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Something Rotten in the State of Criticism

“Tis hard to say if greater want of skill,

Appear in writing or judging ill,

But of the two, less dangerous is the offense,

To tire our patience than mislead our sense.”

– Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1711

I’ve spent countless hours reading lazy, shallow, repetitive criticism of film and television online. For the last week, I purposefully avoided all critics in anticipation of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” I deleted social media apps from my phone, blocked popular culture websites, avoided aggregators like burning sulfur.

I saw Episode IX. I quite enjoyed Episode IX. Then, having no need to avoid the critical “conversation,” I ended my embargo and found a “conversation” that I had no interest in joining. It was the same conversation that praised David Simon’s dumpster fire “The Deuce” and awarded the three worst seasons of Game of Thrones with the Emmy for best drama series. The same conversation that told fans that hated Star Wars: The Last Jedi that their opinions were wrong, and the critics knew best. It’s the same conversation that recognizes movies as “films of the decade” that weren’t well reviewed or widely seen at the time.

The state of film and television criticism has descended into a culture of mindless aggregators, shallow hot takes, and a devaluation of successful storytelling tropes in favor of what’s new and shiny. However, I outlined three very different points of contention above, so I’m going to give each one its space.

1. Against Aggregators

Aggregators offer quick, ultimately meaningless data points for whether or not a movie is “good” or whether the intended audience will actually enjoy the film.

For example, the Rotten Tomatoes score for the classic, original Anchorman (66%) is lower than its pointless sequel Anchorman 2 (75%). Star Trek: Into Darkness (84%) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (87%) have similar scores, even though the former is a far inferior remake of the latter. The viewer scores for Star Wars Episodes 8 (43%) and 9 (86%) are the opposite of the critical scores (91% and 57% respectively), demonstrating an extreme disconnect between reviewers and audiences. Did I cherry-pick these examples? Of course. Are they the only examples? Hardly.

An aggregation of reviews diminishes the value each individual review, while providing an ultimately useless number that may or may not reflect the actual quality of the film. Aggregators give the appearance of advice, while, in fact, providing very little useful information.

2. Against Recapping

I admit, I used to love episode by episode recaps. About ten years ago, this format greatly contributed to the conception of a “golden age” of television. I’m not disputing that. What I take issue with is not what recapping was, but what recapping has become.

In a rush to be the quickest to publish, episode recaps have become sloppily written, and at worst, lazy descriptions of what went on in the episode that add nothing of value.

Recaps can also mislead about the quality of a show. Take for example HBO’s “The Deuce.” The Deuce was an unfocused endeavor that spent too much time on too many boring characters. David Simon and George Pelacanos intricately recreated a setting no one wanted to revisit, to tell a story no one asked for. However, if you didn’t actually watch the show and just read the episode by episode recaps, you’d think it was phenomenal. In a rush to publish, it was faster and easier to simply praise a show created by previously successful producers than to question the show’s quality.

3. Against Challenging Successful Tropes Just for the Sake of Challenging Successful Tropes

On the one hand, I get it. We can’t forever keep calling back to the same properties that were popular in the 1980’s, can we? There certainly have been lazy, unnecessary remakes. I argue, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to give fans of a property something they’d enjoy or calling back to an earlier film that worked well.

I enjoy Star Wars, The Last Jedi, and so did critics. The latter mainly did so because the film challenged established Star Wars tropes and answered the questions posed by Episode 7 in unique ways. I’m always captivated by the film’s images while I’m watching it, but I admit that its story is a house of cards.

Many, many people did not enjoy The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson challenged established Star Wars tropes, but never asked whether those tropes needed challenging.

Successful tropes are successful for a reason, and this is nothing unique to Star Wars. After all, one of the main sources of Star Wars is Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” which is entirely about the common themes that exist between popular myths throughout human history. Sometimes challenging those tropes in popular media is simply unnecessary.

As for nostalgia – the greatest advantage of film as an art-form is its ability to create an emotional response in the audience. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. There is nothing inherently wrong with using it to tell a story.

Conclusion

I’m done with aggregators and re-caps. I’m also done with this idea that using nostalgia and fan service are automatically negative things. More on Star Wars, Episode 9 later.

(C) D.G. McCabe