Traditionalists blame the Web's influence

All the talk about incivility in politics brought to mind a periodic complaint registered by those in entertainment — namely, that critics have become less civil, and sometimes outright mean-spirited, in their reviews.

The initial reaction from this critic to such complaints is either to attribute them to the thin-skinned nature of those in the arts or, conversely, harsher rhetoric cultivated by the Web.

In space, to quote “Alien,” no one can hear you scream. On the Internet, it’s often difficult to get noticed without raising one’s voice, which can motivate critics to be more vicious — or effusive. In such an environment, nuance is an early casualty.

Yet have reviews (not just mine) truly become bitchier? Seeking second and third opinions from those whose observations I have long admired brought me to twin titans of TV criticism in its heyday, both Pulitzer Prize winners: Howard Rosenberg, formerly with the Los Angeles Times; and Tom Shales, who recently closed a nearly four-decade stint at the Washington Post.

For his part, Shales lays the blame pretty squarely on Web culture. “If reviews are bitchier now, it’s because of the Internet and all the amateurs who are reviewing movies and TV,” he said via email.

“They don’t have training, they don’t have standards. … Old-fashioned virtues like ‘literate,’ ‘thoughtful,’ ‘witty,’ ‘clever,’ those kinds of things are no longer reached for.” With some online opinions, he added, “It’s just conversation; it’s not writing, and it’s not criticism.”

For his part, Rosenberg is more sanguine about the state of criticism. The critics he reads — who, he admits, tend to populate traditional journalistic bastions — don’t seem any nastier than in the past, when someone like Pauline Kael could be “brutal.”

“People have not changed, there’s just so much more media now that it’s amplified,” he said, adding that those primarily working online “kick more butt because it’s their nature.”

Regarding his own work, Rosenberg, who teaches criticism at USC, added, “Personally, I tried never to be nasty,” though he acknowledged that trying to keep pace with the sheer volume of original programming now can fray one’s nerves.

Like many weaned in print, Shales sees a values divide — one that also came into focus for me during the recent Television Critics Assn. press tour, where many “reporters” sounded like star-gazing fans. That attitude reflects what Shales rightly characterized as a push toward “pap about ‘celebrities’ — gossipy crap that really has nothing to do with criticism.”

At the same time, he maintains, Web denizens are “more likely to deploy the quick insult, the jokey broadside, and the sarcasm they call ‘irony.'”

Actually, I’d add a final point to explain some of the perceived tartness in modern criticism, separate from what’s already been cited — namely, that executives and producers, eager to generate attention, frequently stick their chins out tacitly asking to get punched.

This has become especially true — indeed, in ways a defining element — of reality TV, where outlandish concepts, from hits like “Jersey Shore” to afterthoughts like ABC’s “Conveyer Belt of Love,” are the programming equivalent of pinatas, hung out to be whacked around.

Even in the scripted universe, there’s incentive to provoke, since a passionate response — or condemnation from the Parents Television Council — is preferable to a blase one. Hence eye-catching titles like “(Bleep) My Dad Says,” envelope-pushing exercises like MTV’s “Skins,” even Ricky Gervais’ insult-the-room approach to hosting Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards.

After the recent shootings in Tucson, L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten dubbed the Internet “a great enabler of incivility,” allowing “anonymous or pseudonymous expression of the most violent or hurtful opinions.” He wasn’t discussing showbiz, but scan message boards or comment sections on the usual websites and he could have been. (Granted, some vitriol doubtless reflects the adage that in Hollywood, people don’t just want to succeed but also root for others to fail.)

Thrown into a blender, it’s not hard to surmise criticism has grown coarser, more unfeeling, designed more to wound (or flatter) than enlighten.

Frankly, though, Rosenberg’s and Shales’ thoughts highlight a more complicated reality. But then, who’s going to link to a piece whose shades-of-gray conclusions are so wishy-washy?

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?

Email brian.lowry@variety.com

Want Entertainment News First? Sign up for Variety Alerts and Newsletters!
Post A Comment 0