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Sometimes the TV is like a lover

6 Sep

“If you don’t like a show, don’t watch it.”

This seems like common sense to most, but whenever I hear it, I roll my eyes. (Or I think about rolling my eyes. I can’t always be bothered to make the effort.) That’s because it always comes as a comment on my TV reviews. No, I don’t particularly like Glee or True Blood or any number of other popular series that I continue to watch. Why should I write about them instead of about all the shows I do enjoy? And why am I writing reviews of these series when other, more loyal fans could probably provide a less hateful perspective?

It’s not just to piss people off, though I won’t deny there’s a pleasure in riling up the masses. In criticism, it’s important to get different points of view. If there weren’t any negative reviews, all reviews would be meaningless—you can heap praise on whatever you like, but if everyone likes everything, there’s really no point in talking about it, is there? “If you don’t like a show, don’t watch it” sounds sensible: it follows the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” line of thinking. But being a critic often means delving into entertainment that isn’t your first choice.

I was a TV fan before I was a TV critic, so I understand the passion with which livid commenters respond to my pieces. Do I think I should be fired for my takedown of Glee? No (I’ll admit I’m biased), but I can at least appreciate where the rage is coming from. We develop close relationships to the series we watch, and reading another person’s attack can feel very personal. I think there’s another dimension in a culture that has become hypersensitive to bullying, a legitimate problem we’ve turned into a meaningless buzz word. I have indeed been labeled a bully, because to some people, all criticism is damaging—pointing out a show’s faults is the same as picking on it. And if corporations are people, hey, maybe TV shows are, too.

I find this reaction ridiculous, and it bugs the shit out of me. But accusations of bullying aside, the anger over negative TV reviews speaks to the special relationship we have with “our stories.” It also reflects an unfortunate trend in TV journalism—the movement from analysis and response to “scoops” and “breaking news.” There are sites that break stories far more often than I do (which is never), but their reviews are so mild, I hesitate to call them that. It’s not that I reject all positive criticism—it’s more that these pieces are devoid of opinion entirely. They are fluff, designed to attract readers who know what they like and seek validation. Wasn’t last night’s True Blood amazing? Let’s OMG together.

The problem with “reviews” like these—well, there are several, but let’s narrow it down—is that they create an unrealistic standard by which legitimate TV journalism is judged. When one site blindly praises every episode of a series, another site’s complaints might come across as unfair or forced. It’s easy to dismiss the actual critic as a “hater,” another useless designation commenters love to throw around on the internet.

I guess what really bugs me is something I’ve mentioned before, this bizarre suggestion that the internet is a limited space. There is, in fact, infinite room for scathing reviews and fluff pieces, and everything in between. And yet, I still read comments that say “this is the kind of review that ruins television,” as though the mere utterance of a negative thought undermines someone else’s positivity. I assure you that my feelings about Glee have no bearing on its success—nor do my articles take up valuable space from those that would give it a weekly two thumbs up.

You know what seems common sense to me? “Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.” I can criticize your show, and yes, you can criticize my review! The key is not denying anyone the right to criticize. It’s hard when the focus of the criticism is something near and dear to you. Because yes, when I hear people shit on a series I love, it feels a little like someone attacking a lover. (Particularly if they’re talking about Breaking Bad, featuring my boyfriend Jesse Pinkman.) So while I understand the source of your anger at my reviews, I resent the implication that I am somehow “speaking out of turn.”

I’d end this post with a pithy, “If you don’t like my blog, don’t read it,” but I don’t even want to joke about you not reading my blog.

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Fresh out the box—stop, look, and watch

27 Jul

I’ve been watching a lot of ’90s Nickelodeon shows on TeenNick. I don’t know if I can adequately articulate the joy of coming home at 11 and turning on the TV to find All That and Kenan & Kel and Clarissa Explains It All and Doug—these are the shows I grew up on, and while they don’t all hold up as well as I’d hoped they would, I still get a kick out of watching them.

“Are 18- to 34-year-olds too young to be nostalgic?” Brian Stelter asks at the beginning of his New York Times piece. I think this is a silly question, and I’ll expand on that in a bit. He goes on to explain, “TeenNick, part of the Nickelodeon family of cable channels for children, will start rebroadcasting old series from the 1990s that are considered classics by young adults. That’s right: classics from the 1990s.” What Stelter is saying, essentially, is that we’re ridiculous. And that is only partially true. Because while the level to which we elevate shows like Angry Beavers is perhaps a bit extreme, “20 years ago” nostalgia isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.

