I thought I’d written all I was going to write about “Community” a few weeks ago. And in many ways, I have. But reaction last night on Twitter to my insta-reaction on “Paradigms of Human Memory” has me on here using the episode as a springboard to discuss something else that’s been on my mind lately. Namely, I want to talk about the way not only shows are reviewed, but the reviews of those shows as well. The latter has long been part of the online game, but it seems to have turned a certain corner recently.
So here’s the tweet that kicked things off last night: “Community fans, God love ya. Nothing but respect for you and the show. But I might be out after tonight.” Now, Twitter’s good for a lot of things, but having my feelings about the show summed up in 140 characters isn’t one of them. What I mainly wanted to convey didn’t really come across, which is partly my fault, partly the fault of the media through which I chose to translate my message, and partly the fault of people that chose to read the tweet as a slam on the show or, perhaps more importantly, on themselves.
In writing about “The Chicago Code” recently, I talked about the notion of personal validation as intrinsic to the television viewing process. I think that’s got a lot to do with the small yet fervent fanbase for the show. I think Chuck Klosterman’s take on the The KISS Army is instructive here: like the Army, “Community” fans draw strength from the show in recognizing that there’s a show made by people that have the same culture reference points and similar sensibilities. Moreover, they often delight in seeing those reference points written into the reality of the show. It’s a way for the show to validate the interest of those watching it, and the relatively small but still sizable audience that watches it to know that millions of others share that same love.
Millions love “Community” not because it produces something outside of what’s in the audience’s head. Rather, they love it because it stages the best possible version of what up until that point was an unformed, inferior, internal set of scattered references. The illusion is that the show is inside the head of the audience, and simply plays back a better version onscreen. The audience provides the subconscious first draft, which is then psychically filtered into the writer’s room and eventually broadcast on NBC. The title “Community” not only serves to talk about the college that Jeff, Britta, and others attend. It also speaks directly to the way in which the show invites those of similar sensibilities to be part of the show itself.
That’s not how everyone experiences the show, of course, but it’s a way to understand how me tweeting that I’m “out” on “Community” can be perceived as tantamount to saying I am “out” on the person that loves the show. To speak of one is, in the minds of some, to speak of the other. I didn’t intend that for a second last night. Every part of that tweet is completely true. I do have respect for both the show and those that love it. If anything, I want to be one of the ones loving it. I don’t begrudge the show for what it does, or look down on anyone that loves it. All I know is that I sit there, watching the show, and I keep thinking, “I see what you did there.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to “see” it. I want to “experience” it. And I find it impossible to experience “Community” on most weeks, and last night decided that the show was doubling down on those that already loved it. Honestly, I applaud that decision, because it meant that the show doesn’t want to listen to anything but its own voice. I wouldn’t want any show to do anything other than that. There’s a difference between being antagonistic to newcomers and embracing one’s core audience, and I don’t think “Community” antagonizes anyone with what it does. But if “Paradigms” had me sitting there rather stone-faced, while others deemed it the funniest show of the year, then it’s probably time for me to find another show to watch. Life’s too short to keep trying to love something that’s clearly not for me.
And here’s the point where I start to actually get into what made me want to write some thoughts down this morning. After all, nothing up until this point is radically different from what I wrote a few weeks ago. But there’s this increasing sense that credibility in talking about television is determined by liking a certain set of shows that prove de facto that you are worthy of being read. I’d been feeling this for a while, but it really came to a head after my review last week of “Game of Thrones.” That I was in the minority when it came to that show (I thought it was good, not great) set off alarms for certain people. The dissonance had to be resolved in the minds of some readers, and many sought to relieve that tension through looking for ways to dismiss the opinion outright.
Look, everyone has the right to take anything I say and ignore it. That’s fine. But let’s do this the right way. A common refrain I heard post-“Thrones”: “Well, he likes Spartacus, so that’s all you need to know.” In this configuration, a critic’s history is open season, much like a politician’s past, in order to find one element that can undo the entire house of cards. I agree that a critic’s body of work can help provide context for certain future reviews. But it’s not a hard fast rule by any stretch of the imagination. Currently, there’s so little tolerance for any non-small deviation from the norm either within one’s one body of work or the Metacritic-esque nature of collective criticism that I’m starting to wonder why anyone reads anything at all anymore.
I refute the notion that liking or not liking one show has anything to do with liking or not liking anything else. This should be an obvious point, but I fear it’s not anymore. There are obviously connections between the types of things that people like, and you can shape general viewing habits around a core set of criteria. But such generalizations break down whenever you get to the culturally atomic level of an individual viewer. It’s like the difference between saying “baseball players this season have a .287 batting average in the 3rd inning with men in scoring position” and applying that average to a single at-bat. It’s a useful metric, but it can’t be expected to do anything other than aggregate.
The corollary to all this lies in the other inspiration for today’s tome comes from NPR’s Linda Holmes, who this week wrote a lovely essay on the overwhelming amount of great culture that most of us will never see. That helped me move “Community” off my weekly watching schedule as much as “Paradigms” itself, because I recognized that I was still watching the show out of some misplaced obligation to HAVE to watch it as a critically adored program. I wasn’t watching it because I really liked it. I was watching it so I could be considered a valid part of the cultural conversation. What Holmes’ essay nails for me is that there’s no one “cultural conversation,” and to even attempt to assert that there is one is in and of itself foolish.
The idea that loving “Spartacus” or not loving “Community” disqualifies me from that cultural conversation is, frankly, complete bullshit. It’s bullshit because THERE IS NO SINGULAR CONVERSATION. It might disqualify my voice from certain conversations, to be sure. But I’ve never pretended to think otherwise. In fact, I embrace it. How boring would it be if everyone liked “Mad Men,” and liked it in exactly the same way? The notion that there’s a set, finite number of shows that anyone has to watch in order to be taken seriously is ludicrous, yet it’s implicitly asserted every time someone wants to eradicate my opinions because of something I enjoy or dislike more than he or she does. That something could be a show, an episode of that show, a character on that show, a scene in that show…no matter how small, variation for some cannot be tolerated. Variation implies difference, something that should be celebrated but in fact is often desecrated.
(I toyed with the idea of creating a hypothetical “Must Watch” list, but I realized that would distract people from the points I’m trying to make here. People would just argue about what shows should be put on or left off that list, and since I’m anti-list, such a discussion would just make me stabby.)
I’m just not so sure why the insistence on agreement is so vehement. That people’s opinions will be different is intrinsic to anything artistic. Spoiler alert: I’m not going to like every show you like, nor you mine. Further spoiler alert: I’m not going to like every episode in that show we both like, nor you mine. To have this difference isn’t some huge violation of trust or some statement about your own personal reactions to things. But people took my tweet personally, in some cases past the point of rationality. That people love “Community” is great. That they think me not feeling the same way is a threat to their own opinion is just sad. Keeping theirs shouldn’t involving erasing mine, but that seems part and parcel of the same at this point.
This all comes back to validation, a useful way I think to explain how an opinion on a show turns into an opinion about the viewer. I’d like to think talking about the former isn’t the same as talking about the latter, but I’d also like to think that Yvonne Strahovski is thinking of me when kissing Zachary Levi on “Chuck.” Both exist on the same level of pipe dreams. But that doesn’t make me wish that either of those things weren’t occasionally true. If you like “Community” or the other dozen or so shows I respect but can’t personally fall in love with, that’s fine. It’s honestly fine. And it should be honestly fine for you that I don’t share in that love. Coming to common ground on this should be the goal.
Even if we’ll never, ever, ever share a common DVR schedule.