Episodes: Liking things


I saw a movie tonight that I'm convinced is a near-masterpiece, held back by a couple of dumb judgment calls made by its rookie filmmaker, judgment calls said filmmaker probably won't make in their second or third or fourth films. I was quietly blown away by the movie's level of entertainment, its inventiveness, and its willingness to blend big setpieces with intimate character stuff.

When I told people I'd seen a near masterpiece, though, they just mostly shrugged. Now, to be fair, the number of people I've told this is pretty small, and they were all busy with other stuff. So I don't blame them for shrugging.

But my secret fear is that they just shrugged because I like too many things.

As I've written about in this newsletter before, my inner critical self is tilted slightly more toward appreciation than toward ripping things apart. I like to think I can do a good evisceration if need be (here's one!), but there's this chuckle of glee my editor gets after she gets to read one of my bad reviews that isn't really present when I've talked myself into giving three stars to a movie that just as easily could have had two and a half (Vox's dividing line between "fresh" and "rotten").

Some of this is, yes, nuance. The majority of things out there are Pretty Okay. That could mean they're anywhere from interesting failures to forgettable mediocrities. And I really do think the hardest thing for critics to do is to separate the great from the good, but that's also our most vital mission. It's to say, "This is solid stuff. But this is tremendous stuff."

That said, I worry constantly that my propensity to talk myself up half a star (instead of down half a star) somehow wears out my reputation with readers, who might like my work generally but feel they've been burned too many times by hearing about things that I liked that they simply didn't. (For some reason, I almost never think that people will get too mad if I didn't like something they did, despite all the people in my Twitter mentions angry at me for being insufficiently overwhelming in my praise for Stranger Things. So this whole newsletter is probably just about how I'm wired. Fun!)

There's, of course, no way to know if this is true. Everybody feels differently about different things. And I know I can speak in sufficiently glowing terms about the film I saw tonight to convince you that I think it's great, even if you don't. Part of the fun of this kind of writing is getting a peak into somebody else's brain, after all, and seeing what they value.

But because I was worried I was a flop, I took a peek at Metacritic (something I almost never do) to see if I had it wrong. And my enthusiasm for the film substantially outpaces most other critics' enthusiasm (so far), even though they identified all the same strengths and weaknesses as I will. So am I weighting things wrong? Are they? Is it worth worrying about?

I long ago decided not to worry too much if I decide to skew toward saying something is good, even if it has problems. I've never much liked reading critics who exist seemingly only to find fault, and if I'm putting lipstick on a pig, so to speak, well, I've always liked pigs.

What's weird, I think, is that the longer I do this, the more forgiving I become, not the less. Yes, I see lots and lots of shitty TV and movies (and I actually increasingly don't write about a lot of it), but I see just as much stuff that's trying something interesting and not quite pulling it off, or weaving some fun moments into the middle of otherwise formulaic dross. For me, good criticism has always said, "Here's the fun you can have with this movie, which is exactly as mediocre as you expect." But I also worry that I oversell, leaning too heavily on things that might only amuse me.

Or maybe this is just a thing that critics care about and readers mostly don't. I would wager most readers think critics hate too many things (the old joke is that if the critic hated the movie, you're sure to like it), whereas the opposite is true for most critics. So maybe I'm on edge because I'm judging myself for being too forgiving.

This doesn't really have a center, I realize, but it's been on my mind a lot lately. So what about you? Are you skewed more toward liking things than not? And do you try to be OK with that or overcome your own tendencies?

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Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.