All right, I’ll admit it. I’ve got next to nothing today. It’s been a pretty slow period for bad historical ideas, and a lot of what is currently floating around is retreads of retreads. But that did raise an issue for me when I read Tim Goodman’s recent article in the Hollywood Reporter debating what the proper role of a TV critic is in the world of peak TV and more than 480 primetime scripted series. Goodman tried to make the case that the critic is justified to ignore TV series that millions of people might watch in favor of focusing only on the most interesting or ambitious series, especially those that few people might ever see. Goodman’s argument is essentially one of elitism, but it reflects a lot of the criticism I have received for reviewing media products that are well below the cultural interests off media elites.
Goodman, for example, believes that silence is an implied negative review, so bad shows need no comment: “So, explain to me how telling them regularly about shows that suck — other than deterring them from watching and wasting time, which can also be done by not reviewing said shows — serves them better than using that time to direct them to this seemingly endless list of worthy series?” This is an argument centered on the idea of time. A critic can only review so much material, and they would prefer to spend their time on the good. A publication can only carry so many reviews, so why bother with shows where the reviews will change no viewer’s mind?
Goodman even uses the word “disdainful” multiple times to characterize his attitude toward dramas targeted to a mass audience. “Seriously, it’s like Kryptonite to watch bad television and then review it, telling readers that Show X offers no surprises in its boring familiarity except how terribly it's all executed, when I could be telling them that they've never seen anything quite like Back or Guerilla or It's the End of the F***ing World.”
But this argument fails on a few levels. Goodman’s argument works well for elite critics who wish to keep their work lives interesting, but the audience isn’t well-served when criticism is entirely divorced from their everyday experience. If 99% of readers will never watch a show you are reviewing, is it really a better use of time and space to champion an obscure show on a little-watched streaming service than to tell 70% or 80% of your readers about the programs they actually watch?
I get asked all the time why I review shows like Ancient Aliens when no right-thinking member of the socioeconomic elite would give such trash the time of day. It’s a step above reviewing episodes of Judge Judy. But that very separation of elite thought leaders from the audience they purport to serve allows bad content to flourish. Ancient Aliens is awful. But millions watch it, and it deserves to be called out for its sins, especially since so many people put unwarranted trust in it. But this extends to many shows that critics never touch. What does it say, for example, that the most popular series on TV tend to be authoritarian law enforcement dramas that celebrate state power, and, too often, extra-judicial police actions and even police brutality in the name of “justice”? What does it mean that The Curse of Oak Island is now Tuesday’s number one cable series—attracting almost a million more viewers than critical darling Black Lightning in the same time slot?
However, I also understand the other side of the coin. There is just too much stuff to give equal time to everything. I’ve gotten a number of questions about why I haven’t reviewed the new season of Oak Island—short answer: nothing new to say about boring show about old-guy bromances—and especially Hunting Hitler. It’s a little outside my wheelhouse, and another example of a boring show that forever teases a revelation that won’t ever come. That doesn’t mean that these shows shouldn’t be reviewed, criticized, and attacked for their lazy writing, bad storytelling, and overreliance on fake conspiracies. But Good man is right about one thing: No one person can keep up with it all. Even those of us who work with baser materials than the platinum and gold of peak TV face the same constraints of time and energy.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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