I Like to Watch

You think it's easy being a critic? Why, yes -- apparently you do! And you weigh in with some strong pronouncements of your own.

Published October 23, 2005 9:03PM (EDT)

Critical mass
Critics are people who know everything. You probably didn't know this, since you're not a critic. Critics have read everything, seen everything, been everywhere and done everything. This is what qualifies them to tell you what you will or won't enjoy. Critics' opinions are immutable -- they never second-guess themselves -- and all verdicts are final. Like doctors, critics' diagnoses should only be questioned by other critics. Mere mortals, such as artists, are never qualified to dispute or even discuss a critic's opinion.

Artists only know their own hearts. Critics pretend to respect this, but really it just makes them laugh until coffee sprays out of their noses. Critics know which hearts are pure and which are probably only acting pure because it makes them look "artsy." Artists long to express their innermost thoughts and feelings, their deepest secrets, their hidden wells of sadness and desire. Critics know which of these thoughts and feelings are worth expressing, they recognize which "deepest secrets" might form a compelling narrative arc, and they can tell if a hidden well of sadness is one that Gwyneth Paltrow could capture on-screen. Artists seek the most pressing truths of human existence. Critics seek cheese danishes.

Artists share themselves with the world. Critics tell us whether or not the artists should've bothered. Artists bleed the stone. Critics throw stones, and use the proceeds to buy glass houses, and then purchase elaborate alarm systems calibrated to detect any lurking stone-throwers. Once they feel safe and secure, critics hole up for hours, eating salty snacks and reading about themselves on Romenesko.

Now that we've made that perfectly clear...

Past my threshold

Dear ILTW,

You mentioned that no one had written to you about "Threshold." Well, maybe, just maybe, it isn't as good as you think? I tried to like it, I really did. I watched three episodes before giving up. I loved most of the characters, and it had potential. Carla Gugino is beautiful and does a great job, but is overwhelmed by the melodrama. It is nice to see Brent Spiner trying to break out of his mold, and Peter Dinklage is a revelation. In fact, Dinklage is the main reason I wanted to like this show. The fact that it treated him as a regular character, and not some kind of freak, is wonderful. Especially since he is such a great actor.

One problem is the melodrama. Everything is so heavy-handed, every smidgen of drama so overplayed that it's tiring. Charles Dutton is so overcooked, it's scary. Every clichéd warning, every thudding line just drives home the melodrama. The biggest problem, though, is the logic. There is none. The episode [with the guy who was accused of killing his family as a teenager] was a great example. Dinklage spends the episode in the crazy guy's cell, looking at pictures he drew of a house, with a series of words [underneath it]. Dinklage then somehow determines that these words are numbers, with no outside reference material, and somehow determines what number each word represents. This in itself is remarkable, but then we learn they are latitude and longitude coordinates, so specific and precise, that we can zoom in our satellite imagery directly onto the house. However, the man who encoded these coordinates was 13 (?) when he was arrested for killing his family, and this was 20 (?) years ago. So how did he know the exact coordinates of the house in 1985 while he was 13? Makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The mood was good, but this is just one example of the incredibly poor writing and logic behind the show. The third episode was the last for me.

Scott Martin, Seattle, Wash.

Dear Scott,

You're right. "Threshold" is turning into a serious disappointment. I've been championing this show since the deliriously creepy first episode, cheering Carla Gugino on, hoping for some horrors on par with the pilot, but lately I've been having second thoughts.

The things you mentioned about Dinklage and the crazy guy -- that stuff doesn't bother me. Those guys are geniuses, see? We're not supposed to understand how they can sit around and add up numbers for a few seconds, and then come up with a solution that propels the plot forward magically. If we could understand it, we'd be far, far less impressed -- and then we might start to notice how curiously short that one genius is.

I can suspend my disbelief until the cows come home. Sadly, the cows came home a week ago, with that unsavory little DJ girl who became infected by the alien signal. The agents were trying to figure out how the girl got her hands on the alien transmission, only to find, on her answering machine, a message from her brother seconds before his death. He called her to say something like, "Hey, sis, you're not going to believe what I'm looking at right now, it's this crazy thing in the sky and... Argh! Oww! Arrrrgh!"

