A lot of people have been complaining about Friday’s New York Times article on the new ABC show How to Get Away With Murder and its executive producer, Shonda Rhimes.  The author, Alessandra Stanley, probably thought she was writing a praiseworthy on a powerful African American woman, but her observations about Shonda Rhimes (and race in general) were so retrograde that it’s Stanley who’s been getting murdered on the internet.  Even the Times’s public editor came down hard on the piece, although Stanley remained unapologetic.

While I agree that Stanley’s article is clueless – as much because it lacks a thesis or any remotely original ideas on the television industry as for its assumptions about race – there are a few points that I think have been overlooked in the furor.

1. Five years ago, Alessandra Stanley’s Walter Cronkite tribute required so many corrections that it drew widespread mockery, and a public accusation that Stanley owed her job to cronyism.  Four years before that, Gawker had exposed her as the most-corrected Times critic, by a wide margin.  Within the newspaper business, Stanley has been a joke for a long time; but since this article is the first to draw widespread criticism from outside that bubble, I fear that the public takeaway from the incident might be along the lines of: “the New York Times‘s television critic is a racist.”  The more comprehensive view is that the New York Times‘s television critic is simply incompetent and unqualified.

2. Stanley is not the only problem here.  Of its other television critics, Mike Hale isn’t bad, but Neil Genzlinger is, if anything, just as clueless as Stanley.  In July, he wrote a fuzzily-argued, roundly criticized piece about classic television, the central argument of which was: “But to actually watch 50-year-old shows all day? I’d rather rip out my eyeballs.”  I would have said it was impossible, but Genzlinger lowered the bar on the Times’s previous benchmark for incuriosity and condescension toward the arts, Dan Kois’s infamous “cultural vegetables” manifesto.

For the first time in its history, the Times has two very good first-string film critics, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (disclosure: I took a class taught by Dargis when I was an undergraduate at USC.).  The paper’s film coverage beyond their reviews has a lot of problems – but at a minimum, the Times needs to bring its television section up to the same standard by replacing Stanley and Genzlinger with writers who actually know and care about television.  There are at least a dozen first-rate television critics working today, most of whom the Times could probably poach in a heartbeat.

3. Shonda Rhimes is not a very good writer.  Any time I read an interview with Rhimes, she says something that makes me like her, whether it’s her voracious enthusiasm for the Scripps National Spelling Bee or her characterization of reading as a form of childhood rebellion.  But I have yet to see anything in her shows that exhibits the same intelligence or audacity.  (I wrote about why I hate Scandal last year.)  Rhimes herself has expressed frustration at being treated as an ambassador for her color or her sex, rather than a creator first and foremost; Linda Holmes writes cogently about how that in itself is a form of bias.  One consequence of Rhimes’s status as the most prominent African-American woman television producer may be that her work has been overpraised, or at least taken more seriously than it ought to be.  Scandal is superficial and trashy, but perhaps that’s the kind of story Rhimes likes to tell; many critics have fallen into the trap of treating the show as something weighty simply because its creator and its protagonist are black women.  We need more TV series with women and minority protagonists, but they need to be better shows than Rhimes’s; we urgently need more showrunners who are women and people of color, but they need to be better than Rhimes has been so far.

4. One “gotcha” that was thrown at Stanley – by Rhimes herself, among others – is the fact that the showrunner and creator of How to Get Away With Murder is not Rhimes herself, but a white male writer, Pete Nowalk.  That’s a significant error because many of Stanley’s points are predicated on the notion that Rhimes created the character played by Viola Davis in Murder.  But Stanley is hardly the only reporter to make that mistake: here are previews of the new series from The Huffington Post and The New York Daily News that mention Rhimes but not Nowalk.

Presently, the Internet Movie Database lists four executive producers for How to Get Away With Murder, including both Rhimes and Nowalk.  To determine which is the showrunner requires a bit of research, or even reporting, and Stanley seems to have flubbed this basic task.  A September 12 Los Angeles Times piece made it clear that Rhimes will be taking a backseat to Nowalk on Murder – although it doesn’t mention Nowalk until the tenth paragraph, and places its emphasis on the fact that ABC’s Thursday night lineup consists entirely of Rhimes-produced programming, including Murder.  “Showrunner” still isn’t an on-screen credit you’ll see anywhere, although it probably should be.  Sometimes it’s in the interest of the TV industry to obfuscate who does what: once a producer becomes a brand, then “a Shonda Rhimes show” or “a J.J. Abrams show” is a marketing hook, even if the name producer’s protégés do the heavy lifting.  But if How to Get Away With Murder was produced under Rhimes’s supervision, and was likely sold on the strength of and is being advertised using her name, then isn’t it her show as well as Nowalk’s?  I think it was disingenuous of Rhimes to criticize Stanley on this point, and legitimate of the Times to build a think piece around Murder in the context of Rhimes’s other shows (just, you know, not a stupid think piece).

