Uncritical Self-Criticism, Or a Teachable Moment


navel gazing

I posted about a flop show from the ’60s below, and an anonymous (but not particularly shy) commenter wrote:

Oh look…another uncommented post by Jaime Weinman, the most uncritical television critic in the entire World. What crap are you flogging this time, Jaime? A failed spin-off?

Now, the presence or absence of lots of comments on a post doesn’t, in and of itself, tell you how interesting or uninteresting it is. Bill Brioux has a very fine TV blog and he doesn’t get nearly enough comments on his posts.  And I almost appreciate the “most uncritical” tag because I was worried I was being too critical in some of my most recent posts.

But the commenter raises a legitimate point, or I think he does. I don’t agree with the point he makes, but I wanted to bring it up. There is a point at which writing about a crappy show, or crappy anything, comes off as almost an endorsement. If I write at length about a bad show, and talk about in terms of what it says about the culture of the time and the influence of certain shows and even mention some good things about it (i.e. The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was a poor show but the lead role was well-cast), then after a point it seems like I’m legitimizing the bad stuff, or at least implying that a show doesn’t need to be good to be of interest. There’s a reason why critics normally write much more about good stuff than bad stuff: because all bad things are alike, and there’s not much to say about them other than that they’re bad.

Also, over-interest in flops, kitsch, bad shows, can create a pattern by which, perversely, the writer seems to be more hostile to quality shows that don’t quite work than to out-and-out rotten shows. A pattern I detect in my posts is that I can get very critical when talking about shows that don’t live up to their pretensions, like Hung, which wants to say something big about our society but doesn’t, or Family Guy, which mistakenly thinks it’s being transgressive. Whereas a show with nothing going for it, like Criminal Minds, gets off scot-free because I don’t find it interesting enough to rant about. And bad shows from the past are just historical artifacts, and I spend more time looking at them in historical context or firing off trivia about them than in chastising them for their badness.

And of course, give me something genuinely awful and shoddy and full of contempt for its audience, and I’ll start looking at the historical reasons why it was awful and shoddy, and what its particular kind of awfulness says about that particular moment in time. In my post about why Hotel was worse than any show could be today, I was genuinely interested in and analytical of its total terribleness. Whereas a bad show today would be something like, yes, Criminal Minds or current-day Smallville — but since it’s not ludicrously inept enough (getting there), I don’t know what to say about it except that it’s not good.

Maybe in 10 years I’ll have a better idea of how the bad shows of today reflect the TV culture in which they exist, and then I’ll have more to say about them. For now, though, there is this strange thing: bad shows from the past are interesting, not so much for themselves, but for what they say about the time. So the reason I posted about The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., apart from the obvious need to fill time over the weekend, was to share some thoughts about certain points of development in U.S. TV: the networks’ inept struggles to create a female action character, their jumping on the bandwagon created by fads like Batman, the rush to do a cash-in loose spinoff. All of these things are still relevant today, especially the spinoff thing; hell, CBS has built its entire programming strategy on spinoffs that are basically the modern equivalent of the Girl From U.N.C.L.E. strategy, albeit more successful.

That’s one reason I think it’s OK to talk about bad shows, or shows I like but don’t consider great (which takes up a fair amount of posting time). Another reason is that all bad things are not alike; there’s often something to learn from each one, about how not to do things, or what went wrong, or what more successful projects took from this flop. See Nathan Rabin’s deservedly acclaimed “My Year of Flops” series for an example of how to do that with regard to movies. And pretty soon he promises to bring us a MYOF entry on Skidoo, one of the worst movies of the ’60s, and one of the most interesting.  Terrible and interesting are often surprisingly compatible.

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Uncritical Self-Criticism, Or a Teachable Moment

  1. I've culled the TV critics I read regularly from my RSS/Twitter because I was getting a steady stream of very similar opinions – Friday Night Lights/Mad Men will cure cancer, snobbishness about shows people actually watch. (I still get that steady stream, but from slightly fewer places now.) I could never get rid of this blog because you're one of the few critics who writes about shows in a way that doesn't tell me whether I "should" watch a show – I can decide that for myself – but gives the kind of analysis of shows and their context and history that I would never, ever have thought of myself, and that makes me think about television – not just a certain show – in a different way. You're far from being uncritical, and far from seeming to endorse bad shows – you nailed it in saying that what you do is reflect the TV culture in which shows exist, and that's exactly why this is one of my favourite TV blogs. Even if I'm usually too lazy to comment.

  2. I think its also cathartic to exhume the curious and failed shows of the past in a sense – when we identify ourselves or our appreciation for something that is out of the considered centre of popularity (not that there aren't any failed and curious delinquents in the centre) it is saying something about us. While nearly everything that could be said about Get Smart has been said,while the similar roots but absolute commercial failure of When Things Were Rotten remains unmined.
    And that many of your posts are about nostalgia, the open-ended invitation is to either join you down in the well of fuzzy navel gazing about things we recall, or scratch our head wondering 'What the hell did he see in that?'
    Either works for me.

