Posted by: wolferiver | December 27, 2006

I HATE This Sort Of Half-Baked Criticism

Last night I read yet another opinion on television shows, this time on the Huffington Post. What is it about people who suppose that their opinions on shows must be the true one, and must be proclaimed for all to see? Chris Kelly may be a television writer, but that doesn’t qualify him as a critic, despite what he thinks of himself.

In his post, Kelly in effect announces that Studio 60 is utterly humorless crap, worth nothing when compared to the ne plus ultra of television shows that is Battlestar Galactica. He mocks Studio 60 for having characters make jokes about William Congreve. (There, I’ve included a link to the playwright for people who have never heard of him.) Real people, he says, don’t talk like that.

The truth about “real people” is that there’s an awful lot of them, and they come in all different kinds. SOME Real People, the ones who, say, have a liberal arts background that included attention to past playwrights, and who now work in the theatrical arts field, would indeed have conversations like that. Musicians make obscure “in” jokes to each other about musical matters, as do professionals in all sorts of fields. Why, I bet even plumbers and football players make jokes to each other that only their colleagues or other people in their field would understand or “get”.

He further ranted that Studio 60 was utterly unfunny. Of course, one can only respond to that by pointing out that this show is not actually a comedy, but rather a drama. It mimics real life by showing characters bantering with each other, just as Real People do in Real Life. If he doesn’t “get” their jokes, then it’s not necessarily because they’re not funny; plenty of people watch the show and enjoy the jokes. They’re just jokes that go over his head. I find it ironic that he complains about the supposed humorlessness of this show, and then holds up Battlestar Galactica as an example of a really good show. Even fans of BSG concede that it is a show that’s nearly devoid of humor and mirth. Chris Kelly must be the sort of critic who thinks that True Humor consists only of broad jokes, and that humor doesn’t belong on Serious Drama.

Not everyone has to like a show such as Studio 60, but I would expect a dramatic arts critic to at least understand their topic before presenting to us an opinion. The best critics really do know what they’re talking about. They know what constitutes good writing (and why), the difference between good and poor production values, and can take in everything that is presented on the screen or stage. (I am often astounded by how much people don’t see in any given scene in a movie or tv show.) A good critic sees the nuance, the subtext, the symbolism, everything that’s in the frame, the lighting, the background set, the camera angle, and even the anachronistic zippers on a period piece costume.

A good critic has the depth and experience to discern the difference between what is trite and what is truth, and whether a production’s weaknesses are due to writing, acting, editing, or cinematography, and to what degree. They also know the extent to which suspension of disbelief can reasonably be carried before it collapses under the weight of too many anachronisms and inconsistencies. Beyond that, they have to ability to explain these things about their subject in ways that are insightful and instructive, without being condescending, and without resorting to truisms such as “this was a piece of crap” or “this is the best ever”.

When Chris Kelly writes:

“I’m glad I don’t like it, because if I did I’d watch it, and I can’t stand that crap.”

one really wonders at his education level. Did he just say the equivalent of “I don’t like XX but if I did watch XX I wouldn’t like it”? Wow. That’s so deep that it could’ve come from Kung Fu.

The best critics also bring either a universal enthusiasm to all genres and types of fare that might be put in front of them, or a dispassionate distance so that they approach all material as if on a level playing field. They don’t have an ax to grind, or a chip on their shoulder about something or someone, or other baggage that they’re carrying, all of which only gets in their way of seeing what is actually playing out before them. The wisest critics also approach their subject with a certain amount of sympathy. They know that it takes just as much effort to write a bad play as it does to write a good one, or to make a bad production as it does to make a good one.

It is in this passage that Chris Kelly shows off his ignorance to the utmost:

“On quality dramas, fact/correction is used less often for plot and more often to show that the writer knows a few things.

“I can’t do a brain transplant without lights! I feel like I’m operating in a Rembrandt!”

“Actually, what Rembrandt painted was an anatomy lesson and… dammit, we’re losing him! Suction!”

