Tag Archives: Criticism

Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics

Mad Men the Morning After: “Christmas Comes…” for Critics

August 2nd, 2010

When it comes to critical reviews of AMC’s Mad Men, each week is more about understanding the nuances of the episode than ripping it apart. And this week, with very little from January Jones’ Betty Draper (who is the series’ most divisive character) and a welcome return for a few fan favourites, the critics are largely in holiday spirits outside of their understandable frustration with the actions of one Don Draper.

It may not be quite like Christmas morning, but opening the collection of Mad Men reviews in various tabs is sort of like opening presents, so let’s take a look at what came down the chimney.

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A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

A Phantom Menace: Weiner’s Mad Men Spoiler War Misses Target

July 27th, 2010

Last week, I wrote at length about how Matthew Weiner’s concerns regarding spoilers speaks to the awkward place of pre-air reviews, which are forced to avoid spoilers, in a climate in which post-air analysis is far more successful and prevalent in the online critical community. My basic point was that the real value of critical analysis came after the episodes aired, which is why I was looking forward to the reviews of the episode (which were great) and the subsequent reviews throughout the season.

However, those reviews have been handicapped by a decision from Weiner and AMC, covered by Variety, to no longer send episodes to critics early, which is an enormously frustrating decision. It’s not a question of entitlement: I’ve never received screeners from AMC, and screeners are ultimately a privilege which networks are not required to offer critics in general, so that is not my point of concern. It’s also not a question of whether all critics should be punished for one person who didn’t adhere to Weiner’s spoiler guidelines: that was that critic’s call to make, just as this is Weiner’s call in terms of pulling the screeners. Rather, what frustrates me is they’re entirely ignoring how online criticism actually operates: no mainstream critic does pre-air reviews of individual episodes beyond the premiere and perhaps the finale, which means that Weiner’s concern about “spoilers” is woefully misplaced in this instance.

Critics use these screeners in order to prepare their post-air analysis ahead of time, meaning that the discussion regarding the episode is able to begin as soon as it ends, and critics are able to do the proper research for cultural references or series continuity ahead of time rather than rushing to meet a deadline either to grab their slice of the SEO pie or to allow their community of readers to start the discussion of the episode. Rushing leads to reviews which fail to capture the nuance of each episode: critics could often watch an episode twice if necessary, and their reviews reflected their dedication to offering an informed perspective that helped create discussion. Now, it’s possible that my concern over this would suggest that Mad Men is a show which confounds that post-air analysis review structure, but the fact is that there are more critics than ever reviewing each individual episode, and it’s both an issue of the quality of the show and the demand from the show’s audience to have these sorts of discussions. And considering that demand, people are going to keep writing about the show, but it’s going to come late, and it might likely lack the sort of depth which critics were able to offer when they had a number of days to prepare their articles.

This likely seems like a bit of a strange argument for me to be making, since I’ve only rarely received screeners from networks, and have been watching each episode of Mad Men “live” with everyone else since the beginning. However, it’s maddening to see how much Weiner and AMC don’t understand the critical community they’re limiting in this instance. It’s entirely logical to no longer send out review copies for season premieres or season finales: not only is there some value to critics experiencing them with the general audience, but they would also likely be writing season previews, or season-in-review pieces surrounding those episodes in which the spoilers Weiner so fears may emerge. However, on a week-to-week basis, those same expectations don’t exist, and writing about the series is confined to post-air analysis and perhaps a harmless “This episode is really great” tweet or something like it. Instead of fixing the actual problem they had (a problem which I am also concerned about), they’ve fixed a problem which has never really existed, a phantom menace fabricated in order for Weiner to send a message to those critics who dared cross his path.

The way in which Weiner sent this message, attaching a note to copies of the second episode saying that the screeners are being nixed due to “inevitable spoilers,” communicates a message of distrust: critics are no longer capable of upholding his strict desire for no future details to be revealed, and so they will no longer be receiving episodes in advance. I almost respect Weiner for being so willing to come right out and say that this is entirely reactionary: he could have easily made a note about how he wanted critics to experience the episodes with the rest of the audience, a legitimate point, in an effort to limit the bluntness of the message. That he chose not to indicates that this is less about a legitimate concern over week-to-week spoilers, which I’d argue have never existed for the show to any degree beyond what AMC’s cryptic promos reveal, and more about sending a message.