  3. I read your column on a regular basis because I believe you lean towards the side of TV Historian-Sociologist than critic. If I want a critic, I'll read People Magazine, but I don't because I appreciate the knowledge you share in your posts.

  4. To be completely honest, I think your columns would be better if they were shorter, more acerbic, and less random. Otherwise, not a bad read.

  5. I read your posts every day. I think for me, the difference between what you write and what some of the other 'more critical' blogs write is kind of the difference between a debate and a discussion. When I read your post, I feel more like we're having a good discussion about tv on the whole, rather than the other critics who just tell me what to think.

  6. No comment.

  7. I enjoy your blog too. And often I don't comment because I am considering your points, and maybe don't have a lot to say about it myself. You give really interesting perspective that I don't think most of us consider when watching tv. Thanks and keep it up.

  8. The mean poster could have meant critical in the sense of important.

    I read most of what you put up here, although that is true of most Macleans writers. I think sometimes you focus on a phenomenon or tic or practice that is a little too small to carry its own column, and it might be better to briefly mention it in another post instead.

    I think your low comment count is because it's mainly a political website and not a place people come to read about TV.

    • Also, there's very little to debate. Weinman does his research, at least to a depth that's further than I'm willing to go about the subject, generally. So rather than waste people's time with a "Uh-huh. I agree completely" I just let it go uncommented.

      • Same here. I've never thought about the history, evolution and 'meta trends' of television enough to feel like I have anything to say of worth, but I always read your posts. Like BrainDrain XP above, I've never seen you as cheering for shows so much as documenting the context and cultural arcs they inhabit.

        A lot of my friends – and I'm probably guilty of this myself from time to time – tend to downplay the extent to which they watch TV and enjoy it, and treat anyone who celebrates it as somehow lacking. I think many of us have an ambiguous relationship with the medium, and that might result in fewer comments. I have certain shows I love to watch and many that are touchstones to my youth. but at the same there's moments when I'd like to toss the damn thing out the window for being such a time waster. (When I could be wasting my time here, instead. lol).

        I wonder if there's any parallels to writing about television and the earliest rock and roll journalists. I bet they had to struggle with some of the same things.

  9. See? I managed to shake things up. You're welcome.

    Sorry for being mean…I've got 300 channels and there was absolutely nothing worth yesterday evening. I had to read a book!

    • Sorry for being mean…I’ve got 300 channels and there was absolutely nothing worth yesterday evening. I had to read a book!

      I myself have been reading “He Knew He Was Right,” by Anthony Trollope. This “novel” thing is great — it’s like serialized TV without the headache-inducing editing!

      • Oh, if you keep reading novels it won't be long until you come across some headache-inducing editing.

        Anyway, add me to the chorus of people who read you regularly but apparently only comment on your posts when we feel like you're under attack.

  10. I read all your posts. Rarely comment because, well, I don't find TV very interesting.
    But I usually find your posts about it interesting. Funny,that.

    • There's a guy who comes on CBC Radio One for the mid day call in, once per month. His name is Steve Brannan, I think – he's an appliance repairman, and is so bloody enthusiastic and knowledgable that I try to listen whenever he's on. I don't really care about Ann fom Timmins' washing machine that's making a funny clunk noise, but the fellow is so engaging I listen closely.

      Interesting smart people are compelling, regardless of the topic – I find.

      • agreed Sean, esp. when they are passionate.

      • agreed Sean, esp. when they are passionate about what they do.

  11. p.s.: one thing I really like about your writing (among many things) is your knowledge of the technical, production, financial/pragmatic dimensions of television. It's easy forget that there's constraints to every project, and I always find your explorations of those interesting.

  12. I'm another frequent reader who enjoys, but rarely comments.

  13. First off, this blog is by far the most researched and thorough source of television analysis I've found, and the sheer amount I've learned from it over the past few years is kind of insane – so, on that front, I don't think there's a concern about whether the site's critical apparatus is misplaced in being either too critical, too uncritical, or too nostalgic.

    Second, as someone else who gets very few comments, I like to think that it's about adding a new perspective more than necessarily creating a discussion in this space: I can't count how many TV theme songs you've gotten stuck in my head, or how many times I've found articles here or elsewhere that get worked into Twitter conversations or elsewhere. Things spread beyond the confines of the blog, and that's part of the fun of the interwebs.

    As for being critical of bad shows, or writing more about good ones, I think every critic is guilty of this – I tend to treat Entourage like it's more serious than it is because I think it has the potential to be a better show than it is and can't seem to stop writing about this fact. I think there's nothing wrong with that, at the end of the day, as long as critics are self-aware (as you clearly are) and not delusional about the nature of their critical apparatus.