Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Falling in love

I don't know a lot of things about criticism -- I've never been formally trained and most of my writing is just an attempt to ape the writers I really, really like (I was trained in just about every other type of journalistic writing but not this -- go figure that I would pursue it the most wholeheartedly). But I do know that you're not supposed to fall in love. It's okay to hate, to be so much cooler than the material that you can get off smug little quips that prove your intellectual superiority, but you're never, never supposed to collapse over a piece of art that so moves you or so possesses you or so makes you laugh that you are completely beside yourself.

Being a critic is all about being a part of the audience but also being apart from it. Your typical fan at a concert (which I will confess to being, as I have very little critical knowledge of pop music) will simply listen to the hits, gleefully enjoying the experience of hearing them live. Your music critic will sit, hovering above the proceedings, seeing where, exactly, the live versions deviate from the studio versions or plucking out the bad spots and tut-tutting over them.

And that's not a bad thing. That's what it means, in essence, to be a critic. Ideally, our goals enmesh with those of the audience -- we're going to pull what's good and what's bad out of a piece of art and discuss it with our audience, attempt to arrive at a consensus about why, exactly, Faulkner liked man-children so much or why the writers behind How I Met Your Mother are so darn pleased with that weird 20s-patois they've cooked up for their characters to speak in. The best critics get the audience to roll up its sleeves and dig in too, wading through the muck, looking for the pearls (in the age of the Internet, when everyone's a critic, we're getting away from this, but that's also getting away from the purpose of the post).

So what do you do when you fall in love? When you simply have to gush?

When I was reviewing Friday Night Lights, a show I deeply, deeply loved, I ran into this. And I ran into it when I was writing gleanings for How I Met Your Mother and the season review of Veronica Mars. All I wanted to do was grab my audience by the shoulders, shake them and say, "Watch this!" But that would have been unbecoming, naturally.

When you've got to gush, the tendency is to run as far away from it as possible, to nit-pick the tiniest things, even if they're insignificant in the larger picture (which is what I feared I did with my FNL piece).

(Addendum: It's easy to worry that you're being too negative with a show too -- every instinct in my body told me that I was giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to Studio 60, largely based on some snappy dialogue and performances I liked, but I resisted those impulses. I wish I hadn't. Subsequent episodes have revealed that the show's worse nature has overwhelmed its better angels.)

This is all a way of saying that a positive review is much harder to write than a negative one, at least in my experience. There are only so many ways to say, "This is great. You should check it out." There are a million ways to say, "I despised this with every fiber of my being." Since the latter is so much easier, you'll often see critics who heap scorn on a piece of art, only to reward it with two-and-a-half stars or a grade of B- or something -- once you get started rolling downhill, it never changes to stop.

Of course, the downside of falling in love is that you fall out. Lost, for example, is not as bad as its detractors would have you believe -- the simple fact is that it was never as good as any of them believed it was in the first place. After season one, though, it ceased to be new. It was too easy to move on, to find something else to fall in love with. And once the rose-colored glasses were off, the flaws that were always there were easier to spot. "What's next?" we all asked, and we soon realized that very little was next (I don't think it's Heroes -- awesome cliffhangers aside). Just as it's hard to keep the gushing bottled up, it's difficult to register disappointment in a way that still reflects the true nature of what you're disappointed by -- often what disappoints you hasn't changed but, rather, you have -- you've become more knowledgeable or more cultured or more attuned to other parts of yourself. And there's no love lost.

Writing criticism, by its nature, is kind of a curmudgeonly pursuit, but the best critics combat that with a true love for the artform they're covering. In part, I chose to write about television not because it's so much better than film or literature (it simply doesn't have the history to compete with either) but because I'm in love with the potential of television, with its promise of old stories told in a new and exciting way. And when I see a shining emblem of that, it's tempting to leap into space, to declare my love.

But, instead, I'll tiptoe out to the edge of the roof and peer down over the edge and call to whoever's walking below, advising them to keep their eyes open.

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