Television and the Practice of “Criticism”
The idea of “criticism” as a practice of analysis and of knowledge in the arts has long been a matter of dispute. What is the function of criticism? What kind of connections between an artefact and social and political contexts should it seek, and how equipped is it to extend its range beyond the object (novel, painting, score, film, television program) which is its immediate concern? How openly subjective should it be, stressing a personal relationship (“response”) between critic and work or, conversely, what level of objectivity can it attain, what “scientific” support can it draw upon?
Questions such as these have recently been heard more often in television studies. A complicating factors here is that many people seem unsure as to whether television really warrants the seriousness indicated by the idea of a body of criticism. Television may deserve criticising, yes, but that is (perhaps confusingly) rather different from criticism, which often includes appreciation as a primary goal (as, for instance, in the strong tradition of literary criticism). It’s quite interesting to compare television with film in this respect. Film studies has now, internationally, achieved the status of an art form that deserves a serious body of critical attention, which it has certainly acquired, although its history shows the tensions between attention to Hollywood and to forms of “Independent” and Art Cinema.
Television raises questions of “value” of a more openly contested kind than cinema, even though individual films frequently raise important issues of value. This is partly because television is regarded as inherently systemic (and the system often judged as dubious). Although cinema is also seen as, partly, systemic (e.g. the changing economics and parameters of the Hollywood system), individual films are largely treated by scholars as “works.” Another point, related to this, is that television is rightly seen as more pervasively social than film both in its range of contents, its modes of address and, of course, the range and character of its delivery to audiences. This presents a challenge to the “critical stance”, which traditionally tends to work with a sense of the aesthetic object as possessing a certain level of autonomy from the conditions in which it is produced and consumed. We might call this a relative level of aesthetic density, providing sufficient richness, contemplative depth and scope for the exercise of criticism as an intellectually challenging practice. Not everyone is quite sure TV is up to offering this on a regular basis. The way in which newspaper and magazine TV critics regularly use their column to make humorous points about life in general and enjoy nothing better than to “rubbish” a bad program seems to be one indication of this.
There is a further difficulty too. Television is generically heterogeneous, in particular across the boundaries of fictional narratives, factual accounts and various kinds of entertaining event, some presenter-led. One might think the safest bet for someone setting up as an academic critic of television is to stay with “high end” drama, slipping across to pick up the occasional sitcom or soap now and again and maybe the more interesting (e.g. symbolically dense) documentary. Indeed, quite a few critics do this (particularly those who still operate from a firm base in Film Studies). However, the emergence of more work wishing to centre itself on television has produced academics who want to talk about the full range of output. Often, those who have a “critical” inclination find themselves in tension with those who are coming at things from the point of view of sociologists or political analysts or historians, bringing with them the toolkits of the social sciences and also its particular concerns for data and method. The social scientists are often not hugely impressed by an activity that seems dangerously close to a kind of “personal phenomenology”, is which media productions are “read” and judged for their qualities and wider meanings largely in relation to the views, predilections and insights of the critics themselves. The tension is increased by the fact that those taking the “critical approach” don’t simply want to talk about programs and let the sociologists do all the detailed inquiry into politics and society. They want to talk about social and political implications too (indeed some appear to want to do this more they want to talk about programs, a very odd thing to find in an art or music critic, or even a literary or a film critic).
It is clear that some of the writers who contributed most importantly to the development of inquiry into television employed forms of engagement that drew on literary critical models. What emerges from this body of writing is a rich, sensitive and complex sense of how television works as a medium of communication. What also emerges, if by no means always, is a level of evaluative assertion about “quality” and the impact upon audiences and even the whole socio-political system that begs a lot more questions than were often recognised. Critics not only “read” the programs, they “read” the audience. For many years, they tended to read the audience pessimistically, as part of a general view of the consequences of the television system for society. More recently, some have read the audience optimistically, writing from the vantage point of a “fan” themselves. The new position carries with it a more democratic ethos, but some underlying problems concerning the basis and function of the judgements offered remain. With simplification, one can see the rise of audience studies in the 1980s as in part an attempt to expand the terms of engagement beyond the terms of criticism, whilst not giving up on the possibility of offering a critique and not slipping into the more reductive categories of media sociology when it discusses questions of meaning.
Where does this leave the possibilities for an academic television “criticism”? There are certainly challenges here. It lacks the self-conscious “critical community” of the other arts (including film). It often attempts to engage with diverse materials far from the core aesthetics and artistic ambitions that have provided the focus for “criticism” elsewhere. It is frequently in danger of being drawn into either polemical opposition or seductive alliance with the industrially championed imperatives of “popular taste.” If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the rival claims and sometimes open hostility of media sociology to take into account.
What we perhaps need is more inquiry that locates critical “readings” within a wider array of approaches. Criticism can also benefit by bringing its perspectives into further and deeper engagement with what we are learning, and have still to learn, about the working criteria of media production and about how the taste cultures of television are generated and sustained through audience attributions of “worth.”
