So when is a review not a review?
It’s a question that’s both rhetorical and practical. I don’t mean to get into a heavy, esoteric, epistemological analysis of what constitutes a review. But as someone who tries to keep a finger on the pulse of the way television is written about, it’s a fair question all the same. It’s as important to those writing about television as it to those reading about television. And while it should be incumbent upon the former to help illuminate the latter, I think the latter should also hold the former up up to a higher standard as well.
So why talk about all this in terms of “Ringer”? Why not just throw out a thousand words about what I thought about the pilot and move onto the next show? Why bother looking at the intricacies of writer/reader relationships on a show that doesn’t seek (or, at least provide) anything past pure escapism? Why this show gets this type of treatment has everything to do with the way that “Ringer” is a perfect nexus for the increasingly blurry ways in which shows are being discussed online, the ways in which shows should be discussed online, the ways in which reader expectations sometimes steer discussions before they even start, and how the increasingly cutthroat business of online television reviews are selling both sides short.
Now, if your eyes went cross during that last sentence, I don’t blame you. I wrote the damn thing and even I’m a bit confused. So honestly, all of what follows is an excuse to untangle it in my own brain as much as illuminate the landscape I’ve witnessed over the past few months. This won’t be some insidery, wonky, fourth-wall destroying analysis of how either Hollywood or those that cover it work. Why? Because I don’t really know much more than you. I’m out here in Boston, covering what I see. And what I see is basically on a television. Same as you.
But that’s obviously not the whole story. And the positioning of certain shows, critics, journalists, PR people, and audience to create (intentionally or not) a certain aura around certain shows is a fascinating example of cultural energy being created, expended, refracted, warped, etc. Some shows take on a particular cultural cache, and it’s often times hard to discern from where that cache started, if it’s valid, and who benefits/suffers from said cache. For better or worse, it’s easier than ever to form an opinion about a show before you’ve even seen it. So what we’re really talking about, here, isn’t so much the show “Ringer” itself, but the idea of “Ringer” that’s been built up in the minds of those that haven’t yet seen it.
Again, “Ringer” is an example, one of a dozen of so you could pull out of this Fall season alone. And it’s hardly a trend that sits within simply television, or pop culture itself. The idea of a prepackaged story for people to consume rather than analyze is…well, that’s politics in a nutshell, no? Analysis is an active act; consumption appears to be active but in fact is passive. Analysis looks at the object and determines what it is; consummation takes what it is at (potentially fatuous) face value and seeks nothing beyond what’s presented on the surface. One could argue that sitting in front of a television is the very height of a passive act. And I would argue that continually arguing that fact continually undermines the very medium I love so much.
Last week on Twitter, I got talking about “Ringer” in a very broad way, in anticipation of writing what would have been a normal review. In those very brief, 140-character discussions, the topic of critical response to the show came up. I had only seen one review at the time (a negative one by Tim Goodman), and I imagined that there would be few positive critical responses to the show. Someone responded, saying he/she had seen a dozen positive reviews already. I noted back that while I had seen positive COVERAGE of the show, I had yet to see a positive REVIEW of the show. When I asked for links to those reviews…I got nothing.
I was perfectly willing to accept there were positive reviews that I existing and hadn’t read. And I’m also perfectly willing to believe there will be at least some positive reviews that will come out. Despite my overall disappointment with the show itself (which I’ll eventually get to, cross my heart), I don’t care if others love it. As with all shows, it doesn’t bother me if I agree or disagree with anyone else. But I very much DO care about a casual conflagration between journalism and criticism in the eyes of the readers. That to me speaks to either a type of illiteracy on the part of a reader or a lack of contextualization on the part of the writer. Did those sites she cited have reviews? Probably. Could that reader separate the review from the coverage? I don’t know.
Now, should a journalist or critic have to spell out the type of piece they are writing? Is that incumbent upon the writer? I used to think not. Now, I’m not so sure. On the one hand, it should be abundantly clear that the two acts, while occasionally overlapping, often do not. There’s certainly times in which a journalist can function as a critic, and vice versa. But there are also myriad times in which a piece of journalism is just this side of a public relations press release. Sure, a journalist will go to a set visit and ask questions that aren’t provided by the studio. But there’s a huge difference between getting answers that are interesting/surprising/valuable and acting as essentially a transcription service.
This isn’t about judging the psychology or motivations of those that perform either one of these journalistic functions. But there’s a huge difference in conveying to the reader, “’Ringer’ is really great!” and “Sarah Michelle Gellar thinks ‘Ringer’ will be really great.” One adds something to the discussion. The other does not. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about the lead in a show telling a journalist that they think their show will be great. Either I assume the actor thinks that, or I assume they are lying to save face. But in any case, it rarely affects the product onscreen. All it affects is my opinion of the person conducting the interview. I’m not arguing for that journalist to be confrontational for confrontation’s sake. But interviews without any context or depth or basic curiosity may ensure another round between interviewer and interviewee, but leave out potentially the most important person of all: the fan reading that interview.