And considering that this message means that the real Mad Men criticism which matters has been impacted negatively is a real shame. I should be excited, really: suddenly, I’m on the same page as everyone else, which means that my reviews will no longer be as “late” as they have been in previous seasons. However, I don’t just write about Mad Men for the stats: I write about it because I am a fan, and so I love reading others’ thoughts on each episode after finishing my own review. To know that those reviews may no longer be there when I finish, for no real reason beyond paranoia and spite, is an unfortunate state of affairs.

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Could “C” stand for Community?: Musings on the Role of the TCA

In the final piece of his fantastic series of articles on his Comic-Con 2010 experience, Todd VanDerWerff asks an all-important question: why, precisely, do news organizations cover Comic-Con from the show floor? He writes that “the vast majority of the news that comes out of the Con can be covered as well by Sean O’Neal sitting in Austin and posting links to press releases and other reports as it can be by someone sitting in Hall H.” Now, Todd’s fantastic coverage proves that there is value to having someone on the show floor to report on the experience of Comic-Con – more interesting than the news itself is the kind of people the convention attracts and the environment they create. However, in terms of actually covering the news emerging from the panels, the value is comparatively limited, especially when I consider the headaches it seems to have caused the various people in my Twitter feed who attended the event.

It’s a question which will continue to be asked over the next two weeks, as my Twitter feed shifts from the madness of Comic-Con to the madness of the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour (which Alan Sepinwall captures here), and I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on some of my observations about the TCA over the past number of months. I want to make clear that these are not envious or spiteful thoughts about my lack of membership with this organization: while I may self-identity as a critic, a title which I feel I have earned insofar as one can earn such a title, I am not in any way, shape or form a journalist, and thus do not fall under the purview of the TCA, which “represents more than 220 journalists writing about television for print and online outlets in the United States and Canada.”

This piece is less about my exclusion from the TCA and more about my inclusion within the critical community it broadly represents: through Twitter and other forms of engagement, I’ve come to consider many established critics to be mentors and, at times, colleagues. On a daily basis, television’s critical community includes critics, bloggers, scholars, reporters, unaffiliated intellectuals, and fans who have something to say, collectively forming a living, breathing entity which I’ve come to value a great deal. If I’m at all disappointed about not being at Press Tour, it’s not because I won’t be touring the set of NBC’s Undercovers; instead, I’m disappointed that I won’t be there to witness my Twitter feed come to life before my eyes, to be part of that environment. As various media folk left Comic-Con, their tweets reflected less the panels they really enjoyed and more the people who they got to meet, putting a face to a name or in some cases a name to a Twitter handle. And it makes me realize that the reason I wanted to be at Comic-Con wasn’t because I felt it would result in better coverage, but because I wanted to be in the trenches with my fellow community members.

There was a sense of camaraderie there which feels, to me, like the kind of connection which an organization like the TCA would be interested in fostering, something they could use to demonstrate the value of criticism in the twenty-first century and something which could spurn further interaction and discussion. However, this is where my image of the TCA’s function conflicts with reality: it is, after all, the Television Critics Association as opposed to the Television Criticism Association, or the Television Community Association. It creates a connection between the industry and the people who cover it, a role which helps critics gain access to the material necessary to serve their readers, but for the most part I sense that the TCA is uninterested in the art of criticism, or in the interaction between critics rather than their interaction with the industry.

And, if you’ll allow me to indulge a curiosity, I want to discuss whether or not that should (or could) ever change.

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To Each Their Own: Thoughts on Mad Men and the State of the Pre-Air Review

To Each Their Own: The State of the Pre-Air Review

July 19th, 2010

There’s currently a stir of controversy around reviews of Mad Men’s fourth season, which was sent to critics in the past few weeks – as always, Matthew Weiner has expressly requested that critics avoid talking about anything in specific terms, which has created some discussion surrounding just how much critics show bow to his wishes (especially considering that many are ignoring them to varying degrees).

For me, this is less an issue of Mad Men and more an issue on the state of pre-air reviews, something which used to constitute the large majority of television criticism but which has now been forced to share the spotlight with the post-air reviews and analysis which have blossomed in the internet age. In a discussion on Twitter, I raised the point that I struggle to see why anyone would really need (or want) to read a pre-air review of Mad Men’s fourth season, and there was rightfully some pushback from Dan Fienberg, who pointed out the role that critics can play in letting viewers know their opinions on a series and whether it’s worth watching.

