It’s 2015, yet we still need to disabuse some of the notion that not all art is made for them.
I’m writing in this in the wake of James Poniewozik’s excellent piece today about the “Not For Me” moment in television viewing. He says a lot of things I wish I had said first, but didn’t say first, so credit where credit is due. But I want to take things just a step further, since it really can’t be said enough: We are at a time and place in which shows aren’t merely watched, but cultural battlelines are actually drawn. People are mad about “Game of Thrones.” People are mad about people who are mad about “Game Of Thrones.” Take “Game of Thrones” and apply it to dozens of other shows, whichever one happens to be stoking the flame of our current attention-deficit disorder culture. (Remember when “The Interview” was going to take down Western Civilization for a hot second?)
The thing that stands out to me that it’s not merely enough to either like or dislike a show, but then espousing why the other side is wrong to either engage with or ignore it. It takes a special kind of low self-esteem to lash out at those that don’t agree with one’s own opinion, but that’s precisely the atmosphere in which we currently exist. That’s why I like Poniewozik’s piece so much: I disagree with his views on the shows he discusses, but COMPLETELY agree with the perspective he takes on those that share opposing viewpoints. Defending one’s own position is vital and crucial, both for critics and for viewers as well. It’s less important about what position you have than your ability to articulate that position to another, ostensibly sane individual. But sanity usually goes by the wayside, especially when it comes to comment boards or tweets. It’s the nature of the beast, but the beast kinda sucks.
Let’s go a few million miles from Westeros and land in Stars Hollow. Or, to be less cute, to Austin, where the ATX Television Festival hosted a monster “Gilmore Girls” reunion last weekend as part of its fourth season. While I’ve attended (and participated) in the last two iterations of this festival, I watched virtually this year due to a myriad of reasons. But while I wasn’t there, it wasn’t hard to see that 1) the festival grew by leaps and bounds due in no small part to landing this “Gilmore Girls” reunion, and 2) the festival wasn’t equipped to handle the increase in size that accompanied the huge swell of attendees. The latter seems like something the organizers can eventually figure out, but I think it’s more interesting for now to focus on the huge swell in numbers due to “Gilmore Girls.” By all accounts, this was the big X Factor, and thus worth thinking about.
Why? Well, for me, because I was caught pretty off-guard by this fact. ATX Television Festival has always had a healthy number of female attendees, but those attracted by this single show, and the fervor that surrounded the prospect of this reunion, took me totally by surprise. It’s 100% NOT a surprise to those that love the show, and I think this is the big takeaway, and why it relates to “Game Of Thrones.” I don’t particularly like either of these shows, but that’s so far from the point that it’s not even funny. All culture isn’t supposed to cater to me. Not every festival has to cater to me. I looked at this year’s ATX line up and thought, “Eh, not exactly my bag.” But now what is?
NEARLY EVERYTHING ELSE IN CULTURE.
I’m a straight white male who likes sci-fi, action, and comic books. My needs could not POSIBBLY be more covered. I didn’t think ATX failed me with its line-up. It provided a solid amount of content for its huge numbers of attendees to consume. And while the line situation seemed like a clusterfuck of epic proportions, that’s an organizational flaw rather than a philosophical one. I’ve seen up-close how much the festival already meant to people who attended, and if the festival can keep fostering that sense of camaraderie AND manage to grow in scale, it will achieve something pretty cool. This year’s festival showed that cons needs not be focused on the tried-and-true staples of space operas and interconnected cinematic universes. And whether or not identifying (and yes, monetizing) that fanbase was the original goal, I don’t think it’s any better or worse than identifying “Star Wars” fans as potential convention attendees. My love of “The Avengers” is another’s love of “The Fosters.” One love is overserved. The under is massively underserved. The latter could not possibly be a threat to the former, and yet, plenty of people sneer at obsessions over Lorelai and Rory. Because it makes all the sense in the world to obsess about Infinity Stones but not mother/daughter relationships, I guess.
I don’t need to be convinced to like something I don’t. I’m not interested in hearing how I “don’t get it” or “just need to watch a few more episodes/seasons”. I take shows as they come and see if I respond. In “Game of Thrones,” I see the same type of torture porn I do over in “The Walking Dead.” And while I have enjoyed enough of “Game Of Thrones” to watch all but the last episode, I just don’t see myself going back anytime soon, nor retroactively changing my mind about what I’ve seen. I’ve struggled since day one with this show (read my initial review in 2011 as proof), and have had several times where a certain episode pushed me away for weeks at a time. Since “Game” and “Dead” are two of the last shows that have anything resembling a large audience, it seems silly to ignore them. And yet, I do. Because I can! No one’s paying me to watch them. Nothing requires me to consume them. Both have a strong central thesis (“Life is pretty fucking awful, and then, if you’re luckily, you die painless after maybe achieving something semi-OK”) that they struck in the pilot and then kept hammering away like the drummer in a shitty AC/DC cover band. Life is hard and terrible! Got it? What else you got?