Of course, that’s just me. And there are plenty for whom that is not the case. There are some for whom the episode itself is the text to be read, independent of anything else except that show’s own body of work. But there are far more than take the words of the actors involved, or worse, their past experiences, and apply it blindly to something that haven’t seen or aren’t willing to see for what it really is. If you look at the majority of coverage surrounding “Ringer,” it’s based on Gellar’s return to television. I suppose that’s a fine thing to note and then move on. But it’s the centerpiece of all buzz, which really means that we haven’t been talking about “Ringer” but instead “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In addition, we’re talking about a third thing more powerful than either: viewers’ emotional associations with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Playing upon those emotions is smart business in the short term, but isn’t doing anyone a real service, either. People who now expect “Buffy” will get something else entirely. Those devoted to honoring the memory of their favorite show may blind themselves to the shortcomings of “Ringer.” It’s of course possible that people will like “Ringer,” even if I didn’t. But they will have to really work at getting through all the cultural obstacles placed before them in order to actually enjoy this new piece of entertainment. It doesn’t help that, as if to compound the confusion for viewers, “Ringer” has added “Veronica Mars” alum Jason Dohring in order to continually invoke shows people used to love. This isn’t just about hiring good actors: it’s about hiring actors that previously were in works that had devoted fanbases as a way in and of itself to attract viewers.
Good actors get hired all the time. Why? Because they are good. Simple enough. But the way in which certain shows market in the preamble to their actual appearance on something else banks on dormant (or not so dormant) love for a past project being attached without reservation to the next one. (Look at all the “Hawaii 5-0” promos that tout Terry O’Quinn’s return to not only television, but Hawaii.) That places affection less on the quality of the work itself and more about the person on the screen at a particular time. That’s certainly a way in which millions of fans watch television. And it’s not “wrong,” per say. It just isn’t exactly critical viewing, in the sense that I’m trying to tease out here. It’s the type of viewing that demands conscious awareness that while watching “Ringer,” you’re seeing Buffy Summers onscreen again. And while that might be plenty fine for some people, that dissonance strikes me as doing the viewer, “Ringer,” and Gellar all a disservice.
Then again, maybe all those dissonance is intentional. Because “Ringer” is a god-awful mess, one of the worst pilots in a Fall season full of mediocrity. CBS was wise to dump this show, and while The CW gained plenty of buzz for picking it up, I’m not sure how the decision will look once it airs. Gellar is an actress who can meet the quality level of any script, but she’s not an actress who can lift a subpar show on her own. So while she met the lofty heights in Sunnydale quite often, she languishes this time around as a pair of twins (Bridget, Siobhan) that have little difference between them except wardrobe. There’s something to be said about not overacting to the point of Al Pacino-ness in a situation like this, but Gellar struggles to make either twin really stand out from each other, which makes the scenes in which Bridget impersonates Siobhan muddled beyond reproach.
Why does one twin impersonate the other? I could tell you, but if there’s any fun in “Ringer,” it’s figuring out the labyrinthian plot in which ex-stripper Bridget finds herself inhabiting the life of her well-to-do sister Siobhan. The ways in which people react to Bridget-as-Siobhan indicate the latter may not have had the most idyllic life, but whereas the story itself is screamingly campy, everyone onscreen plays it deadly serious. That juxtaposition is striking, giving scenes that could have some fun a sense of utter dullness that will probably bore the hell out of anyone watching. The CW hopes this show will give their network some cultural cred. If anything, it will knock them down a peg or two. Say what you will about most programming on that network, but those shows tend to know what they are, for better or worse. “Ringer” has an identity problem that goes beyond the one that Bridget deals with in the show.
Will any of this actually matter, though? Will those two paragraphs matter for a show that seems critic-proof? When I say it’s “critic-proof,” I don’t mean one can’t critically analyze it. I mean that neither the show nor its fans are interested in such an analysis. That’s a broad generalization, to be sure. But I’m not sure I’m too far off on this, either. And it’s not really me looking down on “Ringer” or its eventual viewers…except to say that if television is truly going to be an important medium, then giving shows like “Ringer” a pass because it’s got pretty people in shows that were once loved probably isn’t doing anyone any favors. It’s not going to make “Ringer” a better show in the weeks to come, and it won’t make television as a whole better in the months/years to come.
It boils down to this: brushing off any show as “critic-proof” as described above may be the easy way out, but it’s actually hurting our overall enjoyment of the medium. It’s all well and fine to want to tune in and drop out (not in a Timothy Leary sense, but in a “turning off the brain” way), but I feel like analyzing on some level why a particular program either did or did not work for you is a way to not only further one’s enjoyment, but also start to think more critically about television as a whole. This is turn will start separating mere puff pieces about a particular show from actual, substantive interviews, analysis, and criticism. Giving shows a pass for being “beneath” analysis, in short, is beneath us. Once we’re better, than so too will our entertainment. We get what we deserve.
And we deserve better.