Reviewers just happy to be noticed
Even Spider-Man, in his latest movie adventure, laments how cruel critics can be. Imagine how mere mortals with nothing superhuman about them — except perhaps their egos — must feel.There’s a nice illustration of that in the next episode of HBO’s “Entourage,” as Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) marches into Variety and tells the paper’s TV critic to go screw himself. The producers staged the sequence in our palatial offices, and in their continuing quest for authenticity they’ll return to shoot another scene this week. As journalists, we know how those in Hollywood’s power positions look to us, but it’s always hilarious to see how we appear to them — since even when movies and TV programs trash journalists, they invariably depict our jobs as being far more glamorous than they really are. Historically, portrayals of reporters range from foolhardy Lois Lane risking death pursuing stories to Sally Field’s unethical scribe in “Absence of Malice.” As for critics, our lot is best exemplified by M. Night Shyamalan’s preemptive strike in “Lady in the Water,” turning a supercilious prig into monster food. These days, however, critics are grateful even when presented as objects of derision, amid a run of review-proof projects that have inspired some to label us irrelevant at best and at worst obsolete. Look no further than the tepid critical response to “Spider-Man 3,” which of course did nothing to blunt its staggering debut. In that context, it’s flattering people care enough to take umbrage when so much of what succeeds proves impervious to critics’ disapproval. Then again, even filmmakers normally lavished with praise — such as “The Sopranos” creator David Chase — often profess to avoid the corrosive, corrupting influence of media analysis. “I try not to read that stuff, as much as I can,” Chase says in the current Written By, the Writers Guild’s magazine. “I try not to read reviews.” (Given the grumbling about the latest batch of “Sopranos” episodes, this approach sounds increasingly prudent.) Small wonder critics relish any indication that our work has struck a nerve — whether the feedback comes via protests about our heartlessness or producers indulging in little revenge fantasies. The ABC pilot “Women’s Murder Club,” for example, killed off someone named “Brian Lowry” in an early draft of the script. The name was subsequently changed, but unlike the FCC, televised violence generally doesn’t upset critics even when we’re the (fictional) victims. Because the glitz-filled “Entourage” has a certain hipster image to uphold, the producers populated the newsroom with extras, ensuring that Fake Variety’s staff was more attractive, stylish and younger than Real Variety. A few of us actual journalists observing this alternate reality felt a bit like Woody Allen in “Stardust Memories,” wondering how we wound up on the ugly train. In the scene, Drama — so vulnerable the possibility of negative reviews causes near-paralysis — bursts in and berates the critic as a “sad little fat hack fuck.” Technically, just two of those adjectives are accurate. Variety‘s Fake TV Critic dresses shabbily and wears glasses denoting years of solitary TV viewing (definitely true), eats lunch at his desk (occasionally true), acts unfazed by someone barging in to personally lambaste him (mercifully untrue) and has his own assistant (so untrue the Real Critic is still laughing his ass off). The truth is people seldom complain, although email does allow for the occasional knee-jerk “You killed Kenny! You bastard!” response. A particular favorite came last season from a producer advancing the “Those who can’t do, review” theory, who wrote, “I’m asking this question in all seriousness: Did you actually aspire to be a television critic as a young man, or did you stumble upon it to pay the bills? The reason I ask is because your review of our show seemed vindictive for no particular reason, and it naturally led me to assume that you are frustrated about failures outside of your current position.” (By the way, the series got canceled.) Anyway, there’s plenty of excitement around Variety about “Entourage’s” encore, perhaps because it’s so nice to see the place temporarily adorned in prom-night finery — even if it’s as realistic as a newspaper, circa 2007, whose budget provides an assistant for critics.
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