and Jon Raymond, this is a single cohesive project which has simply been split into five parts (oddly enough airing over three weeks). And yet there’s something strange about considering this as a single project given the way it will be seen by the majority of its audience, and the way it will be covered in certain locations which cover shows on a weekly basis.

I was actually going to write about the reception of the miniseries independent of having seen it, but I felt that I should withhold that commentary until actually sitting down with all five and a half hours. And yet, watching it has created only more questions: did I watch it in the “correct” fashion by seeing it all over the course of a single evening with a brief intermission, or was it actually meant to be consumed in the episodic fashion being utilized by HBO?

And, perhaps more importantly, is it worth your time at all?

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The Critic in (Online) Society: An Alternate History of 21st Century Television Criticism

Yesterday was honestly excruciating.

After waking up to a rare instance of mainstream discussion of television criticism as a discourse, as Josh Levin tackled Alan Sepinwall’s influence in the field in a piece for Slate, I unfortunately had a busy morning/afternoon without any opportunity to sit down and really respond to the piece. It connects, after all, with work I have previously done both critically (in my reflection on Alan’s contribution upon his move to HitFix) and academically (in a conference presentation in June where I confronted the form of weekly television criticism), and many of you know that I’m ready to get into these conversations at the drop of a hat (and often prompt them within comment sections and the like).

In the interim, both James Poniewozik and Sepinwall himself have commented on the piece, offering their own take on the questions at hand, and I think both offer a more nuanced reading than Levin’s piece really had space to offer. The fact is that Levin’s piece, while an interesting conversation starter, is old news for critics, as we’ve been considering these issues for a few years and have moved onto new questions which will be explored in the years to come. Now, this is not to say that the issues Levin raises (like the impact of a shift from broader analysis to narrow weekly reviews, and the question of being a fan versus being a critic) have been solved, or that there is no value in raising them in a more mainstream venue – the piece serves a function, and I’m glad that the story of television criticism’s recent shift is getting more attention.

That being said, I feel as though there is a central fallacy in Levin’s piece, one which stems from the ultimate specificity of each critic’s experience. While there is no question that Alan has been the most influential of the post-air analysis critics, the one most responsible for merging the traditional function of a television critic with the episodic coverage previously associated with sites like Television Without Pity, most critics don’t have a large and dedicated comment base who are – as made clear in the comments on Alan’s response to Levin’s piece – largely “fans” of his or her work. While the piece raises questions about Alan’s objectivity, which I’ll contend below are silly questions to begin with, the fact is that Alan is “living the dream”: able to write the kind of criticism he wants to write, in a venue well-suited to that criticism, with the kind of audience-response and industry-access which allows him to continue doing that job for years to come (although not without its hiccups, which oddly go unmentioned in the article).

The vast majority of people who are writing criticism online do not share this relative (and earned) Critical Narnia, and even if they have job security they still face distinct challenges relating to comment culture and expectations from both editors and readers which make the Sepinwallian model, if we choose to call it such a thing, an aspiration more than a reality for most working critics.

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Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee

Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee

February 6th, 2011

For a show which has yet to air an episode in 2011, Glee has been awfully ubiquitous.

No, this isn’t surprising: people can’t get enough of Glee, so it is inevitable that a brief hiatus with a much-hyped post-Super Bowl episode on the other end would result in an infinite number of stories relating to the series. However, what struck me as particularly interesting is the degree to which the series’ absence created a vacuum for something approaching controversy. Ryan Murphy announced that he was breaking up one of the show’s couples because he was bored. Ryan Murphy started a flame war with Kings of Leon. Ryan Murphy claimed that Glee is at least partially aimed at seven-year-olds (in the same sentence, no less).

There were a few moments when people wondered why I, as someone who “deigns” to cover this series from a more critical perspective, wasn’t commenting on these numerous stories. In truth, I just didn’t have time to respond to every piece of new surrounding the show, but I also never felt any sort of impulse to do so. Yes, I could comment on what it means for a showrunner to admit to a show’s fans that he makes decisions based on things which bore him, and there’s certainly analysis to be done of the impact of public flame wars; there is also most certainly a lot to be said about Murphy’s perception of the demographic makeup of his audience, an audience which I would presume is more for the show’s music (a sort of pop culturally-driven Kidz Bop) than for the show itself.

However, maybe because of my scholarly approach, I didn’t feel particularly moved by any of these stories. I wasn’t angry that Murphy was bored because I’d rather showrunners be honest than not. I wasn’t aghast at Murphy’s battle with Kings of Leon because I don’t have the time to care about celebrities sniping at one another over a misunderstanding. And while I raised an eyebrow at Murphy’s comments regarding demographics, that seems like a more detailed, long-term study than it does an instant reaction.