Criticism’s mix of subjectivity, analysis and evaluation, though problematic, is valuable. Its assertiveness and occasional tendency towards the wacky carry benefits. We need to sustain a good level of openly judgemental debate about the kind of television we have and the kinds we might have. But increased self-awareness, more care in its claims-making beyond the immediate focus on textual form and meaning and stronger connections with other (not necessarily more “objective” but often cooler) modes of inquiry would help “critical” work on television develop better as a discourse of knowledge as well as a discourse of cultural dispute.
Note: This is part of a longer commentary, in preparation, on television and the “critical” idea.
Please feel free to comment.
In responce to what you are suggesting, I’d like to first say that I agree with your observations on the problems in television criticisim. It’s unfortunate for me, as a television scholar, to have my medium so scrutinized. I attend an art school in Chicago and television studies is viewed by film students and the likes as a silly major. The main reason for this, I feel, is because of the accessability of tv to the masses. What I dont understand is why is tv so bad for expanding to the masses. It’s a huge communication tool. I think film scholars and literary scholars are niave to think that there is nothing of substantial value in the art of television. There is such a relationship that exists between the viewer and the creater of television shows that i agree with your idea that television criticism would work better as a discourse, as opposed to an objective group of elite scholars undermining the works.
Part of the problem in attempting to apply criticism to television as a whole is, as you say, that it is too heterogeneous. Personally I’m only concerned with the scripted drama sector and that easily follows the film paradigm.
Film has always looked down on television, unjustly in my opinion, and receiving academic criticism can help right that balance. Its quite common to hear television actors, writers and producers talk about their goal of moving “up” to film work. Frankly I think they have it backwards. Film is a dying industry. Films already make more money from home DVD sales and rentals than any blockbuster makes in the theater. The film industry is currently in a period of creating endless sequels and prequels that just emulates the episodic nature of the scripted television drama. I personally buy far more boxed season sets than movies as I prefer the more in depth experience that comes from a 16 hour “miniseries” than a 90 minute film.
One of the common arguments actors make for leaving television for film is the schedule – they want to leave a grueling yearlong (8 month) schedule for 6-12 weeks work per project. To me that makes a film actor a dilettante while the television actor is a true professional with the time to craft their character over a year or hopefully several years. I frequently hear television writers say how much harder it is to create a season of TV with the intricate weaving of episodic and seasonal arcs while writing a 90 minute movie is almost as easy as writing just the pilot for a TV show. If this is true then its time the actors, writers and producers of television dramas receive the credit they deserve rather than just seeing TV as a stepping stone to film. By creating a body of respected academic criticism of television we can promote the worth of television to the position it deserves.
I think, like Melvin,that TV and film have been switching places, artistically speaking, for a long time, with many mainstream films adopting a “sit-com” vibe and TV splitting off into different aesthetic sets, with much of the dramatic series striving towards narrative complexity, as Jason Mittel calls it, especially since the rise of cable networks that were beholden only to their subscribers and not the advertisers who were bound by their need to please the Middle America demographic. However, having said that, we also have to realise that shows like The Wire and The Sopranos and Dead Like Me got their pedigrees started in the early 80s with Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, primetime TV that moved towards a structure that combined the Soap Opera’s long plotline without the convoluted to the point of self-parody narrative self-reference.
As well, this kind of TV has moved away from the ‘old school’ of several writers around a conference table batting ideas back and forth and has fostered a growing sub-genre of what I think of as “Auteur TV”; people like Alan Ball, Ronald Moore and Joss Whedon who almost singly conceive of, write and oversee a narrative arc that is multi-levelled, complex and highly respectful of the intelligence of the viewer. Ball even, if I recall correctly, used the “street cred” he gained from “American Beauty” to move to TV and Six Feet Under, going in reverse of the old trend of “trading up” to movies from TV.
One of the growing trends I’ve seen recently is this tendency to continue the iconic film series years after the last instalment. We’ve seen this with “Indy 4”, Die Hard 4, Rambo 4 (what is it about 4, I wonder…lol) Rocky VI(VII?) I think this is just a Baby Boomer nostalgia for the movies we loved (or rolled our eyes at the cheesiness of ) as teens and young adults… The problem I have is that these guys, who made the original series in their 30s and 40s, essentially their prime, are now past it and looking a bit silly, in my opinion…not to mention that the films are not the best written instalments.
As for the DVD boxed season sets, I think that TV viewers anticipated this technological trend in the 80s, with the rise of VCRs and emergent internet/.listservs,(as per Jenkins et al) taping episodes and re-watching them. Personally, I STILL have old tapes of ST:TNG from 1990-91, when I was first starting my undergrad. DVDs are just the 21st century version of that…
Personally, I think the next few years will show a real split in TV programming, with a dive towards the really visceral “guilty pleasure” of Reality TV and Springer/Povich-style trash and the HBO-style series that are the TV version of Literature..