On Hype, Backlash, and the Value of Criticism in Today’s Media
Aaron Sorkin’s newest rapid-fire, hyper-literate drama The Newsroom is set to debut on HBO this Sunday, and the early reviews are in.
Of course, there are positive reviews of The Newsroom to be found as well. But in all likelihood, early coverage of the show will be simplified into a collection of pithy quotables strung together to form a larger takedown — something along the lines of “10 Reviews that Prove The Newsroom Sucks” or “Read this Epic Takedown of Aaron Sorkin’s New Show Right Now”. These are the kind of headlines Buzzfeed, Gawker, Uproxx, and HuffPo know the average internet skimmer is going to click on, so why not resort to tabloid-style pageview grabs? Or, if the culture reporter of these fine content mills is feeling especially lazy, “The 15 Funniest Reactions to The Newsroom on Twitter”, wherein a smattering of 140 character nanoreviews by comedians of varying repute are scraped from a service built on shorthanded snark.
When did the dominant form of crowdsourced criticism move from unhinged, genuflecting, excited-beyond-belief hype to detached, ironic, dismissive-wanking-motion-at-your-culture-of-choice backlash?
Richard Rushfield explores this very subject in his essay “The Backlash Era: Smelling Sorkin Blood”, and cites early 2012 as the turning point when prevailing internet attitudes shifted from Hype to Backlash. Besides pinpointing a specific date, he raises a lot of good points as to why this shift in attitudes has occurred. His breakdown, chronologically, is essentially this:
2005: YouTube barely exists. Facebook is used exclusively by college kids. Twitter is a twinkle in Biz Stone’s eyes. Through whatever internet back channels people used to communicate back then, people begin to buzz about a film whose working title is simply Snakes on a Plane. Fans go wild for the film, envisioning a reptilian gorefest with Samuel Jackson shouting his now-famous (and fan-made) mothafucking catchphrase. Studio execs order the crew to shoot additional scenes in an attempt to meet fan expectations. It’s referred to as “the most internet-buzzed film of all time,” and despite tanking at the box office, the internet hype machine is born.
2006-2010: Subsequent internet fan campaigns — Betty White hosting SNL, fans of Chuck saving the show by eating Subway sandwiches — pop up almost weekly. Outside of entertainment, President Barack Obama is hailed as the first commander-in-chief of the internet age. Political talking head turned internet mogul Arianna Huffington says “Were it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.” This is the golden age of internet hype, when individuals feel that their e-interactions are helping change the world, or getting Kim Possible a third season, at the very least.
2011-present: The Backlash begins to inevitably rise. Too many campaigns exist. It now becomes standard for everything — from a big-budget Hollywood film to a 10-person plumbing company in Dubuque, Iowa — to have a social media presence. Major companies spam consumers with barely-veiled “fan hashtags”, attempting to force users to share things like “Great night with a couple of Buds! #herewego” or “Can’t wait to watch #Tosh on #ComedyCentral tonight!” Fandom fatigue sets in, and for those who live on the web, fatigue quickly turns to anger. People’s previously held belief that their role in fan campaigns somehow made a difference has lead to an inflated sense of self; this is parlayed into utilization of social networks to build their own personal brand — where likes and retweets can inflate or deflate an ego, where buzz and attention are the only acceptable currencies. Facebook goes public — attempting to convert these Buzz Bucks into Real Bucks — and fails miserably, as hedge fund managers are privy to the fast-rising Backlash Model. The Backlash Era is now in full effect.
So what does all of this mean for the average consumer? Or, for that matter, the average media critic? Will we ever be able to be genuinely excited about a TV show again, or has internet killed the television star? Has appointment viewing been permanently replaced by a detached indifference from the general populace, who will only commit to a show once it’s had a couple good seasons and is available on Netflix? For now, the answer to that question is unclear. But as long as viewers and critics alike are aware that the current negative feedback loop exists, and do their best to rise above it — consumers by conditioning themselves not to be deterred by a few negative reviews, critics by resisting the urge to issue scathing takedowns or write a show off completely based on a few early episodes — we can make it through this together.
As for The Newsroom, I’m still going to watch the show this Sunday, and probably several subsequent episodes as well. Maybe it really is as bad as some critics allege, or maybe it simply needs time to grow, and can’t be written off because of a few uneven early episodes — I’m looking at you, Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation. It would be relatively easy for me to read into the criticisms leveled at The Newsroom and write it off as a knockoff blend of Sports Night and The West Wing from an aging scriptwriting Shakespeare whose highfalutin, 80 WPM dialogue feels stale. That sounds like a plausible reason not to like the show, right? But the thing is, I’ve liked everything Sorkin has written, Moneyball and The Social Network included, and citing his dialogue as preachy and condescending is a little bit like the criticism Girls faced from the Backlash Machine earlier this year decrying it’s upper-middle class view of twentysomething urbanites. Sure there may be a relative lack of diversity, and yes, many of the show’s stars come from privileged backgrounds, but neither of those criticisms disguised the fact that Girls is an amazing show. Critics citing the first point apparently haven’t watched Friends in awhile, and critics citing the second apparently think Hollywood is a meritocracy in which no famous people’s offspring deserve to get work.
In summary: Watch what you want to watch, and try not to allow external influences deconstruct everything you love until you cease to be entertained by entertainment. But try not to live-tweet your favorite show either, because I will unfollow you immediately.