Happy Days: a ’70s show about the ’50s. The Wonder Years: an ’80s show (or, OK, ’90s, but it began in the ’80s) about the ’60s. That ’70s Show: a ’90s show about the ’70s. Take that, Brian Stelter! Seriously, though, why the negative reaction to nostalgia for my childhood? I don’t know if you’ve heard, but people my age consume a whole lot of media. And the shows we’re nostalgic for? Every goddamn program Nickelodeon aired in the ’90s. Yes, even Space Cases.

When you hear “nostalgia,” however, it conjures a very particular image. You think getting a chocolate phosphate at the soda fountain. You think necking at the drive-in. If you’re really boring, you think Norman Rockwell paintings. But “nostalgia” simply means a longing for the past—any past. I think we’ve singled out the ’50s because they’re an easier time to idealize. (I was -31 when Rebel Without a Cause came out. Far too young for Sal Mineo, alas.) The ’90s are a little harder to place on a pedestal: I suppose it does seem strange to feel nostalgic for a time when we were coming up with exciting new piercing locations.

But TV is a different animal entirely, and nostalgia for ’90s television is completely legitimate. It’s the reason why a show like ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey has flourished—we are tuning in to remember TV of the past. (Me, I’d rather watch Clarissa.) Maybe I watched too much TV in the ’90s. Maybe we all did. I have fond memories of Nickelodeon all the same, particularly the Saturday night block known as Snick: Clarissa, Roundhouse, Ren & Stimpy, Are You Afraid of the Dark. Confession: I was too scared to watch Are You Afraid of the Dark. But the others!

Is it really so strange that I would want to revisit that time in my life? I’m sure being 10-years-old sucked for a lot of reasons, namely school instilling in me the false belief that math matters, but there was a comfort to Nickelodeon programming I haven’t been able to find since. And given the success of TeenNick’s ’90s programming, I’m not the only one. Twitter’s nightly trending topics have been dominated by these series—because, hey, we’re also the ones on Twitter!

I also resent Stelter’s condescending insinuation that ’90s TV shows can’t be “classics.” Obviously “classic” has its own connotation, but does that mean the series and movies I grew up with can never be considered as such? Did I just miss the boat on experiencing classics firsthand? (Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, three years before I was born.) That just seems unfair. On the other hand, every generation is going to have its own conception of what it means to be a “classic.” If I choose to call Clueless a classic—which, duh, it is—that’s my prerogative. (If I associate “my prerogative” with Britney Spears instead of Bobby Brown, that’s my prerogative, too. I’m not proud.)

Anyway, feel free to remind me of this in 20 years when someone calls Glee a classic and my blood begins to boil. It’s hard to imagine the 2010s will ever be a source of nostalgia, but I’ve no doubt it will happen. In the meantime, I’ll take comfort in the warm embrace of ’90s Nick: “Whenever my life gets me so down, I know I can go down to where the music and the fun never ends…”

A bit of the old ultraviolence

18 Jul

I devoured The Walking Dead in two days. (Get it? Because it’s a show about zombies.) To be fair, the first season is only six episodes—and I’ve got the added incentive of catching up before Comic-Con. See also: my seemingly endless marathon of The Vampire Diaries. Having read the Walking Dead comics, I mostly knew what to expect. But holy crap, no one told me the series was going to be so violent.

Perhaps that sounds naïve: it’s a show about the zombie apocalypse. Exactly what did I expect? Still, it’s jarring to see so much blood and gore on television. And this is coming from someone who is pretty damn desensitized. (I own The Devil’s Rejects and The Human Centipede on Blu-ray. I’m not bragging.) What I mean is, I have no problem with violence, and I actually thought The Walking Dead handled it really well. In fact, the show offers some of the most stunning gore I have seen. Violence can be beautiful—if you don’t believe me, check out those glistening arcs of zombie blood when the walkers get shot in the head.

That having been said, I appreciate the affect violence can have on a person. I’m certainly not going to revert back to the very ’90s argument that media violence causes violent behavior in young people—it’s stupid and reductive and largely disproven. But as someone who takes in a lot of gloriously violent entertainment, I understand that it can have some sort of effect on one’s psyche. Desensitization. Nightmares. Boredom with movies that don’t contain viscera. And none of this is to say that we should censor our shows, but to point out that yes, I at least get where the argument to do so is coming from. But I say that only to draw attention to our ridiculous double standards. A zombie hacked into pieces? No problem. The glimpse of a woman’s nipple? WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN.

