Thursday, May 3, 2012

Anatomy of a Critical Darling

I am a TV snob.

I sometimes like to pretend that's a joke.  "I don't actually care what other people are watching," I tell myself.  "It's just funny to act like I'm judging them based on what they watch."

But it's no joke.  I'm judging you based on what you watch.

Now the thing about snobbiness is that it doesn't necessarily equal independent thinking.  Snobs, like other groupings of people, tend to latch onto what other snobs are snobbing about.  If there's a critical majority saying a movie or TV show is good, the insecure snob is going to trend along with that, lest they lose their snob credibility.  Unless, of course, there's a snobbish dissenting camp, in which case you can safely join the opposition while retaining your snob credentials.  (Titanic is perhaps the paragon of this.)

In the case of "Girls," the new(ish) HBO series from Tiny Furniture's Lena Dunham, there was no dissenting critical camp.  In the months leading up to the show's debut, every critic and cultural commentator was extreme in praising the show.  Not a single newspaper, magazine, talkshow, or website deviated from the narrative: "Girls" was awesome, incredible, the best thing to happen to TV in a long time.  Every single critic, from the top on down, made it a point to be vehemently outspoken about "Girls."  Everybody cool was going to be watching this show, and it was going to knock our socks off.  How could a snob like me pass up an opportunity like this?

The phenomenon of the "critical darling" is nothing new.  Critics, to the extent of their power, have always championed the shows they love.  Of course, that's their job.  But they've always reserved that extra bit of zeal for shows that needed a helping hand.  Such was the case with "The Wire," a show that ran on HBO concurrently with "The Sopranos."  When "The Sopranos" assumed the mantle of "best show on TV" in audiences' minds (thanks largely to the championing of critics), "The Wire" got brushed aside and was largely ignored.  So, late in the game, the critical community shifted gears and started directing as much attention as they could to the final two seasons of "The Wire."  It was too little too late, as "Wire" creator David Simon has lamented.

But in the case of "The Wire," critics were championing a show with a track record and a history of being ignored by audiences.  When "Girls" debuted, the advance critical buzz was at -- or possibly even beyond -- the level of those final two seasons of "The Wire."  This for a show that hadn't yet had a single week to establish its initial audience.  Obviously critics were impressed by this show, and wanted people to know that it was something special.  But why were they going at it with a fervor usually set aside for a show in danger of being cancelled?  It hadn't even begun yet.

Which is what led to the inevitable internet backlash.  Now, the internet was going to hate on this show no matter what.  That's what the internet does.  (Haters gonna hate.)  But the extreme proselytizing of the professional critics led to an equal and opposite carpet-bombing by the internet.  If the critics were working so hard to shove this show down our throats, then the internet was going to work extra hard to swat this show away from our faces.  And all of this hate was coming from people who hadn't seen advance previews the show.

At long last, on April 15, "Girls" began its HBO run.


I didn't like it.

How could this happen?  How could it not be good?  I wanted to love it!  I wanted to join my snobful brethren in lauding a beautiful gem of a show that the wretched plebs would never be able to appreciate (the fools!).  But it wasn't happening.  I was one of the wretched plebs!  The critics had outsnobbed me.

And since I had no single piece of cogent criticism to back me up (internet backlash is nothing I wanted to ally myself with), I was on my own to answer the question: Why didn't I like this show?

Why?  Well, it didn't pull me into its world, and I wasn't interested in what was going on.  I didn't find the characters to be consistent with reality (which the show is definitely trying to achieve) or even with themselves.  I didn't find the show's worldview to be insightful or amusing.  And neither in my mid-20s nor at any time in my life did I know anyone (including women!) who acted remotely like these people.  I simply didn't buy it.

But the critics and cultural commentators had different ideas about why I didn't like "Girls."  First of all, I was sexist and I just couldn't handle a woman's point-of-view.  Second, I was jealous of Lena Dunham's success, which I despised because of the nepotism involved, and also because I'm sexist.  Third, I've simply forgotten what it's like to be in my mid-20s, and certainly couldn't comprehend what it's like for a woman in her mid-20s, because I'm sexist.  Fourth, I have bad taste and wouldn't know quality if it were tying me down and castrating me, which it should, because I'm sexist.  And fifth, that I'm sexist.

Yes, that's it.  It's not that the show has actual flaws worth discussing; it's that I'm a terrible person.

But it is a flawed show.  And that's fine, by the way!  Lots of shows are flawed.  In fact, can't we pretty much agree that every show is flawed?  That there's no such thing as "perfection" when it comes to a TV show?

Because the fact of the matter is, "Girls" is not a bad show.  It has a lot going for it.  But it's flawed, and that ought to be acknowledged.  There are things about it that are not good.  There's room for improvement.  But the passion that this show has inspired in critics has forced people like me into a corner; I either have to agree with the majority that this show is the most amazing and perfect creation of the past decade, or else I'm just another jealous, sexist, misogynist, tasteless slob spewing venom and bile in the comments section of unsavory websites.


There are two recent developments that give me hope.  One is that I'm finally starting to see some -- though not much -- rational, level-headed criticisms of the show.  After the first episode aired, veteran TV writer Ken Levine, citing the disproportionate critical love "Girls" is receiving, assessed the show as good but not great.  Then, after the second episode aired, Hillary Busis, writing for Entertainment Weekly, cited several of the same issues I had with that episode.  So I'm not crazy!  You don't have to be a hater to take issue with the show.  Now we're getting somewhere.

But even better is the second development.  The third episode of "Girls" was good.  Objectively good!  It was true to its own reality.  The humor was spot-on.  It was interesting.  It was insightful.  The characters felt like real people I knew in my mid-20s.  Finally, I was seeing something close to the show critics had geared me up to expect all along.  I wasn't drooling all over myself the way they led me to expect I would.  But still.  What I saw in the third episode was a show I want to watch.  Hopefully it will continue in that direction for a long time to come.  I now have a reason to be optimistic.

And that's what I wanted all along, frankly.  A show that is enjoyable, and promises to become more enjoyable.  That "Girls" took three episodes to get to that point is no sin at all.  Many shows -- most shows -- take a while to find their rhythm.  "Parks and Recreation," one of my current favorite sitcoms, took at least three times that number of episodes to get to that point.  This is normal.

Which brings me back to my original point.  There was never a problem with "Girls" itself, or with Lena Dunham, or with HBO, or with my own personal gender biases.  It was the skull-crushing enthusiasm of the critics.  They said far too much far too soon about this show, effectively overwatering their favorite new plant, nearly killing it in the process.  They were the problem all along.

So.  Would I recommend "Girls" to you?  Yeah.  It's a pretty good show.  But be aware that you might find yourself annoyed with it at first.  And that's all right!  I give you permission to be annoyed with it, which is more than the vast majority of critics were willing to allow.  Just stick with it through the third episode, and I think you'll start to enjoy it.

But if you don't end up enjoying it at all... well... I give you permission for that too!  You don't have to like it if you don't want to.  And it's nice to hear that you're not required to like every single critically acclaimed TV show, isn't it?

Especially coming from a snob!

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