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The Imaginary Forest: Cultural Learnings in 2010

The Imaginary Forest: A Cultural New Year

January 1st, 2011

Starting a blog is a lot like playing pretend. Just as you have to pretend that you’re in the middle of an imaginary, magical forest fighting some unknown evil, your plastic sword a piece of forged steel, you sort of have to imagine that there’s someone out there reading. Before you ever receive your first comment, you need to imagine someone out there who might write that comment. Before you ever recognize that first regular reader who keeps coming back, you need to imagine that someone will come in the first place.

Cultural Learnings, for quite some time, felt like a form of pretend: I was a pretend television critic, a blogger who spent his free time doing what critics do. While we sometimes associate pretend with our childhood, and our obsession with the imaginary and the escape from reality it offers, it can easily extend into adulthood. We are still capable of aspiring to things, and sometimes we need to stretch “reality” in order to keep our goals even vaguely within reach. For me, this blog was an opportunity to feel connected to the medium of television in ways which went beyond forcing my English professors to allow me to write about it, a chance to at least pretend to be part of a broader community of like-minded people when I was instead surrounded by people who thought I was obsessive (which, while not untrue, was still somewhat marginalizing).

And just like when we play pretend, there are moments in blogging where a brief brush with reality invades the imaginary: there’s something visceral about swinging a plastic sword and colliding with a nearby tree, just as there’s something visceral about finding your post on the front page of Digg – back when, you know, Digg was relevant – or receiving a particularly intriguing comment. They’re the moments that keep you playing along, the moments which start to make you think that maybe pretend could become reality with time.

For a few years, Cultural Learnings sat in this liminal – I imagine this is a cheap pop among regular readers at this point – state. There have been readers, regular readers even, for a few years, and 2008 and 2009 each brought their own brushes with respectability. I’ve been incredibly grateful for all of this, and have never felt as if the blog necessarily needed to be more popular (it’s not as if it’s making me any money) or more “real.” The truth is that the blog has always been a sort of personal exercise, an opportunity to feel connected to the medium of television in a way which went beyond the living room (or, in some cases, the classroom), and so the occasional comment and the stimulating conversation which followed were more a bonus than anything else.

And yet in 2010 things really did change. I don’t feel as if I did anything different: there’s nothing I can really point to that led to any sort of shift in the blog’s status, no stroke of genius or groundbreaking discovery to be found. However, as I went on fighting my way through the magical forest, the world did become real: it became a group of dedicated and intelligent Whedonites, it became generous and supportive colleagues within both academic and critical realms, and it became an “audience” of informed viewers of television who wanted to join in on the conversation. Over the past year, it felt as if everything fell into place: while this has always been something I enjoyed immensely, perhaps explaining why I was so willing to keep doing it for free, there was something immensely gratifying about receiving the kind of feedback that I had imagined there might one day be, and to get the opportunities that I always imagined might come.

As the year comes to a close, and a new year begins, I want to thank everyone who has been a part of this new reality – this includes those who gave me those opportunities, those who promoted the blog to their own readers, those who sent me kind emails, those who commented, those who follow me on Twitter, those who simply read the blog, or those who got to this post by Googling “forged steel + magical forest.” It is my plan to keep fighting my way through the forest in the year ahead, and I hope that you’ll continue to join me on this adventure…which, when I think about it, almost feels more like fantasy when grounded in reality than when simply a figment of my imagination.

Happy New Year to you and yours,

Myles

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“It’s Not Fantasy, it’s @HBO”: Going Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones

“It’s Not Fantasy, it’s @HBO”: Game of Thrones

December 5th, 2010

Tonight is the night that most people will be writing about Boardwalk Empire, which ends its first season on HBO, and The Walking Dead, which ends its first season on AMC.

In the former case, I’m actually incapable of writing about it: after watching the premiere, I have fallen entirely behind – my Mondays have been busy from the time the school year started, and as a result my Sunday evenings have been spent with an easy-going hour of The Amazing Race and work for the following morning. This also meant skipping Dexter, for what it’s worth – Sundays just haven’t been a space where I was able to focus on television.

And yet I find myself with some time this evening, which presents a choice: I could catch up on last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, since I am only an episode behind on the zombie series, but to be honest with you I don’t particularly care. This is not to say that I won’t watch tonight’s finale eventually, but with the show not returning for ten months, and with only six episodes, the accumulated interest is just woefully unsubstantial.

However, the night’s real event television took place before Boardwalk Empire, when HBO revealed a 10-minute glimpse into the production of Game of Thrones, their new fantasy series which is now officially debuting in April. Perhaps it is just that I’ve spent my weekend researching and writing about the HBO brand, or that I’ve been tempering my expectations for the series amidst the seemingly endless wait for an official date for the series’ arrival, but I think I’m officially excited about the show for the first time. I’ve always anticipated seeing what Weiss/Benioff would be doing with this story, and hearing the various casting announcements (most notably through the fantastic Winter is Coming) made the series a constant presence in my online existence, but something about a concrete date and our first substantial look at the world of Game of Thrones has turned anticipation…well, into hype.

And so, some thoughts on what we’ve seen to date, the way in which we’re seeing it, how HBO intends to sell the series, and how I expect to cover it.

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