Posts Tagged ‘tv criticism’

‘The Godfather’ Was Really the First Great Prestige TV Show

April 24, 2017

Not to get all Beavis and Butt-head about it, but bad shows suck because, well, they suck, not because they are insufficiently episodic in structure. This is why calls from the critical community, leading many of the fan conversations on these shows, to eschew unified, serialized storytelling in favor of tight arcs and standalone episodes feel like a misdiagnosis. For one thing, they fail to consider that noticeably self-contained installments of series like Game of Thrones and Girls are as memorable as they are precisely because those shows don’t usually work that way.

These claims fall into the same trap of cinematically minded showrunners who insist that “it’s not TV” by agreeing with them, setting up a false dichotomy between what constitutes the proper use of the medium and what doesn’t. In its maturity, television has proven capable of countless things: TV dramas alone can be as densely serialized as The Wire Season 4, as memorably episodic as Mad Men Season 5, as sweeping as Fargo Season 2, and as sensation-driven as Empire Season 1. Sometimes they can be several things at once; Black Mirror, like its groundbreaking antecedent The Twilight Zone, tells a different story with a different set of characters every single episode, making it simultaneously one of the most movie-like and most episodic shows on television. Saying any of these series is closer or farther away from The One True Way to Make TV obscures the fact that there’s no such thing.

In fact, this array of options, this wide-open landscape of different structures and tones and techniques, is the truest indicator that “prestige TV” is not a contradiction in terms. Problems with the execution aside — and problems with the execution is all they really are — television can do whatever you want it to do at this point, and declaring one approach or the other superior is a procrustean blunder — like arguing The Godfather is less great a film because you can break it down like a television series, if you’re feeling particularly perverse (ahem). If that means some showrunners get to declare their series a double-digit-hour movie, so be it. The proof will be in the pudding, or the cannoli. You can have it both ways. Why wouldn’t you want to try?

What was your favorite episode of The Godfather? “Khartoum”? “The Thunderbolt”? The pilot, “I Believe in America”? I presented a modest proposal about a cinematic classic in order to talk about where all the “no, your TV show isn’t a 73-hour movie” structuralist reprimanding gets us for Thrillist.

STC on Inkstuds

October 28, 2016

I’m the guest on the latest episode of the venerable comics podcast Inkstuds, hosted by Robin McConnell. I talk about comics, TV, criticism, my history with all three, the Greatest Graphic Novels list I recently did, goth, the anthology @doopliss and I are doing, and more. Check it out!

How to look at an actor

July 14, 2016

Though I studied film in college, I came to TV criticism through comics criticism. In comics, everything on the page is intentional. Character design, line weight, color, panel size and arrangement, backgrounds, lettering: A human being set all those things to paper. Every aspect of the image is considered, deliberate. (Obviously personal style is not entirely within an artist’s control, but that’s basically how it works.)

So when I started writing about television, I realized my writing was informed by this not just in terms of how I talked about cinematography, editing, and the like, but with regards to the actors. The look of a face, the sound of a voice, the size and movement of the body, physical comportment: I discuss these as the equivalent of line, design, and so on in comics. This has played a major role in how I’ve processed any number of shows; for several (Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey) it may well have been the central thrust of my writing on them. I’m happy with the writing I’ve done driven by this rubric, but the larger point I’d like to make regards thinking about actors visually. Since television and film are visual media, I think this is valid and vital and, if anything, underdone. But there’s a way to do it without objectifying actors, either sexually or as “other,” as several recent high-profile essays on women actors have done.

If you’re a straight man, for example, write about the physicality of men, to whom you’re not sexually attracted. See how it shapes what you say. How Jon Hamm looks, how James Gandolfini sounds when he breathes: These are important aspects of Mad Men and The Sopranos respectively, but not of your sex fantasies. When you write about women actors, you can talk about how they function physically on-screen in the same way—observing, not objectifying. Do this in the context of their work, not how they look eating lunch. Don’t lead with it. If sex/sexuality is part of the role, fine, but try not to sound like you’re sexting or seducing, and talk about their male partners too. Fold your discussion of actors’ physicality into the show or film’s physicality as a whole—wardrobe, set design, sound design, good old-fashioned shot composition.

We need more film/TV writing that’s about more than plot, dialogue, line readings, showbiz talk, and political subtext. Actors are a part of that. We need to write about the appearance of actors, women and men, without it devolving into Penthouse Letters. It can be done!

