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IT’S SO EASY TO BE WRONG

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Critics aren’t supposed to be ratings predictors, so jeering at a TV critic because a show he hated did well in the Nielsens is pointless. And yet (yes, there’s always an “and yet”), beats there a critic’s heart so cold that he doesn’t like to think, at least on occasion, that he’s got his finger on the pulse of the public? Of course, you can get your face slapped for that, or even get hit with one of the 10,000 sexual harassment suits filed every day.
Unless the critic is an absolute snob, like that guy in New York magazine who can’t review a TV show without references to Homer (not Simpson) and Cicero (not the suburb of Chicago), he or she likes to think that the tastes of the general public are not that far from his or her own, else how could a critic be of much value to that audience in separating the wheat from the chaff? It’s a delicate balance, because a critic must not be swayed by public opinion or try to be popular with readers by groveling before them.
I always get a kick out of remembering that the New York Times TV critic, since retired, totally loathed “Saturday Night Live” when this unmistakably innovative comedy series premiered on NBC in 1975. And when, after only a few weeks, it became apparent that the show was a milestone that signaled a whole new direction for TV comedy, the Times suddenly changed its institutional mind and ran a piece in its Sunday magazine extolling the program that it had previously trashed to pieces.
who knew?
Of course, it’s always funniest when it happens to the other guy. I still remember with chagrin reviewing a big Cher one-woman musical special that aired on NBC last year. Hated it! Cher has never been a big favorite of mine. I think her voice often sounds ridiculous, like a drunken cowboy hollering down a well. It utterly amazes me that even one person would want to buy a CD containing nothing but songs sung by her. If you can see her as well as hear her, however, there’s entertainment value. She’s kind of a throwback to Carmen Miranda, with her wacky get-ups and generous glimpses of skin.
Anyway, I not only gave the program a negative review I implicitly predicted it would pass in the night with barely a soul there to notice. I thought that kids considered Cher pitifully uncool and that adults would just shrug at the notion of her doing a “Farewell Special.” But when the glitter cleared, Cher had attracted nearly 17 million viewers to the little party she threw for herself and helped NBC win the night.
Was my face red? More a sickly shade of mauve.
NBC mystified me again earlier this year when I looked at the critics’ preview tape of something called “The Apprentice,” a reality series from master of his domain Mark Burnett. This show, to me, had everything going against it: It was set in the world of big business, which I assumed most Americans found boring and off-putting; it starred Donald Trump, a hammy millionaire who purses his lips as if about to kiss himself in a mirror (and is filthy stinking rich, at least on paper, besides); and it would have none of the exotic adventure in picturesque places that brightens Burnett’s “Survivor,” the prototype on which so many “reality” shows have been patterned.
It didn’t look like there would be very many scenes in which the young contestants ran around with very few clothes on. Strike 4! Or 5, or whatever.
As you know, “The Apprentice” became a huge hit. Even my 9-year-old godson, admittedly a genius, loved it. I gave it a bad review and may have suggested that NBC programmers had been having too many three-martini lunches with Mark Burnett. But here is a point in my defense. NBC’s promotion department, which hates critics (or at least little ol’ me), sent out tapes of the pilot with the last act missing.
In other words, critics did not get to see and hear Trump utter the singular phrase, “You’re fired.” That phrase became so important a part of the show’s mystique that The Donald greedily tried to register it as a trademark.
`you’re fired’
Everybody can identify with that phrase-either because they dread hearing it or because they think there are so many people at their places of business who deserve to have it shouted in their faces. So I blew it. I can’t honestly say, though, that “You’re fired” would have completely changed my view of the show.
When I tried to watch it a few weeks ago, I found it only modestly diverting. It’s set in a world that numbs me like Novocain. I thought it bored most other middle-class Americans too.
For years I have tuned in regularly-meaning at least once per season-to NBC’s “Friends,” trying with all (or most of) my might to see the charm in this thing, to understand, even if I didn’t appreciate it, what struck so many viewers as adorable and funny and cute as a kitten. It’s always seemed to me like a show with its schematic showing, something so calculated and predigested that it depressed rather than amused me.
Some members of the cast are bright and funny, especially Lisa Kudrow (I loved it when she sang), but the guys in the group, with the possible exception of Matt LeBlanc, approached each script as if it were a scientific formula. Which it usually was.
I will always think of “Friends” as a counterfeit hit, not just because I personally couldn’t stand it. The characters’ idiosyncrasies seemed contrived, their mix-and-match relationships tired and their personalities came across as if they’d won them as prizes in a contest. Let’s be honest now: Sometimes the critics are right and the public is cuckoo in the head, and this is one of those times.
When “Friends” sails away, I’ll be there on the dock shouting “Good riddance”-provided the show’s fans don’t pummel me to a pulp.