I didn’t mean to suggest that the critics were part of the problem here, or that their views have no value; rather, I was suggesting that the medium is very much the concern. While new series which represent an unknown quality, or series which are reinventing themselves in a new fashion, are ideal subjects for pre-air reviews, shows which have become as established as Mad Men feel as if they confound this particular method of critical analysis. This isn’t to suggest that critics are unable to have negative opinions about the series, or that they should be forced to bow down to Matthew Weiner’s demands, but rather that there are other mediums through which those opinions will be better represented, and other ways to express this opinion which doesn’t require tiptoeing around plot details in order to communicate with the reader, or not bothering to tiptoe around plot details and potentially angering spoilerphobes like me.

I may be particularly wary of spoilers, and thus steer far clear of pre-air reviews as a result of my stance on this issue, but I think that the diversity of approaches makes pre-air reviews a nebulous medium which seems less and less relevant in the age of outright spoilers and indepth post-air analysis.

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Cultural Catchup Project: Alert Status “Restless” (Buffy and Angel)

Alert Status “Restless”

July 16th, 2010

There was some talk late in the comments on my less than hyperbolic – which, for the record, still qualifies as positive – take on “Restless” about how I wasn’t responding, worried that I was scared away by recurring dreams where I’m backstage at a performance of “Death of a Salesman,” I missed every rehearsal, and the audience is made up of nothing but angry Buffy fans.

The truth, of course, was that I was taking a bit of a breather, but I won’t lie and say that the response to my “Restless” review wasn’t a bit…intense. I understood going into writing the review that I wasn’t seeing what it seemed like others were seeing, that the parts of the episode I enjoyed felt like they were in conflict with some of the elements which felt underdeveloped, so it’s not as if I expected to be met with a chorus of agreement. However, there was definitely a point within the comments where it seemed like the response (subtly, and never vindictively) shifted from “I think you need to look at this more carefully” to “Why didn’t you look at this more carefully,” which is actually a perfectly logical question which is unfortunately largely antithetical to this project, which is why I wanted to take a moment to discuss it before diving into Season Five (and Season Two of Angel) in the days ahead.

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SYTYCD (For the Cameras) & SYTYCD (with Another Dude)

SYTYCD (For the Cameras) & SYTYCD (with Another Dude)

June 30th, 2010

I was going to discuss some of the ways in which the All-Stars format continues to wreak havoc with some of the important qualities of So You Think You Can Dance, in relation to the judges comments that Billy Bell needs to work on his partnering skills, but since Nigel Lythgoe is apparently plugging his ears to any such criticism I won’t bother – if he’s not willing to accept the fact that there are trade-offs in his particular plan, and that some viewers don’t believe they come down in his favour, then that’s his prerogative and I won’t beat a dead horse.

However, there’s two things that I do want to discuss from tonight’s episode, which continues to provide plenty of fascinating insight into just how this competition works. Say what I will about the All-Star format, but it has revealed many of the contradictions inherent within the series’ structure, which gives me something to write about each week. In particular, I want to focus on Adam Shankman’s comment that Kent Boyd is one of the most “hireable” dancers the show has ever had, as well as the episode-ending, “gender-bending” hip-hop number performance by Alex and Twitch – while the former is predicated on a fairly rigid view of how dancers are judged by the audience (arbitrarily defined by the judges), the latter is a conscious (and hyped) effort to break away from that rigidity for the sake of memorability.

…and yes, it sort of comes back to the All-Star format, whether Nigel is listening or not.

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SYTYCD Squabble: Lythgoe v. Wall reveals Fallibility of the “Family”

SYTYCD Squabble: Lythgoe v. Wall

June 24th, 2010

I don’t really have much to add to my previous opinions about So You Think You Can Dance’s seventh season, but I do think it’s important to note that they’re trying: they showed us the contestants picking their partners (albeit in a somewhat awkward fashion in a flashback to open the episode), and they allowed the All-Stars to remain on the stage during the critiques to support their partners. However, I still felt like there wasn’t really a connection being made with the dancers, and what growth we saw felt limited compared to the kind of growth and connection we’ve seen in past seasons. The show feels stagnant in a way that it felt last season when the two seasons butted up against one another with very little break, which isn’t making this feel as revitalizing as I think they intended it to. It’s better, don’t get me wrong, but the bigger problems remain even after the aesthetics and logistics have been worked out.