Come on, guy. Then, the DJ girl sat there and replayed her brother's painful death on her machine, over and over and over again, until she was infected. Then she recorded it onto her iPod (I knew iPods were the devil's handiwork, I just thought it had more to do with the little spongy black things that pop off the earphones and get lost forever, or the fragile, irreplaceable, not-covered-by-warranty screen that breaks when you look at it the wrong way). Then she played it to all those ne'er-do-well ravers, and we were actually supposed to care that it hurt their little raver ears!

I also didn't approve of Carla getting all righteous about trying to save the DJ girl from turning into an alien. Screw her! First of all, she's a teenager. Yuck! Second, trying to save her puts millions of lives at risk. Wouldn't you think that the head of the worst-case scenario department would be more than willing to make this very necessary human (half-alien!) sacrifice? Oh, Carla, Jack Bauer's on the phone. He wants you to get some friggin' balls already.

Why do female characters always have to be so damn compassionate? I'm tired of compassionate women on TV. I want some dispassionate, heartless women for a change. I want some women who don't waste precious time struggling with the human toll of every stupid decision. Even Mac the Knife on "Commander in Chief" is wussing around about dissident journalists and tortured terrorists and such. Oh, Mrs. President? Jack Bauer's on the phone. He wants you to man up and let those bastards have it.

So, I've changed my mind. "Threshold" started out strong, but if Carla doesn't start having those creepy nightmares again, I'm going to have to jump ship. Plus, have you watched "Lost" lately? It's really getting good this season -- less invisible beasts and magic, more real and pressing danger. Hell, even "Invasion" almost holds my interest, what with all the blank stares and the running water and the faint promise of Mommy sprouting demon claws and eating her teenage daughter alive.

So, you're right, Scott. "Threshold" is slipping. Let's make it official with a zingy pull quote for the marketing department over at ABC: While "Threshold" pushes past the threshold of believability, "Invasion" invades our imaginations and "Lost" has finally found its stride! Three thumbs up!


Life's a beach


"Laguna Beach" has made all other teen dramas unwatchable. There has never been a show with teenage dialogue this authentic. Laguna Beach exposes all other teenage shows for what they are: the pompous exploits of some wordy blowhard.

There was an amazing scene this year when Jessica confronted Jason about their relationship. She asked them why they were together and if he liked her. He had no answer. He just kept avoiding eye contact and saying I don't know and trying to smile his way out of the awkwardness. I've never seen that on a scripted teen drama. Teenage kids are stupid and don't know how to express themselves. They barely know what word to use from minute to minute. After watching this, I can't go back to scripted television and watch a teenager who has a snappy comeback to every problem or a soliloquy for every emotion and not cringe. It's pathetic.

The show is unique in that I cannot think of another reality show that documented current friends in their normal setting. "The Real World" threw strangers together in an IKEA-ed out house. "Big Brother," "Survivor," "The Apprentice" are all game shows. "Orange County Choppers" has an objective. The kids on "Laguna Beach" would be doing what they're doing anyway (of course, the cameras do change things).

You mentioned the scene where Kristen hooked up with Jessica's crush. There was another terrific scene following that when they were at lunch together and Jessica was talking about how much she liked that guy. The "oh shit I hooked up with that guy please don't ask me about it" look on Kristen's face was priceless. You'll never find something that real on any scripted show and on a lot of other reality shows.

I know the people on "Laguna Beach" are shallow and rich and spoiled. But the show is about form, not content. It's groundbreaking television.

Tim Masterson, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dear Tim,

You're absolutely right. I laughed so hard when I watched that scene with Jessica and Jason, I cried. It was better than all the stuff that's better than "Cats." It reminded me of the feeling I used to have when I was a teenager (yuck!), trying to pry a few meaningful words out of some guy I was dating. It was like trying to have a conversation with your pet hamster. I remember when my first boyfriend broke up with me. We walked around and I cried and cried and then tried to find out why he was dumping me, but all he could say was, "I don't know." Now I know that "I don't know" means "That tall, blond girl I'm friends with has finally agreed to sleep with me. Hurray! Wish me luck!"

You're also right about the wordy blowhards, and how they trick us into thinking that teenagers are anything but awkward, hormone-addled morons. Teenagers are gross, but we're lured into believing that they're glamorous and special and that they're just as clever and lovable as crusty, dumpy old folks like us. Wrong!

