Anghus Houvouras on reviewing content in the digital age…
I was in a discussion with a friend regarding Rick and Morty; a show I love more than just about any piece of produced content in the 21st century. My friend gave the show a go but decided that he, and I quote, ‘just didn’t get it’. Comedically speaking, Dan Harmon’s brand of humor is my silly siren’s song. His creative voice speaks to my sensibilities. I consider Community to be one of the most clever comedies ever produced. A show that got so many things right, from the strong flawed characters that populated the campus of Greendale Community College to the complete deconstruction of filmed storytelling. The show was damn near perfect when Harmon was steering the ship.
For my tastes, Rick and Morty achieves the exact same level of perfection in terms of character, cleverness and comedy. No matter how big a fan of Harmon I am, I completely understand those who don’t appreciate his particular brand of whimsy. There are people who like The Big Bang Theory, a show so consistently terrible that it could qualify as cruel and unusual punishment under the Geneva Convention. And yet the show has millions of fans. Does liking The Big Bang Theory and not liking Rick and Morty make you a terrible person?
Yes. Yes it does.
I’m joking, of course (kind of). Different people prefer different things. The discussion got me thinking about the current state of criticism in this digital age of entertainment option excess. The basic foundations of criticism haven’t changed much over the years. There was a time when there weren’t a half-dozen movies released weekly and only three networks available for television program. Entertainment options were limited enough that it was easy to compare a dramatic movie with another. Or a half-hour comedy against another. The pool was small enough for a critic to wrap their arms around the entirety of the entertainment spectrum.
That’s not true anymore. There’s so much content that I wonder how anyone keeps up. Two to three movies a week, and that’s just the major releases. There are hundreds of networks pumping out new programming including streaming services dumping entire seasons online en masse. By the time I finish this sentence there will be four brand new shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Crackle. Andy Samberg hilariously parodied the modern social stigma of not being able to keep up with all these shows when he hosted the Grammys. The only way to watch all the shows was to lock himself in a bunker for a year. For most of us, that’s not an option. There are a daunting level of entertainment options available. It’s difficult to see them all much less apply an analytical process to rating them.
Reviewing content in the digital age is a chore. Not just because of the mountainous volume of product, but because of the vast diversification of these movies and shows. It’s no longer a handful of networks vying for eyeballs in prime time but giant multimedia conglomerates snapping their fingers in front of you for the remaining strands of your attention span. With all the different movies and TV shows, the content has become concentrated. Whatever kind of show you like in whatever kind of genre you prefer is at your disposal. Television is no longer about trying to be all things to all people, but striking a chord with an audience that will establish a fervent fan base.
How do you compare a show like Mr. Robot to Downton Abbey? Or Mad Men to Game of Thrones? The question ‘what makes a good hour or television’ has so many potential answers. While the medium itself hasn’t changed, the approach to presenting stories within it has. The same goes for viewership. Your weekly television watching might encompass network television, cable, streaming services, and independent content from places like YouTube. Infinite options allowing you to watch exactly the kind of shows you enjoy. There is the inherent danger of losing exposure to random programming and the concept of discovery. You might not ever stumble onto a new show again.
As someone who has been paid to review content for a long time now, I can tell you that it absolutely feels like the landscape has changed. The digital age has brought audiences so much content that it makes seeing all of it nearly impossible and comparing any of it feel pointless. With so many niche offerings and a flavor for every taste, what does the opinion of a critic matter? The job of the critic is to inform the reader of their opinion and potentially help audiences make educated choices on what content to spend their hard-earned money on. With so much content available, it makes critical validation inert.
Like the friend I mentioned at the beginning of the column, he watched a few minutes of Rick and Morty based on a fervent fan base of like-minded people. After ‘not getting it’, he moved on to something else. The digital age has taken away the idea of investment. At one point audiences were forced to be at a specific time and place to watch a show. They became invested in the characters or the story and returned each week to find out what happened next. There’s no longer that level of commitment required. You can watch a show when and where you want. If you’re not immediately pulled in by the show you can simply choose another option and try again. The idea of a show that slowly lures you into the narrative feels antiquated in a day and age of immediate gratification.
Releasing all the episodes simultaneously is another new wrinkle. You can watch an entire series before a critic gets out their review of the second episode. Some critics have simply adopted a new methodology of reviewing the entire season instead of single episodes. Binge releases also kill the concept of anticipation. The build up you get having to wait another week to resolve a cliffhanger. A show like Lost feels as though it would be strangled by binge releasing. It would have only taken you a few days (instead of years) to realize Damon Lindeloff and the writing staff had no idea where the show was going. I could have wasted six days instead of six years.
People like to constantly point out that we’re in ‘the golden age of television’. There is some truth there. In terms of quality, performance and depth of storytelling television has never been more interesting. But with so many different shows on so many different platforms it’s impossible to get your looking balls on all of them. And with so much content out there the value of the product becomes diminished. A thousand different quality shows desperately vying for some of your time. A crippling feeling of FOMO (Fear of missing out) constantly washing over you as you try to decide what to watch. Your hand shaking as you scan through your infinite number of options.
The words ‘What should I watch next?’ sending a shiver up your spine.