Is this an exchange two humans would ever have? If a person knew enough to make a reference to The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp shouldn’t he also know it depicted an anatomy lesson? And what will happen to poor Brock? Don’t ask. The point is, you’re watching some pretty classy television. May we interest you in a Lexus?”

Actually, the real question is whether or not this made up bit of example dialog would ever make it out of the writers’ room. It is possible that Real People, under the right circumstances, would say something similar, but those lines scream out for further polishing. Rembrandt’s painting of the anatomy lesson actually depicts the lesson being given by way of an operation on a body. (True, it’s on a dead body, so it’s more like a dissection of a cadaver, but it’s still an operation. Check it out for yourselves here.) This only points out the weakness in the second line, which is why a really smart writer (or at least, a really smart head writer) wouldn’t leave it as is. The problem with this line isn’t that it’s “too smart”, but that it’s half-baked. THAT’S what makes it pretentious, and not the obscurity of the reference.

And who the heck is “poor Brock”, and what’s he got to do with this line of argument?? Assuming Brock is the patient that these two characters are operating on, he’s just about as relevant to this scene as the cadaver is in the Rembrandt painting. The subject of both the painting and the scene above is the operation that is being performed, and not who it’s being performed on. Even the dumbest audience knows that the fate of “poor Brock” will be revealed in a subsequent scene, so there’s no need to get their shorts in a knot about his fate just yet.

Finally, in the right kind of show, this could very well be funny AND smart. On Scrubs for instance, where some of the humor comes from quick flashes of imaginary scenes, a cut after this bit of dialog to a scene with the same characters posed and lit in an imitation of Rembrandt’s painting, could work. That’s actually the exact sort of imaginative leap that Real People make in their minds when they say something like the dialog above.

Seeing as how Chris Kelly actually is credited as a television writer on IMDB, whereas I’m only a member of the despised “middlebrow” audience, I should cut him some slack on this point. After all, he’s the professional. But I suspect he’s using trumped up charges to make his point.

This kind of fact/correction dialog can be, and is, used for developing plot, and is one trick for making exposition interesting. (Wouldn’t his post have been more edifying and less condescending had he said it this way?) However, it seems to me that this type of dialog serves equally well for developing characters, and allows viewers to see where these two characters fall within the scale of human intelligence.

On some level every dramatic show is a dialog between the writer and the audience, and although fact/correction dialog can show off the writers’ intelligence, it can also reflects the viewers’ intelligence. It’s true that the writers are saying “look here, I’m making an obscure analogy”, but the target audience would say “oh yeah, I get it. That’s clever.” With the right director, the right actors, the right set decorator, the right lighting crew, the target audience can be broadened to include more than just “the smarties”. The mere words on the page do not show the added meaning and interest that the rest of the cast and crew can bring to the show. Perhaps as a writer, Mr. Kelly may be somewhat limited in his outlook on these matters.

I will not apologize for “getting” this kind of dialog or liking Studio 60. I have always believed that striving for more knowledge and education is a Good Thing, and not something to be sneered at as “middle-brow”. In this day and age of jackass humor, or laddie-boy humor, or the crass voyeurism of many reality shows, or the “soft bigotry of low expectations” surely there could be room within the world of mass media for a more rarified audience. If the networks exploit the Studio 60 audience for the Lexuses that can be sold, well, isn’t that the bargain we all make when we watch television? Whether it’s products aimed that the BSG audience or products aimed at the Studio 60 audience, somebody is trying to sell something to someone. Or is Mr. Kelly, who makes his LIVING in the television industry, making fun of the rest of us for being suckers to watch television?

There are many legitimate criticisms that could be aimed at Studio 60 (preachy, pompous, self-important) just as there are legitimate criticisms that could be aimed at BSG (preachy, grim, humorless). If you’re a fan of one doesn’t however mean that fans of the other are therefore somehow beneath contempt. That Chris Kelly chooses to criticize Studio 60 because of jokes that he doesn’t get, or using trumped up arguments, or by mocking its audience, reveals more about himself than it does about the show.

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