Critics are an essential part of every art form -- and yes, the best of television does qualify as a collaborative art form worthy of intelligent criticism. We may not always like what a critic has to say, but a smart review can steer us away from the bad and towards the good -- and if we're lucky, the writing in those reviews will be worth reading for its own sake.
Given the glut of programming these days, few people have time to check out every potentially good show on The Toob, but critics are there to guide us through the labyrinth. One of my long-time favorite critics is back in mid-season form… but if I was on the crew of ABC's drama The Family -- not-so-recent target of Tim Goodman's critical eye -- I'd be pissed.*
As a matter of fact, I was a bit pissed early in this ugly new millennium when Tim unleashed a barrage of flaming arrows into the soft underbelly of my show at the time. Granted, he was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle back then, so his influence wasn't what it is now as chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter -- but the very last thing any new show needs is to be the target of an articulate, persuasive, and lethally snarky critic.
A good review is a godsend for a new show, buying time to find an audience and deliver good "numbers" -- ratings. If a show can hold and increase the ratings, a successful season may result. The flip side is that however accurate a slash-and-burn review might be from the critic's perspective, it can smother a new show in the crib, discouraging potential viewers from tuning or giving it a fair chance to succeed. That matters to those of us who toil deep in the belly of the Television Beast, because ratings are the life blood of every show, upon which the continued employment of the cast, crew, and the entire production team depends.
Not only can bad reviews turn off potential viewers, they also make the network suits very nervous, especially if a show has yet to produce the expected ratings. Bad leads to bad when it comes to the ratings game, and thus begins the death spiral.
Still, it's difficult to quantify exactly how influential critics really are in helping the viewers separate the wheat from the televised chaff. Among the viewing audience beyond the media centers, how many people actually read or pay attention to critics and their reviews? Many of us who work in Hollywood do, but that's because we're part of the fabric of an industry town. Personally, I read certain TV critics to find out what new shows might be worth my time, and because I love to read well-written reviews for the sheer pleasure of smart, snappy writing.
For the most part, the television marketplace is a zero-sum jungle where only the fittest can hope to survive, with critics serving as apex predators picking off the sick, lame, and weak to serve the greater good and overall vitality of the herd. In theory, smart, persuasive critics help see to it that only good shows survive -- but theory and reality do not always align in the television world. Some shows, it seems, are review-proof. The viewing public likes what it likes, which is how a show can be extremely popular without being particularly good. That said, every successful show must be doing something right to gain and keep an audience. You didn't have to like American Idol to understand that it appealed to a huge audience, and thus had a profound influence on the media landscape.
No matter what the critics might think or say, the numbers don't lie.
Having been on the receiving end of a few negative reviews (not me personally, but shows I worked on at the time), I'm well aware how it feels to take those hits. When your own little tribal enterprise comes under assault, it doesn't really matter that the attacker might be technically correct in pointing out that the show really isn't all that great. The situation is a bit like pulling an oar below decks on an ancient Roman warship, where your own survival and that of your crew-mates means a lot more than whatever the officers are arguing about up on deck.The bottom line is the same in both cases: your survival (be it physical or economic) depends on the ship (or show) remaining afloat through the coming battles.
Back in the day, a new show wasn't expected to deliver monster ratings right off the bat, but in our multiverse of seemingly infinite channel-choices -- along with an internet streaming landscape expanding by the week -- the increasingly intense competition for eyeballs jacks up the pressure for every new show to achieve instant success. Even if most viewers don't bother to read reviews, the networks do, and a seriously negative review from an influential critic can inflame the already twitchy trigger-finger of the average overpaid, highly-caffienated, running-scared network executive.
If the network mandarins responsible for Seinfeld reacted like their modern counterparts, that show would have been tossed out with the contents of the corporate chamber pot the next morning. It got off to a very slow start, but the suits (and some fortuitous circumstances) allowed Seinfeld time to find its comedic legs and an audience.
The rest is television history.**
Huge hits like that don't come along very often, but you'd think the networks would have learned something from the experience, and allow new shows a little more leash. Television is a dark art, not a science, which means you just never know. As NBC president Bob Greenblatt put it to the assembled scribes of the Television Critic's Association press tour last summer, "One man's practical joke is another man's hit show."
Professional critics watch television for a living -- it's their job -- so they operate at a higher frequency than the rest of us who stagger home after a hard days work, collapse on the couch with a cold beer, then grab the remote hoping The Toob will transport us far away from the daily drumbeat of normal life until bedtime.
There's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, an argument can be made that the overarching purpose of television, movies, and books (other than to reenforce socio-cultural norms while the advertisements attempt to separate viewers from their money, of course) is to distract us from humdrum reality through comedic or dramatic means. If some useful life lessons are passed on along the way, so much the better, but the prime directive of television is to entertain. As the lead character in Preston Sturge's wonderful Sullivan's Travels learns the hard way, whatever takes your mind off the very real troubles that plague us all in life serves a good and useful purpose. So if tuning into Survivor or Duck Dynasty (shows I could watch only if strapped down with my eyes pried open ala the hapless Malcolm in Clockwork Orange) helps you get through another long night, more power to you. Other shows do the trick for me, but to each his/her own.
As the wisdom of the ages tells us: de gusitbus non est disputandum. There really is no accounting for taste.
I never did see The Family -- not because of Goodman's burn-down-the-house review, but simply because I rarely watch broadcast television anymore. With very rare exceptions, the broadcast networks don't seem to have a clue how to make a truly good drama these days.***
Not to this non-critics critical taste, anyway…
Note: Here's some insight on how television critics do their work, and a nice column by Goodman about Garry Shandling, and the influence he had on television.
** Seinfeld is generally acknowledged to be the most successful multi-camera sit-com ever made.
*** I liked You, Me, and the Apocalypse enough to watch the entire season -- but that was a British/American production, and the Brits always bring a touch of class to these things.