Art, empathy, and Hal’s Emerald Attack Team

June 11, 2015

mramgine asks: Are you familiar with the controversy surrounding what happened with Green Lantern back in the 90s, where Hal Jordan was turned into a supervillain and fans got so pissed that some sent death threats to DC? Why do you think certain creative decisions in media cause such reactions? Are some of these people mentally disturbed or is there some other reason for such behavior?

I have a grand unifying theory here that I’m keeping my powder dry on unless and until I have the time and inclination and monetary offer to flesh it out, but briefly: For a lot of people, experiencing art is less about seeking empathy with others than seeking reinforcement and comfort for oneself. That sounds harshly pejorative, and I suppose it is pejorative, but it’s certainly understandable given the nightmare hellscape we all live in that people look to fiction for amelioration. As such characters are less important in and of themselves – as potential vectors for information and transformation forged in the space between the artist, the artist’s ideas, the communication of those ideas in the art, the art’s reception by the audience, and the audience’s ideas in turn – and more important as reflections of audience desire. Toys, to be blunt. People don’t like when other people break their toys. Factor in geek culture’s chip-on-its-shoulder sense of entitlement and it’s a recipe for trouble.

The Four Worst Types of TV Critics

April 16, 2015

“People love hearing how right they are.”—Agent Stan Beeman, The Americans

Last year on Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister raped his sister Cersei. At least that’s what he did in the scene I saw. Statements on the matter by actors Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey and director Alex Gravestalked about two people in a deeply dysfunctional relationship having sex they knew they shouldn’t be having, not that one person was refusing to have at all. Co-writer and showrunner David Benioff appeared to disagree in an interview taped prior to the episode’s airing, before adopting total radio silence on the issue. The show’s subsequent handling of the characters, author George R.R. Martin’s comparison of the scene to its equivalent in his original books, and further discussion by the actors provided still more complicated and confounding context. We could perhaps conclude that either through communication breakdowns between the players or a failure of execution to mirror intent, the scene — rooted in complex and destructive sexual dynamics between two habitually secretive and duplicitous characters and interpreted by half a dozen artists each with their own ideas about the event — simply got away from them.

Few of us did. Fans of the books lambasted the scene as yet another horrendous, story-destroying decision by Benioff and his creative partner Dan Weiss, two people frequent treated as singularly unsuited to the task of adaptation. Admirers of Jaime bemoaned the damage done to him by the event at least as much as his sister, the victim. Critics saw the scene as a romanticization of rape, using the show’s long and contentious history with female nudity, sex, and sexual assault to support the argument. And while the wider world focused in the latter of these three critiques, the former two were no less self-assured or severe in their respective corners of the critical firmament.

On one level, the reaction to what happened between the Siblings Lannister in the Great Sept of Baelor is just a standout example of the golden rule of arguing on the Internet: interpret with minimum good faith, attack with maximum rhetorical force. But that rule applies to discussions of everything from politics to fly fishing. In terms of art and art criticism, something else is going on—a phenomenon of which the social-justice framework for criticism is just the most well-publicized, hotly debated embodiment.

The past decade-plus has been a time of dispiriting uncertainty and powerlessness: an era of endless war, economic erosion, class disconnection, and political disillusion. At the same time, our approach to art and entertainment has become all the more unequivocal in its assertions about content and quality. We pore over TV shows for clues about their outcome, which we present with power-point precision. We treat all art like editorial cartoons, interpreting it the way we would a drawing of a fatcat politician holding bulging moneybags in each hand, and accept or reject the story accordingly. We treat the comics and novels that form the basis for our blockbusters as holy writ, we insist that fiction hew inerrantly to the facts that inspired it, and we punish those who stray from the path. We elevate our favorite characters and relationships to the point where the stories they inhabit are mere vehicles to get them to the place we’d like to see them go.

In all four cases—the Theorists, the Activists, the Purists, and the Partisans—we’re treating the inherently subjective fields of art and art criticism as things we can be objectively right about. We’re taking work that’s complex and capable of conveying multiple contradictory meanings and reducing it to a simple either/or, yes/no proposition.

In other words, we’re fucking up.

I wrote about the four worst types of TV critics for the Observer.

TV criticism and crises of confidence

January 27, 2015

I tweeted some thoughts on TV criticism and crises of confidence in light of the medium’s long-term nature. They were brought to you by the news that I’ll be covering The Americans for the New York Observer this season.