However, although there’s no major change in that area and because my opinions of the dancers didn’t change during tonight’s performances (which isn’t a good thing, just so we’re clear), I do want to talk a bit about one awkward moment that speaks to larger problems the show has faced from the beginning. There are now three ingredients to each performance: the contestant, the all-star and the choreographer. And the way this season, in particular, is set up is that the contestant is (presumably) paired with a fantastic dancer, given fantastic choreography, and then force to live up to that potential. At one point, Nigel welcomes a new choreographer to the So You Think You Can Dance “family,” and that’s very much how the show treats its own: with undying respect and unfailing praise.

The problem comes in circumstances where the choreography isn’t actually fantastic (or at least when the judges feel that the contestants were let down by the choreography), which happens more often than the judges are ever willing to admit (as no one wants to offend their family on live television). There’s often this odd tension where the judges don’t want to blame the dancer for mistakes made by the choreographer, but they also don’t want to throw the choreographer under the bus, which makes for an awkward half-criticism that struggles with the fact that the choreographers aren’t judged in any capacity.

Tonight, though, Nigel Lythgoe went so far as to twice call out a choreographer for a piece which he felt failed to meet expectations, and the fact that it was So You Think You Can Dance alum Travis Wall makes for a particularly intriguing bit of discord within this supposedly happy family and creates some problematic complications for the series’ constructive criticism.

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Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”

Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”

June 21st, 2010

In Alan Sepinwall’s fantastic interview with David Simon about Treme’s first season, Simon was particularly animated about those who argue that Treme is a show light on plot. In an amendment to the earlier interview (which Simon requested to add during a subsequent conversation), Simon says the following about the criticism of the show:

When they start to sort of evaluate the arc that they can’t know, the story arcs themselves, even if they’re loving it, I just can’t take it seriously. Nobody knows what we’ve built until the end. In some ways, even though we’ve planned it out and know where we’re going, until we look at the last edit of the last episode and send it off – that’s the only point where we can look at it and go, “This worked really well, this not so much.” Until then, you can’t really tell. That’s what I was trying to say. I was not trying to say I do not take criticism seriously. Obviously, anybody who gets to the end and says, “I don’t think this worked,” that’s entirely legitimate. But I can’t take seriously stuff in the middle. It’s like reading a book report in the middle. Not to say there isn’t valid commentary about the process. Just not about arc.

Writing about Treme has been a distinct challenge (as Scott Tobias mentioned in this A.V. Club Crosstalk with Noel Murray) for those of us who write about television on a week-to-week basis, largely because “arcs” are one of the primary ways in which we evaluate individual episodes. What Simon is arguing is that it’s not really possible to evaluate an arc until it reaches its conclusion, and that while critics can like/dislike certain characters, or moments, or direction, they can’t like or dislike the story arc until they discover how it ends. In the case of Treme, these arcs were elusive on a good day and near non-existent on others, and so their presence or absence became a key part of these reviews despite Simon’s concerns.

I have a great deal of respect for Simon, and I’ll agree that he is in no way suggesting that criticism isn’t a worthwhile venture. However, I think that the “stuff in the middle” has been an important glimpse into how critics, and viewers, have been watching the series. A critics’ analysis of an individual season of television is not unlike the first season of Treme, building momentum and information until eventually reaching a conclusion: at no point do critics use individual reviews to offer definitive opinions on a storyline, their responses to episodes standing as evidence of their emotional and critical reaction to the series which build towards an eventual judgment on how the season has progressed. While a story should ultimately be judged once it has concluded, there is nothing wrong with reacting to that story as it unfolds, and critics have simply documented the ways in which they’ve responded to the series both positively and negatively over the course of a season. Even if those concerns are eventually washed away by a strong finale, or if their opinions change through the course of the year, this doesn’t mean that we should take earlier reviews less seriously: instead, we should see them as a dialogue with the text, valuable not in offering a definitive judgment of particular storylines but rather in terms of capturing the way viewers are experiencing the series as it unfolds week-by-week.

As critics confront “I’ll Fly Away,” they draw back on some of their early misgivings in order to properly elaborate on their perspectives, giving the show credit for pulling some storylines together while criticizing the show for potentially missing some opportunities with others. Simon is right that arcs can be judged prematurely, but I think critics have a responsibility to reflect the fact that watching a David Simon series requires a degree of patience that only monks could pull off without difficulty, and that while they will ultimately wait to pass judgment on the series they will have their moments of doubt which should be reflected in their reviews. While Simon is likely right that Treme (like The Wire) would benefit more from a Sepinwallian post-series rewind to these earlier episodes within the context of the broader story, critical commentary of the experience of watching Treme is valuable insight into how the arc is being read by viewers as it progresses, which is ultimately how we primarily watch television.