"Laguna Beach" is groundbreaking television, and since you aren't a critic and haven't published these thoughts anywhere already, I'm just going to pretend I thought of it first. All I have to do is wheel out some big, sweeping statements, and everyone will forget you even exist, Tim Masterson of Brooklyn, N.Y. Watch this: Look past its pretty sugar-coating, and "Laguna Beach" offers a stunning snapshot of the strange machinations of the adolescent mind. A timeless classic that's sure to be treasured for generations to come.

Those crazy kids over at MTV are going to love me for this one!


A class act

Dear ILTW,

I stopped following "Arrested Development" early on when they accidentally burned up $750,000 in cash at the banana stand. Back next week for more wacky adventures! Working-class shows like "The Simpsons," "Malcolm," "Honeymooners," etc., etc., etc., succeed because they show that despite (or perhaps because of) being toward the bottom of the class system, a family can retain its dignity. "Arrested Development" is a bitter reminder told over and over that with money you never have to say you're sorry, never have to rely on others for validation, never have to worry about being homeless, never suffer the indignity of class. No wonder critics fawn over it while the rest of America won't watch.

Doug, Venice, Calif.

Dear Doug,

I think "Arrested Development" teaches us all a very important lesson: When you have so much money that you never have to say you are sorry, never have to rely on others for validation, never have to worry about being homeless, and never suffer the indignity of class, you usually evolve into a whiny, dysfunctional loser who can't stop auditioning for the Blue Man Group.

I don't know if you've noticed, but the Bluths haven't exactly retained their dignity. They're groveling, they're shameless, they're lazy and they're self-involved. In short, they're absolutely pathetic. They think they know everything, but really they don't know a damn thing.

In that light, though, I can see your point about why critics fawn over it while the rest of America won't watch. I'll have to craft this into a think piece for the New Yorker, a little treatise on the myopia of today's public intellectual -- you know, something refined yet weighty, buoyed by deft metaphors and agile prose. "Arrested Development" will just be a gateway to richer, more complex terrain, of course, but I'll toss in a good line about how the show reflects the Updikian barbarity of family, and the P.R. department at Fox will probably emboss it onto some promotional items (silver coasters? paperweights?) and my name will be right there, next to my brilliant quote! I should probably e-mail them to make sure they spell my last name correctly ...


Pop Quiz!

How much have you learned about critics today? Take this quiz and find out! >

1. Critics know...

a) the exact moment when an artist's career is over
b) the particular flaws of any human being's earnest attempt at expressing him or herself
c) what stinks about that half-written screenplay in your desk
d) everything -- including what you're thinking right now
e) the exact size and shape of their own navels.

2. Critics never...

a) get it all wrong
b) second-guess themselves
c) change their minds
d) meet a doughnut they don't like
e) have an unself-conscious, spontaneous moment
f) feel without judging
g) win.

3. Can your feelings about a particular TV show, movie or song really be judged as wrong or incorrect?

a) Yes, of course. Art can be objectively judged and given a numeric value to reflect its quality.
b) Maybe. It depends on how wrong or incorrect you are.
c) Did someone put the doughnuts away already? I wasn't done with them yet.

4. Why do people become critics?

a) Because they know everything, and they feel an obligation to share their immense stores of knowledge with the world.
b) Because it was that or write the greatest American novel of the 21st century, and really, aren't there enough classic works of literature out there already? Besides, being a novelist is so cliché, it's so 1955.
c) After an early childhood of bottling up their emotions, nascent critics learn to compartmentalize their feelings and to express those feelings with elaborate, winding, complicated treatises, in which all genuine emotion is abstracted and confused and projected onto exterior forces. Eventually, all traces of real emotion and feeling evaporate and all that's left is a complicated web of messy thoughts. Voilà! A critic is born!
d) For the free cheese and crackers.
e) So they can air their negative feelings about teenagers.
f) So they can use the word "flaccid" a lot.

5. Which of these things has the most in common with a critic?

a) a hammer
b) a package of lunch meat
c) a discarded sock
d) a little old book of idioms
e) the silt at the bottom of a glass of tea
f) David Hasselhoff
g) hot dog water.

Answer Key: 1.d, 2.d, 3. b, 4. e, 5. g

Next week: I have no idea!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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