Feb 26, 2014

The Internet is a Flat Circle: How We Talk About TV

By Josh Oakley

On the most recent Hollywood Prospectus podcast over at Grantland, Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan preempted their discussion of True Detective with a short conversation on a fairly significant distinction for these times. When are we talking about a television show, and when are we talking about the conversation surrounding said show? The two become muddled, with this phenomenon hitting an apex (or nadir depending on your position) around the time of Breaking Bad’s final season, and showing little sign of slowing down since. This has been around for awhile, with approximately one trillion thinkpieces on Girls, the reaction to Girls, and the reaction to the reaction to Girls. But the beast has morphed somehow. At least with the early discussions of that show, it was fairly obvious when someone was dismantling the program itself or the way we talk about women on TV or race, or any of the other valid topics that arose in its wake. Though many seemed to confuse Lena Dunham the person for Hannah Horvath the character, there was perhaps a space between various Inception-esque levels of reaction. No more, demands Twitter. Now, conversations immediately begin where others have left off, rather than at the source material itself.

Emily Nussbaum wrote a very good critique of True Detective that dropped shortly after the show’s sixth episode, “Haunted Houses”, aired. One of the main points that interested Nussbaum was the lack of developed female characters, a problem others (including Greenwald) have brought up. The day following her piece was flooded by others’ thoughts on whether or not Detective is sexist. This is somewhere that anyone who watched “Haunted Houses” could have jumped to, on one side or the other. This was an episode that both featured the most prominent use of the show’s most central female character, but it also had a former underage prostitute desperately wanting to fuck a middle-aged man (that’s as far as I’ll go in this debate, at least for now). The thing is, most didn’t get there themselves, or more accurately they did, but their frame was already painted by Nussbaum’s words. There’s absolutely no problem with a communal discussion about a popular television show. The potential issue arises when the conversation becomes not about the show, but about the words written about the show.

This “issue” obviously means something to a very small number. Many are content to enjoy True Detective, possibly only picking up on a piece like the great look at the show’s mythology and references from io9 a few weeks back. But to those of us who do spend too much time on social media and other parts of the Internet, the conversation can look a bit like a flat circle. Maybe there is a great piece I missed on the show’s use of procedural elements in the context of an episode largely about the strains relationships suffer over time. Perhaps somebody did write on the way religion was discussed, particularly in this episode which featured a probably-evil mega-reverend and a child killer who loves Jesus. Though, maybe neither of those topics would sustain a full piece, or would seem all that interesting. But herein lies the potential problem with the Ouroboros culture of online television criticism: when a single topic becomes more important than the entirety of the show, various facets can be underserved. There could be a million great articles to be written from this past week’s True Detective (and to be fair, I didn’t write a single one of them), but instead we seem to get the same two or three pieces over and over again. Written incredibly well, in many instances, but still a narrow view in what should be a broader context.

This mainly occurs due to a detachment from the art itself, and a latching on to the culture of art writ large. Again, there may be nothing inherently wrong with this scenario. We may be underserving the art itself, though. And this extends beyond television. The roar of commentary on The Wolf of Wall Street felt insulated, whittling an expansive film to a handful of bullet points. Maybe it is impossible to capture the full spectrum of deserving art (deserving meaning interesting, not necessarily great). Maybe it’s unfair to want many dialogues instead of only the one or two we seem to get. And maybe I’m blowing the detachment between art and critique out of proportion, ignoring exquisite examples of writers delivering unique and out-of-nowhere takes on whatever the hot TV show or film happens to be. But sometimes it feels like “everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.” As vital as certain topics are, especially ones that concern female representation in media, I’m also interested in viewpoints that aren’t responses to other viewpoints, but rather to the piece of art itself. Twitter culture demands immediate reaction and subsequent re-reaction, but this is a culture that we created. We can rebuild it, hand in hand, like little figurines carved from a can of Lone Star beer.

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