And yet, this is something that television critics get wrong all the time.  We lazily attribute authorial aspects of a show to its showrunner, or even someone (like Rhimes) who isn’t the showrunner, without investigating or even thinking logically about who actually did what.  Sometimes it happens because writers don’t have a thorough understanding of how television is made, or don’t bother to do their homework.  But it’s also difficult, just from a technical standpoint, to write about aspects of art that are made by committee, or by someone whose identity is uncertain.  Sentences read better if they have a clear subject.  So even someone like me will slip into writing that “Serling did that” or “Sorkin does this,” in spite of having interviewed enough makers of television to know that a staff writer  or a director or an actor was just as likely to have thought up that particular thing.  With her attribution of a white male’s ideas to an “angry black woman,” Stanley has probably arrived at the worst possible consequence of this type of shorthand.  But the imprecision of which she is guilty is endemic to television criticism.  It’s not a problem that will ever be wholly solved – critics can’t always be expected to double as reporters or historians – but a secondary lesson of Shondagate is that we need to get better at it.

Why I Do This

November 8, 2013

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In the second season of Scandal, there’s a scene in which the White House Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene, encounters a political rival moments after having successfully executed a scheme to vanquish her, temporarily, from power.  “Madame Vice President, how are you today?” he sneers as he walks past her into the Oval Office.  Jeff Perry, the actor who plays Beene, delivers this nondescript bit of dialogue in a gleeful, singsong tone.  He places the emphasis on “you” and then again on the final syllable of “to-day.”  He sounds like a cheery, semi-deranged telemarketer.  Then he grabs his crotch, a gesture just barely captured by the camera.

A second later, Beene’s aside to his colleague – “That was small of me. I need to work on that” – underlines the sarcastic intent of his greeting.  I’m sure that the lines were scripted, but Perry’s interpretation of them is so exuberantly eccentric that they feel improvised.  In obscure corners of television I’ve glimpsed a few other brilliant grace notes like that over the years, but they’re exceedingly rare.  The great Miguel Sandoval had a few of them on Medium, and on House Chi McBride did something once that I think probably was his invention.  McBride played a hospital executive who had it in for Dr. House’s unorthodox methods, and at the beginning of their final showdown in an empty conference room McBride scatted a bit on a throwaway line: “D-d-d-d-d-d-doctor House in the house,” he grins with a cockiness that is, of course, soon obliterated.  It was a line reading that was totally out of character for a buttoned-down numbers-cruncher, but that was the point: with a few extra syllables, a stock villain appeared to gain a secret inner life not hinted at on the page.  A few Scandal episodes later, Jeff Perry has another astonishing scene (above), a longer one in which he finally reveals the true scope of his ambitions to his husband (Dan Bucatinsky, also good), as well the seething rage that being unphotogenic and gay has thwarted them.  When Perry utters the words, “I was made to be president of the United States,” there is a big gob of snot drooling out of his nose.

The above may sound like a lead-in to an endorsement of Scandal.  That’s the opposite of what I would want it to be mistaken for.  Like everything else I’ve seen from the pen of Shonda Rhimes (which includes only the first ten or so episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and all of Scandal), Scandal is trash.  I’ve seen it mentioned in the same breath as The Good Wife, which really is one of the smartest shows on television at the moment, and that’s not only wrong but alarmingly softheaded.  For Scandal is utterly ignorant not just about how government operates but about the basics of how people feel and think, too. Scandal is the most pernicious kind of bad television because it’s propulsive and superficially competent.  It’s watchable, in other words, unlike most bad television, which is dull or laughable and therefore easily dismissed.  Rhimes’s writing has all the wit and insight of a romance novel – indeed, it is consistently and perhaps deliberately pitched at that level – and yet because its story pieces fit together neatly and its tension mounts from episode to episode at a satisfying pace, too many critics have given its utter absence of substance a pass.