So as the internet’s television critics offer their views on Treme’s first season finale, all of those who have been writing about the show with some regularity acknowledge the ways in which their opinions have changed and how arcs have or have not come together, acknowledgements we can understand and see for ourselves in reading their intelligent analysis of the season’s individual episodes. As television become a more collective experience in the internet age, viewers want to be able to become part of critical communities which analyze episodes of a show like Treme and create discussion surrounding its relationship with history, its characters, its direction and, yes, its story arcs. And while writing about the show has at times been a challenge, the “stuff the middle” created intriguing conversations which extended the series’ impact beyond its individual segments, building towards a more thorough and definitive conversation to be held now, after the season has come to a close.

While I will agree with Simon that now is when the real analysis can truly take place (and has been taking place, as you’ll see from the reviews I’ll link to after the break), I wouldn’t want to have lost the dialogues which emerged throughout the season, if only because I can’t imagine how long my already ludicrously long review would have been if I had held it all in – while Simon’s concern is not entirely misplaced, the experience of Treme was better for the discussions which emerged from critical reviews, and so long as critics continue to reserve judgment within their analysis of individual episodes I will continue to take them seriously in the future.

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Fiske-ian Learnings: Reflections on Fiske Matters

While I don’t often delve too far into my academic experiences here at Cultural Learnings, this past weekend offered an interesting convergence of my various different hats, and since I’m going to be more academically involved in television studies in the years ahead I figure now seems like a good time to introduce some of that material here at the blog.

I was in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend for Fiske Matters, a conference celebrating the legacy of John Fiske, professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Madison and considered to be one of the most influential figures in cultural and media studies. In particular, the conference was organized to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of his retirement from academia, and to begin the process of rescuing his work from a few decades of reductive criticism which has unfairly marginalized his contribution to the field.

The majority of people at the conference were themselves products of Fiske’s influential work: most of the attendees were former students, many of whom are now prominent academics within the field and who continue to rely on his teachings when inspiring a new era of scholars. And while I never had the pleasure of studying with Fiske, nor have I ever learned about Fiske in any of my direct academic experience, the conference was a fantastic introduction into the collaborative, creative and engaged academic environment which owes a great deal to Fiske’s work in the field.

I’m not going to be posting my entire presentation (for reasons I’ll get to beneath the fold), but I do want to discuss my paper and then raise some of my observations from the weekend which will hopefully be relevant to both academics and readers who may not be academics but might be interested in seeing how television and media are filtered through an academic lens.

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The Lost Weekend: Reflections on Reviewing Lost

Reflections on Reviewing Lost

May 22nd, 2010

There are a lot of articles floating around the internet right now about Lost’s legacy (including a great one from my brother), but I don’t necessarily know if I’m prepared to contribute to them.

This comes from the fact that I’ve already written about nearly every facet of this series. Because of my recent “Television, The Aughts & I” series, I’ve written extensively about how Lost was part of my initial initiation into the world of being a television obsessive. Due to the complaints piling up even before this past season began, I already wrote my lengthy diatribe against those who believe that Lost “owes” something to its fans. Since we were also already in a list-making mood before Season Six, I’ve done my list of key episodes as well. And not only has the mysterious nature of Season 6 kept the series’ conclusion almost entirely unpredictable, but reviewing every episode along the way means that I’ve already analyzed much of the season’s narrative in great detail.

However, I feel like I’m letting the haters win if I don’t write something “broad” ahead of the finale: I’ve been arguing for weeks that the people who believe that a finale could fundamentally change their opinion of the series are a bit nuts, so to avoid writing about the series’ legacy (definitively speaking) until after the finale would be conceding defeat on that particular argument.

So, taking all of this into account, I figure the best way to write about Lost is to write about the experience of writing about Lost, which feels especially timely considering the attack on Lost criticism in Mike Hale’s New York Times piece I responded to on Thursday. I am not paid to write about Lost, nor are paid critics necessarily required to write as much about the show as they do. If we ask why myself or my fellow critics write about the show with such passion, the answer would be part reflection on the show itself, part reflection on the fan culture surrounding the show, and part reflection on the ways in which television criticism has evolved over the past six years.

Critics write about Lost for reasons beyond its popularity, just as bloggers write about Lost for reasons beyond blog stats, and their reasons offer an interesting glimpse into Lost’s legacy and an explanation for why so many of us will be burning the midnight oil long into Monday morning and still writing about the show in the months ahead.

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