The Walking Dead is the best example in recent memory of the incredible divide between our cultural perception of violence vs. sex and language. We embrace blood—even on networks that won’t allow the mere utterance of “shit,” we can see a character get both of his eyes gouged out. (The Vampire Diaries. Don’t worry, they grew back.) In a show that can’t reveal too much bare flesh, a character’s fingernail is ripped off. (Supernatural. It was a Christmas-themed episode, if you can believe that.) These moments of horror are what keep me up at night. So why do they get a free pass while sex and dirty words are kept under wraps?

There are plenty of actual reasons why we’re so squeamish about boobies and—oh, God, I can barely even say it—penises. And when it comes to language, naughty swears are one of the few things I think kids really do copy. (I don’t necessarily think that’s a problem, but we’ll save that for another blog post.) But instead of focusing on where these social mores come from, let’s chat a bit about changing them. Rest assured, nervous parents, I have no real control over the FCC.

Teenagers have sex, whether or not they see bare breasts on TV. They use a slew of four-letter words you’d never hear on ABC Family. But no matter how much torture porn you shove down their throats, teenagers (for the most part) don’t eviscerate their friends and family. If they do, there’s probably something else going on. What exactly are we shielding young people from, then? Whatever they can’t find on TV, they figure out on their own. Watching a cop show in which all the gritty characters say “friggin'” takes you out of the moment—and it’s not like we don’t know what they’d be saying in real life.

More nudity and cursing on TV! It’s a weird crusade, and I don’t think it’s exactly the most important cause I’ve taken on. But I’m interested in the implications of a media culture that exalts violence while denigrating sex and “bad” language. It’s not a matter of condoning violence—no one would argue that a series like The Walking Dead is suggesting we should get our bite on. Why the other restrictions, though? I’m not saying we should have porn on every channel (well, I’m not not saying it…), but what about some equal representation? If we’re going to show relentless brutality, is a little more explicit sexuality going to hurt? It’s ludicrous that The Walking Dead can show a squirming torso leaving a trail of slime behind it while Mad Men has to include a content warning before an episode featuring ONE tasteful nude photo.

OK, our censorship is arbitrary. But does it really matter? I think so. I look at a series like Twilight, in which vampires and werewolves do some serious damage, but which greatly suppresses sexuality. This is obviously an extreme example: Twilight is a parable of sexual repression. It is, however, a very popular one, and in the context of this cultural disparity, what does it teach young people? One baser urge is fodder for cheap thrills, while the other should be kept hidden at all costs. And let’s be real, sex and violence are natural urges—our job is to keep them in check as we see fit. So why, in entertainment, can’t we treat them the same? And hey, if someone drops the occasional F-bomb, that’s OK, too.

Nudity on TV won’t turn us all into sex-crazed perverts—no moreso than we already are. I’m as sure of that as I am that The Walking Dead‘s jaw-dropping violence won’t turn us into zombies.

Crossposted to Huffington Post Culture here.

Hoarders: Obsessed

29 Jun

I can’t stop watching Hoarders. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t want to stop watching Hoarders. This isn’t an Intervention-level addiction—if you made me quit Hoarders cold turkey, I would manage, though I’d definitely feel bummed for a while. I don’t know that I’d experience much if any withdrawal, but chances are I’d latch onto another deeply compelling reality series as quickly as possible.

I’m not actually concerned with the amount of Hoarders I watch, especially given that there’s a limited supply. My bigger issue is what my obsession with Hoarders says about me. I watch each episode in horror, fascinated and disgusted by the collections these people have amassed, but yes, there is pleasure in it, too. Am I watching Hoarders the same way certain people watch NASCAR? Just as they wait for a fiery crash, am I hoping for the discovery of a mummified animal? And because I consider myself a reasonably compassionate individual, I’m forced to consider the implications of all this. Simply put, does watching a Hoarders marathon make me a bad person?

I can’t come up with a clear answer. There’s no denying that watching Hoarders is a bit like gawking at a car wreck. And saying “it’s human nature” is a cop-out: it’s also human nature to take things that aren’t ours and use violence when we feel threatened. We’re supposed to keep these impulses at bay, and a lot of us do a bang-up job. Of course, I’m not harming anyone by watching Hoarders, but I may not be giving its subjects the respect they deserve. Sure, they’ve all agreed to being on camera, but almost every one acknowledges the embarrassment of revealing the inside of their homes.

But in exchange for appearing on camera, these compulsive hoarders receive the treatment they need to move on with their lives. (It’s not always successful: as with A&E’s Intervention, the final results are in the addict’s hands.) In that way, Hoarders may be a necessary evil—if it is exploitation, it’s also a way out for people who are literally trapped in their homes. And I still feel a little crappy about it! There was a time when carnival sideshows were the only way people with certain disabilities could make ends meet. So yes, go see the “Siamese twins” and help them earn a living. But at the end of the day, you’re still just ogling the “freaks.”

