Lowry explains the nuts n' bolts of TV reviews
The deluge of new primetime series is beginning, with the major networks set to introduce 15 programs next week alone. And no, I haven’t turned into a blithering idiot yet, though we’re getting dangerously close.
For those waiting to see how the critics react (and let’s hope nobody’s losing sleep), it seemed like an opportune time to explain a bit about this process, and the ways in which Variety differs from other outlets.
Admittedly, pausing to discuss criticism risks looking self-aggrandizing, but I’ll endure those charges — mostly because it’s always surprising how little understanding exists regarding how critics operate. Indeed, even veteran producers and execs — people who theoretically ought to know better — can still harbor gross misconceptions.
Examples include the producer who blogged about settling his beef over a negative review with a baseball bat (for which he later apologized), the showrunner who insisted my pan of his show was “vindictive for no particular reason” and the former network executives who only seemed to agree upon their mutual conviction that every discouraging word represented a personal vendetta.
Finally, there’s the “Entourage” gang, which amusingly indulged in an episode where a character strolled into Variety’s office to tell its squirrelly-looking TV critic to piss off.
The overriding theme is the assumption that one person’s opinion must be tethered to some nefarious or ulterior motive — or, conversely represents a life-long pledge of loyalty and admiration.
Neither is true. Like the fine print in banking ads, past performance is no guarantee of future success. Through the years nobody has provided me more hours of TV viewing pleasure than David Milch and Steven Bochco, and I confess to liking both personally. Yet that didn’t stop me from blasting the former’s “John From Cincinnati” and bemoaning the latter’s “Raising the Bar.”
However self-indulgent it may seem, then, let’s set the record straight on a few things before the fall onslaught is unleashed.
For starters, I tend to err on the side of caution when praising pilots. This is in part because I’ve been burned too often by shows that started well — frontloading all the good stuff — and then fizzled.
So you might see a lot of hedging words like “promising,” “potential” or “initially,” because A) I have a limited vocabulary; and B) despite growing pressure to issue thunderous verdicts (tallying web traffic can heighten the impulse to swing for the rhetorical fences), a pilot is only a promise of what’s to come.
Last fall, my positive “Modern Family” review would have been much more unqualified by midseason, for example, while “FlashForward” had already squandered virtually all its goodwill before Halloween. In such matters, declaring victory prematurely is frequently a bad idea.
A disclaimer would be when I’ve seen multiple episodes, like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (the first six) or FX’s “Terriers” (five). After screening that many there’s at least a sense the producers know where they’re heading — and even then, there are exceptions: “Heroes” rapidly descended from anticipation into tedium, “Dexter” won me over, and I still haven’t been able to entirely make up my mind about AMC’s “Rubicon” after eight episodes.
On the flip side, if a pilot is truly awful, that’s a very bad sign. Yes, shows can improve, but when the prototype that sold your show stinks — the one you had months to craft and nurture — it’s difficult to recover from that creatively.
Because Variety is a trade paper, I also try to step outside myself long enough to venture some analysis (more like an educated guess) as to how well these programs will perform, regardless of how I might feel about them. Those assessments are based on time period, network and history, along with intangible factors.
Finally, I realize programs represent people’s livelihoods and never take those efforts lightly. A lot of blood, toil and sweat go into producing these shows, and while I might occasionally be flippant in writing about them (a good review should entertain as well as inform), it’s possible to be tough without being mean-spirited, provided the views expressed are fair and honest.
So if by chance I call your baby ugly, rest assured, it’s nothing personal. As they used to say on “Ally McBeal,” “Bygones.”