Just two weeks after the hotly discussed Alessandra Stanley assessment of How to Get Away With Murder that called showrunner Shonda Rhimes an “angry black woman,” the New York Times has another piece that not only willfully misunderstands the business of television criticism, it actively sneers at it. Our paper of record understands that you like to watch these programs, and thus that it has to cover them, the tone implies, but you should still know that television is garbage.
The tone of the article, Neil Genzlinger’s review of the new Fox show Gracepoint, a remake of the British Broadchurch, is defensive from the beginning. It refers to the “new sport” of people who talk about television, in which “the American version generally coming up short because British television is always better than American television, isn’t it? ” But then it gets contemptuous.
But the universe of viewers who saw “Broadchurch” and will watch “Gracepoint” is fairly small and, anyway, if you have enough spare time to sit through the same story twice to compare nuances and accents and plot variations, you are to be pitied.
Seriously, pitied? In no other field would a Times critic get away with such obvious disdain for his own medium. Are the people who watch multiple versions of an opera to be pitied? Are those who read multiple translations of a book or watch remakes of a movie? And what of those for whom watching both versions is not a thing to be done in their “spare time,” but their profession? Or people for whom television is not just a way to kill time, but a form of art, entertainment, and communication, worth studying and considering? Taking television seriously, according to this New York Times critic, is a laughable endeavor.
The Times has historically produced dismissive criticism of television, as Anne Helen Petersen wrote about extensively in her look at the Stanley case. This is partially because deep investment in the medium isn’t a requirement for a critic position at the Times. It’s also because television is still a relatively new form, and new forms are treated with distance and a degree of confusion from establishments like the Times for decades after they’ve been widely accepted. (See: movies, pop music, the internet).
It’s a bad policy, because it’s a dishonest one, and it undermines the critical authority of the paper. Why trust someone’s opinion about television if they aren’t invested in the medium? Why bother reading someone more interested in criticizing television critics than actual television shows? There are many excellent writers taking television seriously and producing worthwhile, nuanced work doing so, like Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker and Matt Zoller Seitz at New York and Willa Paskin at Slate, all of whom Genzlinger is not so subtly throwing shade at. It’s not a good look for the Grey Lady.