Do Critics Make It Harder to Produce Great TV?

Counterpart Still - Publicity - Embed 2018
Courtesy of Nicole Wilder/Starz Entertainment

At the height of the "recap" phase of TV criticism — which was, in theory, only truly being perpetuated by a small number of people applying the "criticism" label to the act of summarizing what transpired the night before on an episode of television — I was talking with a couple of series creators about this trend. They were recounting their experience with a mostly friendly, worn-down kind of disgruntlement. There was what I would describe as polite frustration about a number of critics, myself included, and how our overanalyzing of plots and character motivation had reached an epic level of, well, critical mass; according to these creators, we were not allowing stories to be told in the way they sometimes needed to be told to be entertaining.

It was a philosophical discussion and, for me, kind of a game changer. I had already seen the limited usefulness of deconstructing a single episode in a 13-episode season. Sure, it was an exercise in reading tea leaves that was sometimes spot-on, but was also very often well off the mark — like critiquing chapters of a book before the book is finished.

 At the time, despite the Interwebs being littered with these kinds of things, I felt it was a useful tool not only for viewers, but for critics, even if the vast majority of "recaps" were insipid retellings of plot or just saccharine fanboy/fangirl ramblings. For critics taking the task seriously (working late into the night after an episode, trying to give added-value insight beyond the initial review), it seemed a valuable two-way street; deep-diving on an episode was in its way a celebration of the best series on TV, from the writing to the acting to the direction, and it was keeping many low-rated series in the zeitgeist.

And while those series creators were appreciative of the better commentary, their point was pretty simple: a story is rarely perfect; hypercritical analysis of decisions made by characters will almost always find a flaw. Sometimes people do dumb things for a number of justifiable reasons, they said (truth often being stranger than fiction, or we wouldn't have the expression, "If that was in a movie/series, nobody would ever believe it").

Not long after that discussion, I stopped writing what I called "deconstructions." And not long after that, the sheer volume of TV made it less possible and more ill-advised (for work/life-balance and cost-benefit reasons) to do them anyway, and now most established critics don't do them at all.

But I always think about some of those complaints from creators (and beyond that particular conversation I've talked to many writers about this) when I watch shows and write reviews. I think there's merit in considering the frustrations of writers who say, "If you overanalyze the minutiae, you paralyze the writer." It's hard to write a really great TV series, episode to episode, season to season. In light of that, I find myself trying to balance when to "just go with it" when a creative decision is made on the screen and when to wince and call out dubious dramatic elements. Every critic will have a different set of parameters here. And I think that's particularly fluid when it comes to science-fiction, fantasy or paranormal-type series, when you're dealing with already heightened or "unreal" situations. The rules in play are highly personal.

This goes beyond the opt-in/opt-out moments that every show has, whether viewers know they are exercising that interior decision-making muscle or not. For example, I remember a great story from a friend years ago who still laughed retelling how he was in a theater watching E.T. and there was a whole row of Boy Scouts completely into the movie, buying every aspect of it until the kids rode their bikes into the air, illuminated by the moon, and all the Boy Scouts fell out in aggravated disbelief that such a thing could never happen.

And in a visual studies course I teach (about television) at an arts college, I still use Lost as an example of series that have a great opt-in/opt-out moment. In Lost, there's a scene where something is racing through the tall grass and brush of a tropical island toward our merry band of plane crash survivors and Sawyer shoots what turns out, shockingly, to be a polar bear. I was all-in then because I wanted to find out WTF was going on in that moment, while others were out (Lost would go on to test my patience in other ways, of course, but I really loved watching it).

For the most part, I now opt out of series (or at least downgrade them in importance, which in turn limits my desire to keep watching them in this Peak TV era) when characters make dumb decisions that are perhaps more minor than whether bikes can fly or if polar bears can live in tropical climates.

In AMC's upcoming McMafia, a series that has a lot going for it and one I kept wishing would take that extra leap forward in quality, there was a kind of double whammy that did it in for me (and, as always, your mileage may vary and you might not be bothered by such things). I will give this example with a minimum of spoilage: The main character, played by James Norton, is put in a difficult position and makes a bad decision. That's believable. He then makes a couple more, mostly because the first one placed him between the proverbial rock and hard place. At this point, only so many bad decisions are allowed, in my worldview. The character, of course, makes more. Those were demerits, surely, as I scribbled my notes. And then, in the fifth episode, he's actually given a chance to reset his fate (not without some risk, but still) and he doesn't take it.

Grumble. However, not only does he not take it, he seems to double down on the bad decision (grumble squared) and it's then that I realized the writers wanted him to be something he showed no lust for being previously, and I was done.

Look, characters making bad decisions is one of the most prominent (and often annoying) tricks of drama. It's in justifying them that the talented writers stand out from the less talented.

(Separately, I also wish that dramas had far fewer instances of two characters not communicating with each other — unbelievably withholding pertinent information and walking away is a terrible dramatic crutch.)

Now, for a positive example of a complicated series that features characters making difficult, but believable, plausible or justifiable decisions: Counterpart on Starz, which is my favorite series of 2018 (and most of 2017, for that matter). I won't spoil any of the joy, because Counterpart is ambitiously twisty as an espionage thriller. But it also has a paranormal element that enthrallingly shakes up the rules. On top of that genre-bending nature, Counterpart also has quick, heartbeat-raising dramatic elements that complicate how to critically judge what a character does in that moment. 

I will say this: there were, over the span of 10 episodes, numerous (double-digit for sure) times when the writing staff could have made decisions that inched the series closer to going off the rails. It never did. One scene of too many to count that I loved personally — and this spoils nothing — is when the main character, Howard (J.K .Simmons), has to make two snap-judgment decisions in one tense scene and the second involved something I almost never witness: fleeing. Trust me, in 99 percent of series, what happened in this particular scene would have resulted in Howard's staying around to find out about what it was he heard off-camera. The director would have ratcheted up the already high tension as he combed room to room. Who knows, maybe it would have worked and been great. But what was even greater was having the character run like hell, because that's the smart decision based not just on what a person would have done in real life, but what a highly trained spy would have done as well.

It was a choice. And ultimately dramatic choices and how they are written on the page are what defines excellent dramas. More often than not, Counterpart makes credible choices. Some of them are even daring, because, at the time, maybe they seem like the wrong decisions but future scenes reveal the motivations behind them.

Again, making a great TV series is extremely difficult. For the writers on Counterpart, a series with a highly complex world that juggles espionage and a strange paranormal conceit, witnessing it all come together was both impressive and a joy.