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Public Tuning Out TV Critics

Part 2 of 2



Last week’s TV Trends column described the growing trend in journalism away from the employment of professional TV critics, and the increasing dominance and influence of “citizen critics” on the Internet. This week’s column demonstrates that professional TV critics are hopelessly out of touch with the values of average Americans.


Hilariously, the entertainment industry trade publication Broadcasting & Cable claims that TV critics are at a disadvantage when faced with the attitude-laden writing of the Internet’s amateur bloggers. “Many old-school journalists seem to lack the snark gene that has propelled Gawker-level bloggers to high-gloss infamy,” says the article. One can only conclude that the author of the B&C article is unfamiliar with the constant sneering arrogance with which family-friendly programs have invariably been described by the nation’s TV critics.


As just one example, take the critical reaction which greeted the premiere of the TV series Three Wishes. This program, which ran on NBC from September 2005 to January 2007, featured Christian music star Amy Grant aiding average Americans by granting them “wishes,” such as building a baseball field for a small community or helping a young boy thank his stepfather for adopting him. Most Americans applauded so well-meaning a show, and enjoyed its heartwarming premise. But America’s critics unleashed an unparalleled tidal wave of vitriol against the sweet program; and notably, most condemned not the program’s production methods or even the star, but attacked the very premise of the show itself. Some typical comments from critics included:


“Condescension, fraudulence, and manipulation…every single scene is ruthlessly choreographed to put a lump in our throats,” (Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe, September 23, 2005); “Exploitative and programmatic,” (Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune, September 23, 2005); “Will leave your heartstrings over-fondled,”  (Gillian Flynn Entertainment Weekly, November 4, 2005); “The producers of this NBC wish-fulfillment show have endeavored to out-schmaltz ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and for those who can stomach this level of manipulative fluff, damned if they haven't done it, “ (Brian Lowry, Variety, September 18, 2005); and, revoltingly, “[The show] did make me think what I would ask if granted three wishes. Interestingly, all three involved the flesh of Amy Grant being devoured by rabid weasels,” (Glenn Garvin, Miami Herald, September 2005).


Such was the critical community’s opinion of the positive and uplifting Three Wishes. But wait, some may say; perhaps TV critics are just as “snarky” and harsh towards all new programming?


For contrast, consider the critical response to Dexter, a program with a ruthless, psychotic serial killer as its hero. This program featured graphic dismemberment, blood, and torture and showed a brutal murderer evading the law, yet painted that killer as charming and even likeable. Originally shown on premium cable, Dexter was shown in prime time by CBS. Given the vicious verbal flogging they granted the wholesome Three Wishes, one would think that surely the critics – with their allegedly superior sensibilities – would condemn a program which graphically glorified serial murder!


But one would be wrong.


Instead, the nation’s so-called “critics” sang unquestioning hosannas to the deranged drama. Apparently thinking identical thoughts, sometimes even using nearly identical wording, the critics united in praising Dexter:  


 “Bold, different and exciting,” (David Bianculli, New York Daily News, September 29, 2006); “Daring and original,” (Tim Goodman San Francisco Chronicle, September 29, 2006); “Fiendishly excellentDexter may be an obsessive murderer, but he's also a hero of sorts,”(Matthew Gilbert Boston Globe, September 30, 2006); “Sick, twisted and darkly funny…easily the best drama in Showtime history,”  (Alan Sepinwall, Newark Star-Ledger, September 29, 2006); “One of television’s most fiendishly intelligent new dramas,” (Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune, September 27, 2006); “Dexter is yet another temptation that is almost impossible to resist,” (Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times, September 29, 2006).


And incidentally, Diane Werts – who (as quoted in the last TV Trends column) stated that critics tell readers what is “fresh, smart and ground-breaking” – called Dexter  an “acidly amusing portrait of a thoroughly modern hero…kinky, and cool, and vile, and mesmerizing, a deliciously dark and droll portrait of a serial killer.”


Nor is Dexter an isolated case; the Metacritic website records that 79% of the nation’s critics approved of FX’s sexually explicit and perverse drama Nip/Tuck.


In the incestuously insular world of TV critics, Dexter, Nip/Tuck and their ilk are considered artistic masterpieces. This is due to the overweening pride these self-proclaimed arbiters of taste take in being totally out of touch with normal sensibilities. If a program shocks and offends millions of their fellow citizens, then it must be brilliant – or so their thinking apparently goes. And if the program in question contains explicit sex, gore and profanity, is “morally ambiguous,” or celebrates depravity, why then, it must be Art!


To these so-called “critics,” Art must never inspire or enlighten viewers, must never celebrate excellence or good taste. Only if a program causes outrage and disgust can it possibly be worthy of praise…and the further outside mainstream thought such a program is, the greater it must be.


Americans are weary of a tiny clique of TV writers and producers determining the excuses for “entertainment” which fill their screens…and increasingly, they look askance at the “critics” who, rather than informing them about the poor state of entertainment and pressing the industry to improve, instead act as willing partners in the erosion of our popular culture.


“As newspapers continue to squeeze out the voices that make their product distinctive, ultimately it is the viewing public that is left in the dark,” Broadcasting & Cable’s article concluded. But this is false. Under the baleful influence of “old media’s” television critics, the viewing public has been in the dark for decades. Only now, with thousands of average viewers making their opinions known via the Internet, is television criticism finally beginning to step into the light.  


“This small band of Constant Whiners talk to each other, write for each other, opine with each other, and view with lacerating contempt the rubes who live Out There, west of Manhattan and east of the San Andreas Fault…Shouldn't everyone in the country glory in four-letter words ending in "k"? And why not? Since the C[onstant] W[hiner]s know what is right and real, then it is from them that the simpletons in Middle America should take their cues and their culture. In their zeal to brandish the notion that they are the custodians of creative rightness, they commit intellectual nihilism, the smashing of truth and reason, exalting a smallish and relentlessly ill-humored prism through which they all see the same lunacies.” – former MPAA head Jack Valenti (Variety, July 20, 1999)


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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