Culture Wars/Current Controversies

When the problem is politics itself

By Damon Linker, The Week

One of the best classes I took as an undergraduate was a course called “Writing as a Critic.” Students moved from genre to genre throughout the semester — one week writing a film review, the next tackling a play, then a record album, then a ballet, and so on. But nothing tested my patience and flexibility like the assignment to review a few episodes of a TV show. This was 1989, network television was the only option, and the show I chose was Doogie Howser, M.D., a “comedy-drama” about a teenaged doctor (played by a young Neil Patrick Harris).

The show was awful in a way that TV series today rarely are: hokey, trite, hackneyed, treating its audience like illiterates. This was before Seinfeld, before The Sopranos, before competition from dozens of platforms forced everyone in the industry to up their game. So I wrote a contempt-soaked rant — but not aimed solely at the show under review. It was a blast at television in general, treating it as a garbage genre, lacking in any merit. Which inspired my prof to deliver a set of comments that have stayed with me ever since.

“When writing a review, it’s a bad idea to take aim at the genre to which it belongs,” she wrote. “Doing so undermines the authority of what you have to say about the specific example of that genre you’re currently reviewing. Why should I bother to read your assessment of this particular TV show, after all, if you think all TV is trash? You’ve announced from the start that you’re predisposed to hate it and everything like it.”


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