Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"What Does 'Good' Mean?"

It seems ironic to me that one of the most difficult types of postings for me to write are the pieces involving my opinion of some TV show, or movie, or such like. I was recently asked to explain why I believe that the second season of Modern Family has fallen off qualitatively from the first season.

My gut tells me that this is the case, but articulately justifying that position, it feels like answering a really difficult exam question. You need clarity, concision, specificity, supporting examples. And I’m not a hundred percent certain that I am up to the task.

I’d much rather write about seeing an afternoon movie in an empty movie theater. With subject matter like that, nobody can tell me I’m wrong.

“I can’t believe there were no other people in the theater.”

“Vas you deah, Sharlie?”

(That’s an old vaudevillian catchphrase, employed after the comedian confronts his partner with an improbably exaggerated whopper.)

Preferentially, I am no fan of disagreement and controversy. I like it calm. I am fully aware that one man’s…something is another man’s….something else, it takes all kinds, you can’t tell a book by its cover. That one doesn’t fit, but I needed a third example. The “Rule of Threes” demands it.

You know what I mean. Your opinion is as good as everyone else’s, and it needs to be respected. Nobody likes to be told their opinions are crap. Watch House and check out the faces of the doctors when House tactlessly shoots down their opinions on what’s wrong with that week’s mysteriously dying patient. They look like they’re going to cry.

Sure, opinions about TV shows and movies aren’t life and death – not even scripted TV life and death – but people have serious, personal investments in their professed points of view. It’s like their opinion stands as a public representation of their value on this earth.

“You opinion is stupid. Ergo, you’re stupid too.”

I listen hard when people express their points of view, especially when their opinion conflicts radically with my own. It’s important for me to try and understand exactly what it was in their thinking process that led them to such an erroneous conclusion.

I’m kidding, I think. It’s just curious to me. I mean, I’m coming out of a movie theater, after seeing a picture I really didn’t care for, and I overhear another exiting audience member saying,

“That was awesome!”

What we just saw? Really? I am deeply skeptical of that evaluation. The producer’s mother, attuned to her Sonny Boy’s delicate sensibilities, might have offered a supportive “Very nice”, but even she wouldn’t have dared an opinion of “Awesome”, for fear of being turned into a pillar of salt.

Besides being wrong, calling a movie “awesome” is not the correct way of rendering an opinion, (duly noting that I’m rendering an opinion on the correct way of rendering an opinion.)

I believe people ought to render their opinions as a personal preference, the middle ground of appropriate opinionizing being, “I liked it; I didn’t like it.”, rising to “awesome” – when it’s not being overused – to designate the top level of approval, and descending to, “I think they should have the Death Penalty for people who make awful movies” as a designation very close to, if not at, the bottom.

The confusing part here is that, on a parallel track with “personal opinion” – well, it doesn’t have to be geometrically parallel, just a different track – there is, in fact, the possibility of an objective evaluation.

I believe it was Aristotle – or somebody big – who set down specific principles by which a work of art can be objectively evaluated. So, if you’re applying standards of that nature, then yes, you are justified is using descriptives such as “good”, ‘bad”, “awesome” and “coming nowhere close to ‘Aristotelian standards’ garbage.”

You can also use words like “good” and “bad” – carefully and with the utmost humility – if you’re a professional writer.

Through experience and meticulously programmed innards, a writer can sense if a work is or is not what it should be. The best writers, or at least the best critics of writing, can articulately explain the rationales for their positions. I’m not certain that I can. My responses are generally more a matter of “feel.”

But even that “feel” comes with what must be acknowledged caveats.

Times change. And in some not entirely explicable way, “good” and “bad”, to some degree at least, change with them. After Modern Family, I stuck around for the debut of a new ABC series called Happy Endings.

Watching the new program, I could immediately tell that, though both Modern Family and Happy Endings were situation comedies, Happy Endings was going about its business in a substantially different manner. Though I myself did not laugh much, I had a sense that, the target they were shooting for, they were, more often than not, hitting.

I am not prepared at this time to say that, on their terms, Happy Endings was good, because I am not as yet exactly clear on what those terms are. I just know something interesting was going on, and by that standard, the series merits further investigation.

Then, of course, there is the always dangerous “Sour Grapes Factor.” They’re working; I’m not. So I hate everything they do – especially if it’s successful – and consequently, in the guise of “professional evaluation”, I self-righteously label the product of their efforts, “bad.” Poisonous thinking is always a possibility, one that seriously needs guarding against.

Okay, back to the beginning. Why do I believe the second season of Modern Family falls short of the first?

I don’t know, lemme think about it another day. Maybe I’ll come up with something worthwhile.


Jon88 said...

There are those of us who think that the second season of MF is just as good as the first -- but that the first wasn't as exceptional as a lot of people said it was. Everything is, um, relative.

Neal... said...

Thanks Earl -- interesting to read about you just thinking about thinking about something.

The thoughts about a kind of objective measure of what is and isn't 'good' reminded me of something from someone nearly as philosophically important as Aristotle, William Goldman. I think he said shomewhere that he was incapable of *not* writing a proper screenplay. You may not like it, but in terms of what a screenplay should be it's good.

And as any art has an element of craft to it once you go beyond a certain point any judgment is a personal opinion. If you go into a floorings showroom just because you don't like the pattern it doesn't make a carpet any less a carpet.

That analogy made more sense in my head.

YEKIMI said...

Mad Magazine did a spot-on spoof of Modern Family and basically how it's no different than any other comedy. Ed O'Neill is playing just another version of his "disgruntled,grumpy, man" persona, Phil Dunphy is "the ditzy, stupid dad"; his wife "the frazzled, harried housewife", and so on and so forth with all the other characters. In my book, the only thing that makes it stand out is the writing.

Mac said...

"Poisonous thinking is always a possibility, one that seriously needs guarding against."

As a professional comedian once confessed "I hate watching new comedy, mainly because I hate the part of me that wants it to stink."