Fellow lovers of the idiot box,
I’m going lightning round here and touching on a bunch of unrelated things I care about.
The great critic Wesley Morris wrote a piece a few months ago about the state of criticism and the cultural conversation, that argued—I’m paraphrasing, at a sprint—that the political climate was such that it was no longer deemed totally appropriate (on the left) to criticize pieces of art with admirable politics and moral value, while—on the flip side of the same coin—pieces of art with bad or iffy politics created by immoral people were being summarily “canceled” (not just literally, though that too). It was a good, thread-gathering piece, and it has been talked about and critiqued in many places. But now that I have you critics here, I’m curious: Do you feel that this has been true for you? That you have held back some opinion because it felt inappropriate or clueless or beside the bigger point? Because it didn’t seem woke enough?
I mostly feel like I did not do this, both because I agree with Morris that this isn’t the purpose of criticism and because of my (irritating) self-conception as being brutally honest. But I did at least feel some entirely self-inflicted pressure to hold back in at least one, unexpected, context: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a sibling to Riverdale and a teen drama based on the Sabrina comics about a teen witch in the Archie universe. The show stars Kiernan Shipka, aka Sally Draper of Mad Men, and it’s—you’ll never guess—fine. But it would be much better if Shipka did not have the shiny, false comportment of a child actor. Whether an actor can act is the most important thing about them, like whether a baker can bake, but I hesitated before weighing in on Shipka’s performance in my review because it just felt so mean. She’s so young! There was so much else to talk about! Acting is so subjective! (There are definitely people—wrong people, by the way!—who think she’s good on that show, or just haven’t noticed one way or another.) There’s no way that critiquing an actor on a TV show’s performance is punching down, but I felt, briefly, like it might be—and then I wondered if others had felt the same, and that explained why there was so little chatter about her performance, or if the absence of chatter was just further proof of TV critics’ tendency to downplay acting, because it’s the most mysterious part of a show, the hardest to understand and evaluate, and therefore to write about. Anyway, you’ll be happy to hear, I fought through my misgivings and slagged the performance—but it struck me that if I was thinking about these questions in this context, these questions have permeated very deep.
On to the next thing! Earlier in our conversation, I mentioned that sometimes whether a thing is good or bad can be the least interesting thing about it. I think about this a lot when it comes to reality TV, which I always find so, so much fun to write about, I think because it’s so easy to consider it as anthropology instead of craft (which is definitely underestimating the amount of craft that goes into a reality show). Of all reality shows, there is none I enjoy writing about more than The Bachelor, which over its endless run has proved itself to be both nefarious and resourceful when it comes to successfully papering over its failures and essential ickiness—very few people end up finding love, but all of them have to act cool about being in a harem first—with its BS about romance. As opposed to other reality TV competition shows built around gameplay that does not necessarily reward niceness, The Bachelor pushes its contestants to at least pretend to be decent human beings (some fail). The premium the series puts on decency often ends up revealing so much more about how awful human beings are than shows with rules that more actively encourage people to be awful.
Enter this year’s Bachelor brouhaha. The show is very great at manufacturing controversies that keep it “relevant,” and this one involved a Bachelor, a guy named Arie, breaking up with Becca, the woman who believed she had “won” the show. The real “innovation” was that all of this was aired “unedited” and at great length, which successfully turned the whole thing into an “event.” The unedited camerawork showed Arie breaking up with Becca, and then insisting on doing it again and again, refusing to leave her alone, even as she hid from him, sobbing, in the bathroom. He and the cameras followed her around the house, demanding more conversation, more understanding, more of the closure that would make him feel better for following his own selfish heart.
