… to inside the Crystal Bucket

From the ‘lost’ second series of From The Sublime, a hot take on TV reviewers’ hot takes and the increasingly poor approach to television criticism.

 

As long as there’s been television, there’s been television criticism. From the first day of the BBC’s transmissions in November 1936, reviewers have been lying in wait with their increasingly hot takes on what’s on the tube.

From L Marsland Gander to the grinning goons on Gogglebox, we’re a nation of tv reviewers -conscious and subconscious, all equally blessed and cursed with opinions on what we’ve been watching.

As TV matured and developed so too did the role of the critic, becoming a staple part of the features department at newspapers and magazines up and down the land, and eventually around the world. The likes of Dennis Potter and Anthony Burgess stepped into the fray as reviewing television became not only accepted but a cradle of literary talent.

TV critics used to fall largely into three categories. First came the dispassionate observers, the traditional model dating all the way back to Grace Wyndham Goldie in the 1930s. The sort of writer who could be even handed, chucking brickbats and bouquets with equal measure, but treating television with the respect they would any other kind of arts medium.

Arguably these were the most important critics — they set the template for what would follow and in most cases were people who weren’t so beholden to the magic rectangle in their childhoods, largely being able to pace a step back and take in the widescreen picture.

The sainted reviewing figures of Nancy Banks Smith, Philip Purser and Clive James fall into this category, critics who could write knowledgeably and intelligently about TV but with critical eyes, rather than overdosing on snark or adoration.

Then there was the likeable nerds: folk who spent slightly too much time watching the box growing up, able to write with passion and occasionally just a little bit too much intensity about what they were viewing, being a generation that understood the language and process of television as much as the content itself.

A lot of your classic modern commentators fall into this category, children of the 70s and 80s, blessed with sitting through a broadcasting golden age with their can of panda cola by their side, who can successfully translate that fandom into print. The likes of Charlie Brooker and Jim Shelly and, though he probably wouldn’t want to admit it, Victor Lewis Smith.

And then came your angry reviewers of television, the Sam Brady and Nina Myskow types of this world, who made growling and sneering at TV’s worst excesses a successful gimmick.

A lot of tabloid critics, and particularly soap opera reviewers, fall into this category; swapping genuine reviews and insight for half baked stand up routines and rants but who, still at least, make the effort to watch and understand what’s on screen.

Their role is to entertain viewers and readers, aiming at a lowest common denominator audience, although ironically that post has largely been supplanted by a television show of its own – Channel 4’s Gogglebox, which watches the public, watching television.

But these days a fourth category has emerged — the raging incompetent. Critics who not only don’t understand the language of television, but actively don’t care, expressing reheated received opinions and hot takes so tepid and shallow you’d struggle to make a cup of tea with them.

It’d be cruel to mention anyone by name, such as REDACTED and REDACTED, though it doesn’t take a genius to think of a few writers who fall into that category. But there’s a peculiar irony at work.

At a time when anyone, but especially television critics, have access to greater volumes of information and archive material than at any point in television reviewing history, what’s being produced by these critics is increasingly splattered out across newspapers and websites like the aftermath of a disinterested hand-job. And worse, these are the critics whose profile is increasingly the highest.

TV criticism as an artform has been scaled back by most publishers, especially here in the UK. It was the tenth anniversary of the Daily Mail axing its ‘last night’s TV’ column last summer. Since that point, papers have increasingly cut down on the reviewing space, focusing instead on filling the pages with pap shots and previews leaked by press offices more than happy to guarantee themselves easy publicity.

We’re probably in the last generation of mainstream television criticism as an artform. There’s no obvious replacements coming through the traditional outlets. Of all the areas where the internet has disrupted traditional, mass market journalism it is the art of the critic that’s suffered the most and the art of the tv critic that’s been all but wiped out.

Grace Wyndham Goldie
Grace Wyndham Goldie – gamekeeper turned poacher

Actually, that’s not wholly fair. There’s still good criticism out there – a lot of it, in fact, if you know where to look, but the vast majority of it has drifted online where this generation of previously mentioned likeable nerds has taken up residence, adopting blogs and social platforms to provide the kind of reviews we used to enjoy back when it made a difference.

But that transition has left us with a visible crop of critics who barely live up to the name. They’re chundering out lazy copy with all the lackadaisical boredom of a kid watching a motor for 50p outside Hampden.

The best TV critics were the ones who cared whether television was good or bad. They might not like the same things as you, they might hate things you enjoyed but at least there was passion to their writing. There was a sense from them that television mattered, and that the people making it had a responsibility to do their best or suffer the worst.

That’s long since gone. When Clive James, now in retirement and normally somewhat preoccupied doing his best to stave off terminal cancer, can produce more scintillating and emotionally engaging copy than the people who do this for a living day in and day out, something’s gone wrong somewhere.

We might be on the verge of a new golden age of television drama and comedy, but we’re in the dying days of it being covered properly. The fracturing of the television schedules having created massive cracks, down which all the good writers have apparently fallen…

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