Two critics is one too many

Jan 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“The critics loved it.” Oh did they? As do most critics-I hope-I dislike that phrase. It always makes it sound as though critics are cattle, roaming about in a herd and mindlessly mooing the same tune. We chew our cuds, we eat our grass, we graze the same meadow. And always think alike.
In a colorful moment of candor, Richard Coe, longtime flamboyant drama critic for The Washington Post, said of critics, “We all think each other are nuts,” or a more grammatically correct sentiment along those lines. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert disagreed in especially entertaining ways, but their show was firmly founded on the sure-fire premise that any time you get two critics together, you’ll get at least two opinions. On anything.
That critics are individuals and often cantankerously independent souls is one reason I am wary when critics band together in associations, especially if they feel it necessary to dole out awards. It’s just an aversion, hardly a cause celebre, but since “in union there is strength,” critics’ organizations seem like a bid for power, and power is something that critics oughtn’t seek.
You do your job, you state your case, you try not to lecture or preach, and if you do end up influencing the audience or the industry in some positive way, that’s great. But the idea of ganging up and forming an army strikes me as a little presumptuous.
Not a groupthink guy
That’s why I was unusually gruff and crabby, as opposed to my usual cheerful self, when contacted by a representative of Electronic Media to participate in EM’s Critics Poll. The results would be published, I would be apoplectic about certain choices, but there my name would be in tiny type at the end, implicitly an endorsement of groupthink.
So instead of getting gruff, I just stopped participating.
Last week, EM published the results of its latest critics’ poll, and I was pleasantly surprised not to be outraged. The list of “10 best” shows had its share of dubious achievers (What is this adolescent preoccupation with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? Some critics seem to write about it every week.) but happily included Larry David’s wickedly witty “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” NBC’s innovative sitcom “Scrubs” and Fox’s two offbeat charmers, “The Tick” and “The Bernie Mac Show.”
Naturally, Aaron Sorkin’s pietistic potboiler “The West Wing” was high on the list (No. 2), praised by one critic on the grounds that “it towers over the competition for its intelligence, pace and depth” and lauded by another for “saying something with power and grace.” Gosh! Maybe it’s too good for mere mortals to behold. Perhaps protective gear of some kind should be worn by the unworthy while watching it.
Some critics allowed as how Sorkin may have gone a tiny, teeny, wee bit overboard with the soggy sermonette he composed in response to the tragedies of Sept. 11. Didn’t it occur to them that the episode was a pristine-pure distillation of everything that’s wrong-and dogmatic and smug and self-righteous-about the series in general?
This wasn’t an exception to the “West Wing” rule, it was more like the ultimate Aaron Sorkin ego trip.
The importance of being less earnest

Many critics do exhibit a weakness for medicinal television, the kind of would-be noble stuff that, some of them imagine, is “good for” the audience. Critics should write reviews, not prescriptions. Which is not to deny the exhilaration one feels when all aspects of a production combine in some borderline mystical way so as to give the audience the kind of glorious, consciousness-raising communal experience only possible on “national TV.” To cite a ridiculously obvious example: “Roots” is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
The trouble with dead-earnestness is that it can be more deadly than earnest. Thus it’s a bit dismaying to see that when asked, “What shows that were canceled this season shouldn’t have been?” the majority of those responding cited “Citizen Baines,” that creaky preachment on CBS about an old darling of an ex-senator navigating his twilight years.
Oddly, too, the top choice of respondents to the question of what new fall shows should have been canceled was “The Ellen Show,” a perfectly harmless and charming sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres, the woman who made the Emmys entertaining. Why pick on that show? Is the thinking that DeGeneres has “sold out” because this time she’s made less of a fuss about lesbianism?
Why the mudslinging?
She’s done her part for tolerance and equality and all those socially correct things. She doesn’t have to parade around with a banner or beat the drum for sexual minorities every time she finds herself in front of a camera.
Meanwhile, CBS was all but begging to be roasted in a critics’ bonfire when it devoted two hours on a Sunday night to “Surviving Gilligan’s Island,” a peculiar semi-quasi documentary about Sherwood Schwartz’s definitively dopey sitcom. In the EM poll, it led the list of “Worst Miniseries, Movies or Specials” of the year.
Gee, haven’t enough slings and arrows been slung and arrowed Schwartz’s way? Hasn’t he suffered sufficiently for producing this dippy, giddy farce about castaways being conked with coconuts? (I wonder whether it’s a hit in France.) And what crime has Schwartz committed, really? He’s only made about a jillion kids laugh, that’s all-laugh at a show that never had a mean bone in its virtually boneless body.
In the middle of the night, I’d rather come face to face with Gilligan and the Skipper than, say, some pretentious burst of gore from an old “X-Files.”
And admit it, the little Laurel & Hardy routine that Bob Denver and Alan Hale Jr. had going really did have, and still does have, its own sweet goofiness. Remember how the director in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” learned the therapeutic value of a pie in the face-or, to quote Noel Coward’s famous and perhaps over-quoted phrase, “How potent cheap music is”?
Maybe Schwartz’s slap-happy showmanship is as noble as Sorkin’s pious hauteur, when you get right down to it. Neither one’s guilty of overestimating the intelligence of the audience, but only one probably admits it.