Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Some thoughts on television criticism. . .

I promise I won't be long-winded. I really, really promise.

But I'm getting tired of the state of television criticism. There are very few people out there worth reading (if, indeed, there ever were). There's, what?, Dana Stevens over at Slate, Tim Goodman at the San Francisco Chronicle. . .Melanie McFarland up in Seattle is always a nice read. . .

But we just don't have any good TV writers for the most part. And that's because we don't have a real critical apparatus with which to approach the modern, American TV show.

As Americans, we tend to like art forms that emphasize the individual. That's why even in a collective art form like a film or a big building, we look for a person to single out as the one who made it all happen. That's why we so eagerly embrace the auteur theory, even though so few of us actually understand it. (I like the theory but find large bits of it mostly misleading, but that's a topic for another time.)

But we can't find that individual in a TV show. So we unthinkingly condemn it as a "lower" art form, when, in reality, it's just a different art form. Yeah, a ton of TV is crap, but so are a ton of films. And, to be honest, the bad stuff outweighs the good stuff at the bookstore too (though maybe not at the library).

We blindly assign the creator of a TV series with the most responsibility in what makes it good. But what if it's not the creator at all? What if it's another writer or a journeyman director or a cast member who really locks in to what will make the show work?

As an example, J.J. Abrams was a co-creator of Lost. But he hasn't really done as much on the show since the first season. And yet. . .MANY PEOPLE ASSIGN THE REASON FOR THE SHOW'S SUCCESS TO HIM. Because they try hamhandedly to apply the auteur theory to television where it really cannot work. A good TV show is an alchemy of a bunch of things. In many ways, it's an accident.

So, because we can't find that auteur, we decide that the art form is less worthy of our devotion. This leads to things like Television Without Pity (which at least has snappy, funny writing), where shows are deconstructed mainly based on whether they're hip or not. Or the huge glut of people who treat television as mostly a vehicle to show us pretty people night after night.

But it doesn't have to be this way. If we all take the time to learn how television WORKS, we can be better television critics. We can stop judging based solely on plot and learn about how the episodic template can help some shows and hinder others. We can learn how television uses character and theme, even while seeming to be an art form that subverts both.

We can do a lot more.

Because we're not right now. Television is an art form that has so much potential, but it lets itself (and its critics let it) be mostly banal. It hasn't found its Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris (or even its Siskel & Ebert) to make us all start to think about it more critically.

Because everything is changing. And we need to change with it.

I'll write more on this in the future, but this should provide a nice overview for an introductory piece.


Moses said...

I wrote a paper once that touched on a lot of your concerns about the "television auteur." "Twin Peaks" has always been considered David Lynch's baby, but what does that say about co-creator Mark Frost or any of the other people who worked on the show? Lynch's actual imput was very little, but it's considered as much a part of his oeuvre as Blue Velvet or Eraserhead and even more so than The Straight Story and Dune. In the case of "Twin Peaks" not only does the "creator-as-auteur" idea rule, but apparently the film auteur still trumps the television auteur.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

That's a very good point in re: Twin Peaks.

Often, the person who gets praised on a television show is just the person with the biggest name.

It's like how people assume J.J. Abrams will not be able to get control of Tom Cruise, so Cruise will get most of the blame/praise for MI3.