Friday, December 12, 2008

"The Art of the Review"

After Best of the West debuted on ABC, a review of the show appeared in the Los Angeles Times the following morning. Dr. M (though merely M at the time) brought me the “Entertainment Section” while I was still in bed. When I turned to the review of my show, I immediately noticed that the critique had gone through some substantial alterations.

What I was confronted with was a Best of the West review with all the, I imagined, negative elements cut out, leaving me with a "critical doily." Apparently, M had taken a scissors and eliminated all the descriptives she believed would upset me. There weren’t a lot of holes – the review was generally positive – but her gesture was memorable in its thoughtfulness, and its sensitivity to how I’d react.

I hate bad reviews. (This truism ranks with the remark of an actor I once knew who confessed, “I hate small parts.”) My response to negative bad mirrors the “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor” joke. I’ve had good reviews and I’ve had bad reviews. Good reviews are better.

Having received good reviews and less good reviews through the course of my career, the thing I’ve noticed – and it used to confuse me – is that I never received, concerning any of my various enterprises, a consistent review.

The reviews were all over the place, many expressing the exact opposite opinions. The element one reviewer would praise would be mentioned by another reviewer as precisely the thing they didn’t like. You could determine each reviewer’s overall response, positive or negative, but when you got to the supporting evidence, the same examples supported diametrically opposing points of view.

The inconsistency in reviewers’ responses left me scratching my head. Two reviewers, watching to same program, one goes, "I loved it", the other goes, “P.U.”? I realize reviewing is not math. There’s no “right answer” in the back of the book. But for one reviewer to single out for praise the exact same…joke, moment, casting choice, et cetera, that left another reviewer holding their nose…?

How could that be?


…and here I propose my deeply considered conclusion and the premise for this posting…

When delivering their critical responses, the reviewers are rarely reviewing the show.

The reviewers are – unconsciously – reviewing themselves.

This tendency is easy to succumb to. It’s like left-leaning journalists being unaware of their liberal bias. (This is not equally applicable to conservative journalists. Conservative journalists acknowledge their conservative bias, making them – confusingly – more prejudiced and more honest at the same time.)

I’ve done very little reviewing in this blog. Possibly none. This may be because the controversy generated by reviewing can lead to increased blogal popularity, which I’m conscientiously trying to avoid. Or, less facetiously, maybe I’m uncomfortable with controversy. Or – Explanation Number Three – though I’m qualified, as a longtime writer, to evaluate the professionalism of the writing, on the level of, “I liked it, I hated it”, my opinion is no more worthy, or less worthy, than your own.

Today, I’m making an exception. With a particular objective in mind. I’m not temporarily donning my “Reviewer’s Hat” for purposes of pontification (Does that mean acting like a pope?), but to demonstrate – using myself as the guinea pig – how reviewers fall into the possibly unavoidable habit of reviewing themselves.


30 Rock. NBC, Thursday at nine-thirty, eight-thirty Central Time, nine o’clock in Newfoundland.

30 Rock is one of the two network comedies I make an effort to watch regularly. (The other is The Big Bang Theory.)


I personally know two people ranking high on the 30 Rock food chain. We have "history", in one case, mixed, in the other, embarrassing. (I demonstrated some heavy-duty bad manners.) These connections are hardly unusual. It is not at all unlikely that, in the relatively circumscribed world of the entertainment business, a reviewer could have had, could currently have, or could desire to have, a relationship with one of the entities involved in the very enterprise they’re reviewing.

Are you telling me that the nature of the reviewer’s past, current or desired future relationship with those entities is not going to affect said reviewer’s enthusiasm for the show?

Moving on….

My career in half-hour comedy flourished during the era of the multi-camera film format, and ended with the rise to prominence of the single camera comedy. Someone asks me to review the single-camera comedy, 30 Rock. You think, maybe, my personal history might exert some vendettafying influence on my enjoyment of the show?


Owing to my conditioning on the shows I worked on, from Mary Tyler Moore to The Cosby Show, my favored form of comedy is the one where the writers have as their motivating impulse: To reflect the truth of the situation that they’re writing about.

Rather than portraying the day-to-day experiences on a late night comedy sketch show, 30 Rock, in my view, delivers the “nightmare version”, offering storylines concerning paranoid delusions and purported abduction by aliens. Responding to my “reflecting-the-truth-of-the-situation” proclivity, Earl, the reviewer, will not be giving 30 Rock a “smiley face” for verisimilitude (“For Shame” Alert: Reviewer Earl has judged 30 Rock by a standard that it apparently never aspired to meet. "For shame, for shame.")

And then there’s the jokes

Example. Earl, the reviewer, is not easily offended, but owning an adventuresome left eye that independently travels wherever it chooses, “wandering eye” references have never been his favorite laugh-inducing formula. Employing the reviewer’s area of sensitivity – whatever it is – as joke fodder, do you really think that’s not going to affect their perspective on the show?

Random examples of the problem. There are probably more.

So. What does Earl, the reviewer, think of 30 Rock? Every week, I tune in, wanting to like it, and every week – even weeks when they don’t have “wandering eye” jokes – I’m consistently disappointed.

Are you surprised?

My reaction to 30 Rock is, in my mind, an entirely truthful one. But having clarified – as an example of “The Reviewing Problem” – where it’s coming from…

What exactly is it worth?

(I should have thought about this when I was getting those negative reviews. It might have softened the blow.

Oh, who am I kidding?)


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of a talk a horror writer gave about rejections. He'd sent out a story featuring an evil clown. The first editor hated it, it reminded him of Stephen King's IT. The second editor loved it and bought it, it reminded him of Stephen King's IT.

The moral: be true to the story. Someone somewhere will get it. Eventually. (That's my delusion, anyway!)

Leona Raisin said...

You mentioned the sitcom in your post, but I can't tell you or it will spoil the fun. Johnny Galecki + Jim Parsons + Simon Helberg = The [Orgy Night Babe]. Play today's TV anagram game.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

When I studied Theatre Science I had to learn how to write reviews and our very strict (Eastern Europe) prof taught us that a good review delivers a good description of the show offered, it's themes and characters and an analysis of it's strengths and failures. Many reviews today only offer opinion.

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