In the case of these shows, for me, the answer is nothing, and if the only driving force is to see someone terrible die or see someone else finally not be repeatably raped, then I don’t see the value in my watching these programs. I specifically called out three shows as my top three in 2014 (“Enlisted,” “Review,” and “You’re The Worst”) for being extremely small shows that nevertheless demonstrated some keen insight into the big victories that almost always go unrecognized. That’s what I respond to, so that’s what I gravitate towards. It’s not about any type of snobbery towards a certain genre. (If anything, a sci-fi has to be pretty bad for me not to watch it.) But since I’m luckily not in a place where I have to write about something I hate just to be part of a larger online conversation, I’d much rather write about things I really like when I have the few spare moments to actually jot some thoughts down. I’d rather write ten pieces about why “The 100” kicks ass (and does despair correctly) than spend 50 words lamenting why “Game Of Thrones” doesn’t work for me.
But right now, it seems important enough to discuss “Thrones” in context of the larger conversation surrounding audiences’ reactions to it. It’s an important discussion to have, because everyone is wrestling with the proper way to discuss programs when there are a billion to write about. Everyone writes about certain shows at certain times (“Game Of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “Girls,” “Breaking Bad,” etc), and lots of people have lots of good things to say about them. And yes, traffic drives content. But content also directs traffic, which is to say that we all have a choice about what to write about, even if it seems like we don’t. Ostensibly, journalists could all draw straws and have one person cover nomination ceremonies that start at five am. But they don’t. It feels more useful to try and direct energies towards things people might like rather than either shame or cajole them into sticking with something that doesn’t serve them well. As a critic, my sole job (so near as I can fashion it) it to articulate why I did or did not respond to something. In a perfect world, these opinions add up to something cohesive that resembles a reasonable cohesion. But more often than not, it’s hard to extrapolate something as clean as, “If you like X, you’ll like Y!” There are a thousand reasons why a show does or does not work, and those individual pieces shift and move over the course of a series’ run. What works for one show may not work for another, even if, when broken down “objectively,” both shows have the same essential building blocks.
Of course, no two shows are built alike, which is the beauty and frustration of art. I can intellectually process the many good things “Game Of Thrones” does and still think it’s kinda garbage at this point. I love “Spartacus” more than almost anything, but TOTALLY GET why it wouldn’t be your jam. What I don’t get is, “He likes ‘Spartacus,’ therefore you can ignore his opinions on ‘Game Of Thrones.’” I’ve had some formation of that argument thrown my way several times, not about “Thrones,” but about other programs. I don’t get it. I’ve never understood it. But what I really don’t understand is the need to dismiss contrary opinions in order to bolster one’s own. I mean this in the most sincere way possible: I don’t give a shit what you like. I mean, if you like something I do, awesome. It just has no bearing on my consumption of a piece of pop culture either way.
I turn 40 this Fall. I’m not old, but I’m not nearly as young as when I started. I simply don’t have the time or the energy to constantly wage wars like this, especially when phrases like “waging wars” is how we get into this kind of fucking mess in the first place. Example: I think Don Draper didn’t write the Coke ad. I’m in the minority. I recognize I’m probably “wrong,” but I also don’t think there’s a “right” here. As soon as we introduce that type of binary, it’s no longer art. It’s an equation. And I hate equations. As Roger Daltry said in a documentary about the making of the Broadway show “The Who’s Tommy”: “To me, it was never about hitting the right note. Give me a bum note and a bead of sweat anytime.” Definitive answers might feel good in the moment but deflate over time. Once something is defined, it can’t be anything else. And that’s just reductive. If Don Draper did write that ad, then there’s no way he couldn’t, which cuts off all forms of interpretation and exploration that are useful above and beyond the show itself. The best shows don’t shut down interpretation but encourage it. (This is partially why I never read articles in which showrunners explain what we just saw, because who the hell would want that?)
Inevitably, the cries of “no” outweigh the cries of “yes,” even though the latter feels like a more powerful expression. It’s braver. It involves taking a stand rather than tearing down an edifice. Building is always harder than destroying. “Game Of Thrones” wades neck deep in destruction, and if that reflect a “true” sense of the world, then I’d argue it’s better to look for a new form of truth. It can start with us. But it can also start with art. And that’s the type of art towards which I find myself increasingly and inevitably drawn.
Winter might be coming, but I’m more interesting in the spring.