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Why TV criticism is winning out over film criticism.

Why TV criticism is winning out over film criticism. (photo)

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In a typically scintillating cross-talk on the changing culture of serious television, the AV Club‘s Noel Murray tosses out a real money quote:

Over the past few weeks, a number of our film-critic pals have been bickering over which acclaimed new movie is “overrated,” and whether the profession is dying because they didn’t get an advance screening of Killers, and whether watching movies on an iPod is a crime against art, and whether the reviews (not the movie, mind you, the reviews) of Sex And The City 2 are misogynistic. Not only are most of these debates depressingly insular, they’re old. We’ve been having these same boring conversations for years now, with fewer and fewer participants.

With TV, on the other hand, “because we’re usually talking with people who are already watching, we get to kick around symbolism, character development, and real-world connections to what’s on the screen, rather than just writing about whether the show is worth a damn.”


06222010_consumer.jpgLately, even academic institutions feel the need to make distinctions between “film reviewers” (consumer-reports types who issue evaluations of quality) and “film critics” (who toil to explicate subtext, context and other concerns). It’s clear that a field created by trial-and-error as much as anything has broken down to the point where film critics are expected to go plow their specialized terrain elsewhere and film reviewers are for The People.

So why does the general level of literacy and engagement in TV criticism tend to be higher, on average, than in film? Some of the reasons are already teased out by Murray and Tobias in that discussion. Event viewing is back with a vengeance, so people either commit to a show and want to talk about it a lot or they’re just not watching. They’re not going to get all up in arms and call someone an idiot for disagreeing about the professed objective quality of a product. They’re already committed; everything else is a reasonable disagreement and part of the discussion.

Another factor: TV has technically been with us since the ’30s, but it really only started taking off in the ’50s. The possibilities of extended narrative weren’t broached til the ’80s; relatively speaking, the medium’s in its infancy. Film’s landscape is more splintered than ever. The simplest dividing line for viewers may be how important a strong narrative is, and if it’s necessary at all. It’s almost impossible to imagine a consensus between arthouse denizens and anyone who celebrates a future of endless “Transformers” installments and high-concept Eddie Murphy vehicles.

06222010_ebert.jpgTV series are the kind of the things that (by the very nature of the time commitment and so-far-limited avenues for narrative experimentation) pretty much everyone still watching after, say, the fifth episode can agree on. The “merit” of the work is pretty much the last thing on anyone’s mind by then, that question having been dispensed with long ago. And that enables actual criticism. It’s the very confining nature of what you can do with TV (so far, anyway) that allows for reasonable and interesting discussions to happen.

The problem with a lot of contemporary film writing isn’t that it’s fixated on the stale (mainly because if you can’t engage readers with specifics about movies you might as well go for the same talking points that everyone else is mulling over); it’s that it’s trying to perform the impossible task of placating a fictional audience’s taste and writing something interpretive. TV criticism can run free and wild. And, for the moment, that’s an unsolvable problem.

[Photos: TV Guide regional 1949 prototype, TV Guide; Consumer Reports, Consumers Union, 2007; “At The Movies,” Tribune Entertainment, 1982-90]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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