But back to Jeff Perry: He is a lesser-known graduate of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, his midwestern twang still intact, and maybe the best of them.  He’s been around for a couple of decades, doing thankless character work in stuff like Nash Bridges and Prison Break; I first noticed him as a teacher in My So-Called Life, twenty years ago.  Cyrus Beene is a career-defining performance for Perry, one that proves he can hit Shakespearean highs; now he’s on my list of actors I’d love to see as Lear or Richard III (which is, really, who he’s playing here), and he wasn’t before.  Sometimes good actors (or good directors or even good writers) end up doing good work within a canvas that is, on the whole, risible.  That is the case with Perry and a few others (especially Tony Goldwyn and Debra Mooney) in Scandal, but it’s also worth noting that the very stupidity of the show may be the factor that makes Perry’s spine-tingling work possible.  Subtlety is completely unknown in Scandal, and therefore it has room for Perry to scale his work all the way over the top without wrecking the thing and making a fool of himself.  Whereas in shows that have brains, actors have to try to impersonate actual human beings.

Occasionally someone will ask me, because I’m supposed to be an expert, whether or not they should watch a television series or a movie.  My unhelpful answer is always, “Of course you should.”  I realize that most people have not made the conscious decisions to fill all their waking hours with pop culture and that they have to make hard choices about what to opt into and that some sage advice would be useful to them.  But the question remains unanswerable.  You can’t substitute my judgment for yours.  Everyone who ever read a review hoping to find the answer to “should I go see it or not?” was doing it wrong – no matter how understandable that impulse might be.

The corollary to that train of thought is this one: Someone will ask me if I watch a television series and I’ll say yes and they’ll say, “Oh, so it’s a good show then,” and I’ll say, “Oh, fuck no, it’s horrible.  Stay away!”  Such is the case with Scandal.  And when I tell my inquisitor to stay away I am, in essence, saying: “Leave this one to the professionals, dear.”  But the rationalization that I’m sticking with junk like Scandal because it’s my job to keep up with whatever’s in vogue at the moment, whether I like it or not, is only a half-truth.  No, I’m there because I want to be.  But why?  How do I justify surrendering hours to what I know is bad art?  Well, the short answer is Jeff Perry.  The long answer was explained to me by Pauline Kael – at an early point in my life as a media geek, fortunately, or I’d probably have gotten a lot more neurotic about it.  If you’re a movie nerd, too, I’ll bet you already know where I’m taking this: to one of the secondary ideas in Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

…. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies.  But we are so used to reaching out to the few good bits in a movie that we don’t need formal perfection to be dazzled.  There are so many arts and crafts that go into movies and there are so many things that can go wrong that they’re not an art for purists.  We want to experience that elation we feel when a movie (or even a performer in a movie) goes farther than we expected and makes the leap successfully.

…. If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed – even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them – what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness.

Kael made those points in the service of a larger argument explaining why movies were good for you in spite (or because) of not being “high art.”  Fifty years later, the distinction between high and low art is meaningless; or, rather, we’ve erased it so much that instead of defending television against the snobs, as one had to do in Kael’s day, I wish there were more snobs around to swat down enticing drivel like Scandal.  But for me, this part of Kael’s essay was an epiphany.  It gave a twenty-year-old culture snob the permission to relax and take what the movies and the television shows were giving me on their own terms, instead of judging them against pre-conceived notions or ignoring the trees in search of the forest.  That doesn’t mean suspending judgment on the likes of Scandal; it just means remaining open to everything and embracing the parts without demanding they add up to an exceptional whole.  Because, if you don’t, you run afoul of Sturgeon’s Law (ninety percent of everything is crap), and ten percent of television, or anything, is a pretty meager diet.

Kael’s essay framed a question I mulled over for a time in my twenties.  Was I willing to devote a lifetime to sniffing out truffles like Jeff Perry?  (Or Walter Doniger or Norman Katkov or the seventh season of Rawhide or “Turkeys Away” or Jerry Stahl’s scripts for CSI?)  Was it worth my time, was it in fact not wasting a perfectly good life, to sometimes pay attention to things like Scandal, that I knew to be far more flawed than worthwhile?  Would that be enough?  When I realized the answer to all of those was yes was when I had to break it to mom that I probably wouldn’t ever be going to law school or running for office or paying for her elder care.  It may also have been when I started to get sort of good at what I do.

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