Obviously none of these concerns have stopped me from watching Hoarders. In my defense, I do feel satisfied when they get their houses cleaned. It’s not all about the schadenfreude of seeing what a mess someone else has created—it’s the thrill of the classic reality television redemption story. You start off seeing how bad things can get, and then you watch in amazement as they find a light at the end of the tunnel. The difference between watching Hoarders and watching a car crash or a sideshow is that the end result is a positive one. After the horror has passed, these people (ideally) move on to a better life.

There’s also a certain level of empathy involved, and it’s taken me a while to acknowledge that. I’m not the best housekeeper myself, and while I have never lived among boxes stacked to the ceiling, I’m well aware of how things can get out of hand. Part of what makes Hoarders so scary is the fear that it could happen to us. Sometimes you reach a breaking point, or something just snaps, and suddenly you stop caring. Maybe it starts small—I know I’ve left clothes on my bed for far too long—until it becomes so overwhelming that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I will never get to that point (I’m posting this on the internet, so you know it’s true), but in the back of my mind, I understand how it could happen.

Maybe that’s what separates Hoarders from more exploitative entertainment—but it could just as easily be true of shows like Intervention and Obsessed as well. The act of watching someone at the lowest point of his or her life is indeed ambiguous. And I think yes, simply tuning in to judge is a pretty crappy thing to do. But if you can find that empathy and root for the person’s success, maybe it’s not so bad that you also enjoy the “real-life drama.” After all, you’re only human.

Crossposted to Huffington Post Entertainment here.

You’re doing it wrong

21 Jun

This isn’t a review of the season finale of AMC’s The Killing. I already wrote a review for TV.com, and this site sums up my frustrations better than I ever could. But what I wasn’t able to touch on in my piece is the way some of the critical reaction really irked me—well, not the critical reaction so much as the critical reaction to the critical reaction. Still with me?

While most critics seemed to agree that The Killing finale was a colossal disappointment, some argued that it was exactly what the series needed. Fine, we can agree to disagree. But rather than just acknowledge a difference in opinion, I saw several versions of the “You weren’t watching it right” argument. I’m not even sure it can be called an argument, but the basic idea is that the reason people (myself included) didn’t appreciate The Killing‘s season finale is that we had a faulty conception of the series. More specifically, we were too consumed with the idea of determining the identity of Rosie’s killer and missed the point entirely. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

Where have I heard that before? (Outside of sex columns, that is.) Ah, yes, the contentious season finale of Lost—which, for the record, I loved. As the modern classic series approached its end and it became clear that all our burning questions weren’t going to be answered, some felt no ill will at all. Lost was always about the characters, so not knowing why women can’t have babies on the island or what the deal with Walt was or [insert your loose end of choice here] wasn’t a big deal. Others were a little more indignant: “We stuck with your roller coaster of a show for six years. You owe us some goddamn answers.” As far as I’m concerned, both sides made valid points. But nothing riled me up more than seeing critics I respected spouting the same line of bullshit: “If you’re watching Lost for the answers, you’re watching Lost wrong.”

The condescension in statements like this is obvious, but what really strikes me is the ego required. It’s “I’m right and you’re wrong” on a whole different level. If you’re convinced someone else is somehow watching a show incorrectly, you must also be sure that your manner of watching is the one, true way. How can anyone be sure of that? (I don’t even know if Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse would agree on the right way to appreciate Lost.) I think this is especially galling when it comes from a critic. Expressing one’s opinion is part of the job, but suggesting that said opinion is the only valid one discounts the likely diverse views of one’s readers. It is insulting to everyone’s intelligence but one’s own. And that’s kind of dickish, right?

I also hate the way this line of reasoning limits discussion. If someone is angry over The Killing finale, telling him that he simply doesn’t get it halts the conversation. How do you respond to that? The black-and-white nature of “a right and wrong way” mentality makes it impossible to find a middle ground. Not to mention the fact that it provides an easy out. Case in point: “I loved The Killing finale because I understood what the series was trying to do all along.”

Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with legitimately loving the finale! Or the Lost finale. Or any number of divisive TV episodes. I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. My point is, there are always reasons to like or dislike everything, and chalking opinions up to a fundamental misunderstanding of the material is an easy and obnoxious out. Of course, this is never going to change, and there will always be critics who bug me, whether they write about TV, film, music, literature, or what have you. My goal has always been to write for a wide audience, and to sound informed without sounding like a jerk. I hope I’ve at least partially accomplished that. And if you ever hear me say that you’re watching something wrong, feel free to tell me to shove “the right way” up my ass.