How to Get Away With Being a Terrible Critic
September 22, 2014
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.