"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 March 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Video Toast


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Five years ago today in Suck.

As the Taliban's exercise in gonzo art criticism gets panned by reviewers around the world, it's important not to lose sight of the silver lining: If nothing else, the destruction of the mammoth, 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan provides a vivid example for popular critics to follow in breaking out of their own state of feckless, cheers-n-jeers impotence.

Among the many guardians of public trust whose elite status has dwindled in modern times — from Reverend to Rabbi to Representative — few find themselves in more general disapprobation than critics of all kinds. The tension between centralized hype and unlicensed "irreverence" has always been a fight as fixed and symbiotic as the WWF, but as both forces gather strength in the age of filtered collaboration, they threaten the always-tenuous livelihood of anybody who gets paid to issue opinions. For the ambitious critic, the neglect has got to hurt: The delightful satire you praised without reservation still closed on Saturday night. Your rave writeup of the pancetta wrapped tuna died unread on some inner page of the D section. Worse still are the ineffective pans: If shameless, Rogainless hack Ron Howard proved anything with his creepy Christmas cowpie How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it's that you can make an enemy of every critic on the planet and still earn a quarter of a billion dollars before the vacation ends.

But of all these lost tribes of Longinus, the most widely reviled — lower on the scale of public relevance than perhaps even rock critics — are the poor saps who write about television. Maybe the leading indicator of TV critics' powerlessness is their failure, after several decades of defiant apologias like David Bianculli's Teleliteracy, or brilliant close readings like Mark Crispin Miller's Boxed In, to end fundamentalist attacks on their own medium. Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil can cite only Shariah and "common sense" in support of Taliban iconoclasm, but according to Jerry Mander there are at least four arguments for the elimination of television. From the negative notices of The Plug-In Drug author Marie Winn ("at best irrelevant and at worst detrimental" and "a universal source of parental anxiety") to the continuing life of National TV Turnoff Week (scheduled to explode capitalist domination in the last week of April), the contempt is so general, so venerable, that even the defenders frequently join the attack, as when the fancy-pants TV critic Ron Powers calls the medium "the god-damned American id made manifest, an image that terrifies me more than a little" in his book The Beast, the Eunuch and the Glass-Eyed Child.

Oddly, given television's supposed strength as a financial driver, the strongest argument against TV critics — and the one most frequently used by editors looking to deny them news-hole real estate — is an economic one. Unlike critics of movies, theater, cuisine, or even paintings, TV writers don't influence anybody's spending habits. Thus they are less of a draw for advertisers, and less attractive to their own papers. It may be in partial reaction to this that critics give such inordinate attention to HBO and its C-SPAN-level viewership. Certainly, no argument from numbers alone can justify the number of column inches devoted to the good (The Sopranos) the bad (Oz) and the ugly (Sex and the City) of that premium cable channel. Helping out with the Sopranos season premiere allows critics to reward a freespending advertiser, justify their jobs with a rare piece of TV art, and add fuel to a hype machine so forceful and inescapable it makes you secretly wish the show would suck.

Small wonder, then, that so many critics of the tube retreat into a kind of sybaritic shell, foiling deadlines with "hated it"-style one-shots and random thoughts flapdoodle, milking the annual press junket at the Pasadena Ritz Carlton for all the puff interviews and Kevin Sorbo photo opps they can manage, penning jeremiads against the benighted Nielsen schmucks who ignored critics' recommendations for Freaks and Geeks.

But there may yet be hope to turn around those poor ratings for TV critics. Or at least, to get them back some of the props given to reviewers of media that are, in the long run, far more marginal. Where more celebrated critics cover media that attract audiences into the dozens, the hundreds, or the thousands, TV reviewers truly deliver the world. Put another way, more people see an average episode of JAG than see a $100 million-grossing movie, and that fact has proved remarkably resistant to the encroachments of wireless communication, the Web, and Infinity Outdoor. Anybody who attempts to make sense of a universe that vast deserves our sympathy, if not our praise.

An even stronger argument for TV critics comes not from total numbers, but from the breakdown of numbers — specifically, to the fragmentation of audiences among hundreds of niche demographics. Beginning two decades ago, with the stumbling success of Hill Street Blues (a show whose many virtues are almost entirely invisible to a contemporary viewer), the networks began to see the wisdom of bypassing broad-front audience assaults in favor of smart bombing of those well-heeled audience particles who, among other things, are likely to read newspapers and the reviews therein. This macro trend — culminating in the late nineties with the meteoric and ultimately tragic career of yuppie TV patron saint Jamie Tarses — may bother faux populists who lament any signs of fragmentation in the American populace, but it has certainly empowered TV critics. What else but critical consensus could have rescued the poorly performing Everybody Loves Raymond, a program this reporter wasn't even aware was shown anywhere except on airplanes? Critics lamented the drawn-out death of the laughtrackless (and laughless) Sports Night, but without the support of the critics themselves it's unlikely such Nielsen poison could even have limped into its second season. As our own small-screen Talibans continue to hope future Survivors will reunify audiences in classless orthodoxy, the lowly critic knows that fragmentation is power.

Finally, there's the question of the uselessness of TV critics. On this point, the critics, whose job description to a large extent involves describing to us things that we've already seen, would appear most vulnerable. But consider the degree to which we (at least we in the preferred demographics) live in the era of No Free Time, telecommuting, spending off-hours on career-oriented socializing, and taking on freelance assignments to the point where we really can declare that time is money. How much does it cost you, really, to watch an hour of TV — an hour that you could have spent taking work away from somebody else, kissing your boss's ass, doing some other lucrative task? If multi-starred movie picks, or the even more dubious "What's on the Web" guides, can qualify as service journalism, what debt do we owe to the writers who deliver us from wasted appointment viewing?

That's why we'll continue to support our local TV critics, guffaw right along with their assorted brain farts, and be grateful for their misguidance, even as the mullahs of American civilization seek to topple these giants of popular culture.

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courtesy of Addison DeWit


pictures Terry Colon

Addison DeWit

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