A Good Reminder for Critics and Those Criticized

Last night I participated in an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences panel, moderated by my colleague Cynthia Littleton and featuring three of my favorite critics: USA Today’s Robert Bianco, the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman and TV Guide’s Matt Roush.

At one point the conversation turned to advice for producers, and it was suggested they shouldn’t take criticism of their programs personally. When confronted by an agent regarding why he was critical of a client’s work, Roush said he responded the guy’s crime was being “in television.” In other words, you produce TV, and I review it. It’s no more personal than a lion hunting a wildebeest. Just part of the food system.

Wise words. It’s never personal, or at least shouldn’t be. I’ve had producers and executives convinced I had vendettas against them, only to discover I don’t when they put on a show I respond to favorably. In similar fashion, producers I’ve admired for years have put on programs I panned.

The New York Times magazine just featured an essay by Dwight Garner, in which he discussed criticism in the context of disappearing book-review sections. In the broad strokes, though, his piece — and particularly this part of it — could have easily applied to reviewing any form of the arts:

The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

Two more small points on this. First, people often say a certain critic is “mean” or overly harsh. But without imposing some kind of standards positive reviews tend to be meaningless. There’s nothing worse than finding out a critic loves your show or movie, and then reading his or her rave about something you think is completely awful.

Second, everyone’s a critic in their own way (what could be more subjective?), and  it’s hilarious how people who are often most sensitive about negative appraisals of their own work, once drawn into conversation, can be positively brutal in assessing that of others.

Nobody sits down wanting to hate something. That said, in the modern age –- where networks often send out multiple episodes of shows — it’s easier to become testy. Although the first couple of episodes of “Scandal” cemented my opinion, I confess to growing a trifle irritated ABC sent out all seven before the show made its debut, which felt more punishing than enlightening.

Admittedly, negative reviews can be more fun to write, though sometimes that amounts to rewarding oneself for having survived the screening process.

Either way, think of critics as the Mob. It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

UPDATE: David Bushman of the Paley Center posts an excellent comment about critics posturing or overstating their case, mostly to get noticed in the web culture. I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I’ve written in the past about how the web — and the pursuit of traffic — tends to reward hyperbole.

That said, I think it’s something the better critics, and certainly the ones who I was sitting alongside on Monday night, generally resist. But obviously, the points I outlined above refer primarily to the way things should be, and not necessarily the way they always are.

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