Uncritical Self-Criticism, Or a Teachable Moment

navel gazing

I posted about a flop show from the ’60s below, and an anonymous (but not particularly shy) commenter wrote:

Oh look…another uncommented post by Jaime Weinman, the most uncritical television critic in the entire World. What crap are you flogging this time, Jaime? A failed spin-off?

Now, the presence or absence of lots of comments on a post doesn’t, in and of itself, tell you how interesting or uninteresting it is. Bill Brioux has a very fine TV blog and he doesn’t get nearly enough comments on his posts.  And I almost appreciate the “most uncritical” tag because I was worried I was being too critical in some of my most recent posts.

But the commenter raises a legitimate point, or I think he does. I don’t agree with the point he makes, but I wanted to bring it up. There is a point at which writing about a crappy show, or crappy anything, comes off as almost an endorsement. If I write at length about a bad show, and talk about in terms of what it says about the culture of the time and the influence of certain shows and even mention some good things about it (i.e. The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was a poor show but the lead role was well-cast), then after a point it seems like I’m legitimizing the bad stuff, or at least implying that a show doesn’t need to be good to be of interest. There’s a reason why critics normally write much more about good stuff than bad stuff: because all bad things are alike, and there’s not much to say about them other than that they’re bad.

Also, over-interest in flops, kitsch, bad shows, can create a pattern by which, perversely, the writer seems to be more hostile to quality shows that don’t quite work than to out-and-out rotten shows. A pattern I detect in my posts is that I can get very critical when talking about shows that don’t live up to their pretensions, like Hung, which wants to say something big about our society but doesn’t, or Family Guy, which mistakenly thinks it’s being transgressive. Whereas a show with nothing going for it, like Criminal Minds, gets off scot-free because I don’t find it interesting enough to rant about. And bad shows from the past are just historical artifacts, and I spend more time looking at them in historical context or firing off trivia about them than in chastising them for their badness.

And of course, give me something genuinely awful and shoddy and full of contempt for its audience, and I’ll start looking at the historical reasons why it was awful and shoddy, and what its particular kind of awfulness says about that particular moment in time. In my post about why Hotel was worse than any show could be today, I was genuinely interested in and analytical of its total terribleness. Whereas a bad show today would be something like, yes, Criminal Minds or current-day Smallville — but since it’s not ludicrously inept enough (getting there), I don’t know what to say about it except that it’s not good.

Maybe in 10 years I’ll have a better idea of how the bad shows of today reflect the TV culture in which they exist, and then I’ll have more to say about them. For now, though, there is this strange thing: bad shows from the past are interesting, not so much for themselves, but for what they say about the time. So the reason I posted about The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., apart from the obvious need to fill time over the weekend, was to share some thoughts about certain points of development in U.S. TV: the networks’ inept struggles to create a female action character, their jumping on the bandwagon created by fads like Batman, the rush to do a cash-in loose spinoff. All of these things are still relevant today, especially the spinoff thing; hell, CBS has built its entire programming strategy on spinoffs that are basically the modern equivalent of the Girl From U.N.C.L.E. strategy, albeit more successful.

That’s one reason I think it’s OK to talk about bad shows, or shows I like but don’t consider great (which takes up a fair amount of posting time). Another reason is that all bad things are not alike; there’s often something to learn from each one, about how not to do things, or what went wrong, or what more successful projects took from this flop. See Nathan Rabin’s deservedly acclaimed “My Year of Flops” series for an example of how to do that with regard to movies. And pretty soon he promises to bring us a MYOF entry on Skidoo, one of the worst movies of the ’60s, and one of the most interesting.  Terrible and interesting are often surprisingly compatible.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.