Arie, bulwarked by The Bachelor but also by the world we live in, believed that his wants and desires mattered so much that as long as he was honest about them, he could not possibly be accused of acting badly, inappropriately, or menacingly. That, in fact, so long as he couched his wants and desires in appropriately kind, therapeutic language—he just wants to talk it out, make sure she’s OK—he could not possibly be a dick. Months later, the Arie and Becca incident stands out to me as an incredibly clear illustration of the way a certain type of person, so bubble-wrapped in their own self-regard, power, and privilege, can practice cruelty without knowing it, protected from the knowledge of their own capacity for shittiness by … their own shittiness. Needless to say, I have had occasion to think about this sequence in a variety of contexts this year.
And another thing! I put Ugly Delicious, David Chang’s food show, on my Top 10 list, a little bit for the artistry of list-making, but also because I liked it. Back when I—or anyone—used to channel surf, I would often end up on the Food Network. I like cooking but wasn’t watching cooking shows to learn something. Rather, I found them immensely soothing: the good cheer, the chopping, the glugs of olive oil, the no-fuss competence, the manageable tasks. Obviously, I am not the only one who finds them to be so. Last time I checked, The Great British Bake Off had become a nationally recognized Xanax alternative. (An aside: For a long time, I thought cooking competition shows had an essential flaw. Unlike a Project Runway–type show, where you can see and judge what the contestants have made for yourself, you can never taste the food in a cooking show, which means you can never have a fully informed opinion about who is good and who is bad, who should win and who should lose. Eventually I figured it out. This is not a flaw; it’s the appeal. How upset can you get about the outcome when you only have partial information? It’s what makes even competitive cooking shows soothing.)
I have watched with interest as Netflix has made itself into a food-show kingpin. I get the appeal of their offerings—the tony iterations of Chef’s Table and Chef’s Table: Pastry, the fun of Nailed It, the friendliness of Salt Fat Acid Heat—but Ugly Delicious seemed the most distinct to me. It’s definitely still a documentary food show, with some cooking, but it tackles a different topic with each episode: tacos, home cooking, fried chicken, pizza, and it explores them with a lot of ideas in its head, clocking in particular when influence and crossover become appropriation, and what appropriation could even mean in the context of trying to make something taste as amazing as it possibly could. David Chang is a genuine and therefore appealing grump, with some particular pet peeves—like the overrating of Italian food over Asian cuisines—and while his show is by no means perfect, its relative orneriness set it apart for me. It’s a cooking show that has explicit judgments, and that states them, and sometimes tries to work through them, which makes it less soothing than some other cooking shows, but also more interesting.
Before encouraging all of you to please regale us with any remaining errata, and to perhaps also get into whatever you liked and loved (or hated) about things that are not scripted fictional TV offerings—though, someone, please if they’re up for it, take on BoJack—I do just want to say one more thing. As has been clear for this whole conversation, the sheer volume of TV weighs on us critics, for whom readers should, obviously, play their very tiniest violins. I think it’s worth remembering that, when it comes to TV, we are in a moment of incredible flux. Tara, I think you’re right that we’ve maybe summited Peak TV, or at least exited the fantasy mode where nothing ever gets canceled, but the volume of TV we can expect to see every year has probably changed forever. And that is incredibly new! The way regular people watch TV is, by and large, nothing like it was even five years ago.
What we can hope for, I think—in this context!—is normalization. Music critics, movie critics, book critics, they don’t seem quite as weighed down by the volume of their chosen medium. I think they seem calmer about the fact that they can’t get to it all because they are used to it, but also because they understand not getting to it all is the human condition. Great music and movies and books do not go bad after their sell-by date—and neither do TV shows. The fact that TV can now have, like, a history, that you can watch stuff that is good and old: This is relatively new, too! We may have professional pressures to write about shows as they come out, but I think we —and viewers, too!—should actively try to feel less guilty about the stuff we miss. Much of it wasn’t worth watching, and the stuff that was—well, it’s out there waiting for us, as tantalizing and promising as that book you’ve always meant to read, or that album you just discovered. In other words, next year, during TV club, I will try not to be abashed about all the things I didn’t watch. I will take it as a fact of life, and a pleasant one at that.