Advertising, like love (and later, Christmas – thanks, Love Actually) is all around. It is there on massive billboards on the sides of buildings. It’s on the glossy pages of magazines and the scratchy paper of newspapers. It is on the screens that we glide past on escalators, following our descent or ascent, chasing us and whispering, “look at me!” urgently. It is on buses, on the radio between Top 40 jams, delivered in three-minute bursts in between television programmes. It is in the little banner at the bottom of our various smartphone apps, blinking angrily as we scroll through our timelines. We do not necessarily request it, though. Imagine a world stripped of all this promotion: no garish images almost 20 feet high, no digital alerts with attractive smiling people seducing you with their eyes. Consider a world where you have to think about what you want and need, and then actively seek the information about the product before making an informed decision about whether you would like to invest your time and or money. Where could one find such a utopia? A small sliver of hope remains: critics, innit.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em (and anecdotal evidence suggests we routinely veer towards the middle ground of love-hate), we generally recognise that critics are often the last bastion of independent thought when it comes to the arts. When was the last time you went to the cinema or settled into your settee with a DVD without first seeking the advice and analysis from some chap (and it’s often a chap) in a newspaper, magazine or website telling you this thing was worth your time and emotional investment? Exactly.
For fans of popular culture (and high culture, I suppose, but that is not this blog’s natural position), the critic is like a good friend who has seen all the important films and read all the important books. That way, they can occasionally allude to mise-en-scene or the composition of a shot in a review, and rather than roll your eyes at their highfalutin ways, you merely nod your head and say, under your breath, “Yeah – the dark lighting in Girls really does capture the relative fog of your twenties, where needs are immediate and actions primarily selfish.”
There are millions of fangirls and boys out there on the internet, people who have watched more telly and films than is healthy for them, and they are all writing their waspish or fawning analysis of the TV show you’ve wanted to watch for ages (I think I fall into this category quite neatly). Then there are the big boys and girls, writing their considered thoughts for assorted print media (how quaint!). Basically, you are facing the tyranny of choice. So, how do you go about selecting a critic? As always, the answer is extensive research. Read high and low and then break it down: what are you looking for in a review(er)? Do you want to be challenged (“Ten reasons why The House Bunny is funnier and smarter than His Girl Friday”)? Who do you tend to agree with most of the time? Who entertains you? Who do you always disagree with? Who are your friends recommending? Selecting your critic(s) will take time, so don’t rush it. Try lots of different views, and see which fits yours best.
Once you’ve selected your critic(s), stay on your guard. They have beguiled you with their words and seeming insight because that is their job. But remember: hitching your wagon to any critic will be stressful. Because no matter how carefully you have selected your commentator, there will come a time when they will be irretrievably, irredeemably mistaken, and it will break your heart. “How?” you will wonder. “How could I (they) have got their opinion so wrong?” And you will obsessively re-read the offending review looking to see if you maybe misread their damning words. You haven’t. This isn’t your fault. I myself am having an extended “HOW?” moment on my TV site of choice, the superlatively excellent The AV Club, because week after week after week, they test my love by giving one of my favourite shows of recent years, The Mindy Project, consistently poor grades. Every new episode is laced with a bitter aftertaste because I know that it is unloved. I trust the AV Club on pretty much everything else – how can they be so right so often, and so blind in this case? I wouldn’t say it ruins Mindy-watching experience, only that it literally hurts my soul.
Remember also, that your tastes will change: mine certainly have. Back at Sixth Form, for example, doing my ever-useful AS Level in Media Studies, I held an irrational and deep-seated hatred for Mark Kermode. I found him brash and overly critical and something of a show-off. Mr Kermode, if you are reading, I was wrong. Hindsight shows me that the prejudice was all mine. I find more truth and wisdom and insight in your cinema reviews than I ever thought possible. Also, your hair is still amazing.
The proliferation of blogs with writers who love and understand telly translates into a bounty of smart and critical thinking for viewers. It is not news to say that critics are necessary – they are cultural threshers, separating the wheat from the chaff (even if inevitably some chaff slips through now and again). And without them a lot of us would be wasting our time on pointless box sets when we could be getting indoctrinated into the cult of Breaking Bad. So please give generously to my new initiative: Cuddle A Critic. They are doing fine work, and we should let them know we appreciate it.