It behooves a critic and columnist to stop every now and then and assess mistakes, false predictions, things that went wrong or were misunderstood.
In a May column about Kirstine Stewart's departure from CBC, I wrote, "She put Being Erica and Little Mosque on the air, but probably supported them for too long." This was unfair. After the second season of Little Mosque, Stewart declared a conflict of interest and recused herself from all decisions regarding the show. She had become involved with one of the show's stars, who later became her husband. Richard Stursberg called the shots on Little Mosque for a time and later CBC president Hubert LaCroix made decision regarding the series.
A column in April asked readers to respond to the question, "what use is a critic, anyway?" I made the assertion that "the primary job of a critic is to be critical. If you want to be liked and respected, go into show business. That's where you'll get the warm glow of applause." And I asked readers to weigh in.
While the volume of replies was heartening, I eventually saw the question as a mistake. The replies mainly fell into three categories. First, many said, "keep doing what you're doing." Second, a group of readers supported the idea of a newspaper critic, pointing out the dearth of useful information about TV while silly celebrity-obsessed coverage is everywhere.
It was the third category that made my heart sink. The replies came mainly from people who blog about TV. They complained they don't get paid and don't get enough attention while a newspaper writer is paid and soaks up the consideration of readers and the TV racket. Bitterness abounds. The theme was, "who do you think you are, anyway?" Writers attacking writers is not always a pretty sight.
Which brings me to a column from last week on reaction to the Showtime series Ray Donovan (running here on TMN/Movie Central). The column pointed to reviews by women writers in a small selection of outlets. Those reviews bemoaned the fact that yet another show was about a conflicted, flawed, middle-aged man. The column also quoted from an interview with Ray Donovan creator Ann Biderman, who was dismissive when asked about the lack of women in the writer's rooms where TV dramas are created: "You know, I can't stand that kind of affirmative-action crap. Find the best person for the job."
The column suggested that some women critics wanted more complex women characters in the genre of cable TV. Various headlines were attached to it in print and online. One was "Too much machismo," which was a fair summary. Another was, "Where are the complex women on premium cable?," which suggested, vaguely, that I was ignorant of Homeland, Girls and other series. The column also contained the drollery "lady reviewers," which, like "lady viewers," "Pastor Mansbridge," "The Brother" and "Don't get me started," is part of the occasional tomfoolery theme of this column, and hardly unusual for a column that's an ongoing, open-ended conversation.
The reaction was curious. Margaret Atwood put it on her Twitter feed. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker upbraided me on Twitter. Alyssa Rosenberg, who writes for Slate, Think Progress and TheAtlantic.com, veered away from an account of interview with Diane Kruger, about the FX series The Bridge (more on that tomorrow), to attack the column as "condescending." And, ironically, cited stats about women working in TV and movies, that I have written about many times.
In that instance the column didn't go awry – short newspaper columns written to deadline are rarely the final, cogent word on anything – but the interpretation was askew. Or, possibly, I am unused to dealing with uptight Americans.
A lesson, though, is that critical writing about TV is vigorous and very much alive. That's because cable-quality TV provides the arena for it and, as the genre becomes the defining storytelling form of this age, there is a battle on to become the dominant critical voice – the Pauline Kael of the era of great, provocative TV.
And that answers, in a way, the question, "what use is a critic, anyway?" Critics provide lively reading about our most important medium. And the only column I regret is the one that was unfair to Kirstine Stewart, now working for Twitter, which sends all the critics' writing round the world for discussion.
Frontline: Two American Families (PBS, 10 p.m.) is Bill Moyers' painstaking examination of the situation of two families in Milwaukee, both trying to avoid poverty as the economy changes. This is not a sensationalist doc or a screed. It's a close look at the details involved in middle-class decline. It's about the drift away from union jobs with their stable salaries and benefits. It's about medical bills and debt. It's about the strain on marriage and, frankly, it's bleak about the future.