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Canadian TV Needs Better Criticism

05/11/2015 12:24 EDT | Updated 05/11/2016 05:59 EDT
Daniel Law/PA Wire
File photo dated 01/10/09 of a remote control for a television, as research suggested that each hour spent watching TV daily increases the chance of developing diabetes by 3.4\% in high-risk individuals.

In recent months there has been talk about how TV is enjoying a so-called "Golden Age." And a lamentation that Canada doesn't seem to be a part of that.

Arguably Canadian TV series are enjoying higher ratings and more international success than ever. But pundits counter that the critically acclaimed high water marks seem few and far between.

I have a bit of trouble with this argument. Critically acclaimed series are merely the tip of the proverbial television iceberg. Even most Hollywood series aren't part of this Golden Age club. And one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Heck, given the barrage of articles praising Schitt's Creek you wouldn't know it haemorrhaged half its audience over the course of its first season.

Besides I'm not sure you can set out to make "great" TV. Hollywood makes some "great" TV because they churn out a lot of TV, period. And every now and then it coalesces into greatness. Consider the recent Australian mini-series, Secrets and Lies. It was basically just an Alfred Hitchcock-style thriller spread over five hours. It had good performances, good writing, good direction. And yet all that goodness came together to make something that arguably became "great" and sold internationally (aired in Canada on the CBC and re-made by Hollywood).

But that isn't really what I wanted to write about. Instead, I wanted to look at a sidebar of TV (and film): critical reviews.

A few weeks back over at the website TV, Eh? they asked a question about the value of TV critics (sorry -- can't remember the exact post). And the comments section debate veered into an intriguing theme. It was summed up by one commentator asking: if we are going to lament the lack of a Golden Age of TV programs, should we also ask where's our Golden Age of TV criticism?

TV (and movie) critics may bemoan the lack of quality programming, but are they stepping up with quality reviews, analysis, and constructive criticism? Are there "great" Canadian TV reviewers? Insightful film critics? Writers who you enjoy reading even if you don't always agree with their point of view? Writers who can enrich your viewing experience by causing you to think about the material in a new way?

Yes? No? Maybe? (There's no right/wrong answer).

If critics are going to lambast filmmakers for not making better productions, they can equally ask themselves if they are writing op-ed pieces of quality. Don't get me wrong: professional entertainment writers are enormously hamstrung. They have to write to a limited word count. They have to please their editor. They have to write something they think readers will want to read. There may even be corporate pressure.

But sometimes -- not always, just sometimes -- Canadian entertainment pieces can feel a bit, well, sloppy. Writers who don't really seem to know much about the industry's history, lack familiarity with an actor's work, or are eager to argue a point and don't really care if the facts back them up.

I like to analyze films and TV shows. Always have. I used to regularly watch the American movie review series, Siskel & Ebert, even though I only ever saw a fraction of the movies they discussed. I think there is both a fun, and a value, in reviews, criticism, and analysis.

And I think that can be even more true for Canadian TV and film.

If we want people to take Canadian film and TV seriously -- then we need critics to take them seriously. I think it was Socrates who said: "The unexamined sitcom isn't worth laughing at." (I might be paraphrasing).

Admittedly, even people within the biz probably would have mixed feelings about that. Canadian artists desperately want publicity, are eager for praise and good reviews -- but equally can get pretty prickly and snobbish when faced with even a modicum of criticism.

But for Hollywood productions we regularly expect writers to dig deep into the material and, yes, to sometimes be controversial. Is True Detective sexist? Are the Oscars racist? Is Aaron Sorkin a neo-con wolf in liberal clothing? Admittedly, some people (particularly fans of the programs) will sometimes go berserk at such discussions (I find it ironic when a show or movie is lauded for being intelligent and challenging, yet when people attempt to seriously analyze it, fans get incensed).

Yet there's precious little of that when it comes to Canadian film or TV. It's as if critics don't take it seriously -- or just can't be bothered. After all, to most professional entertainment writers in Canada, writing about Canadian productions is just a minor sidebar to their main focus, which is Hollywood.

It also relates to the end goal. If I write something negative about a film or TV show, I'm still motivated by the fact that I believe better is possible.

But more than a few times I've read pieces by supposedly intelligent critics who insist only hacks stay in Canada because anyone of talent would move to Hollywood. These commentators don't want Canadian film and TV to be better -- they want it to die out entirely. And, I'm guessing, they want Canada as a sovereign nation to follow suit. After all, the next step is insisting any scientist who's any good should move away, and any lawyer, and any farmer, etc. -- until there's no one left (what is commonly thought of as a brain-drain, and most countries regard as bad). I'm guessing the only people they think can live in Canada and still be respectable are film and TV critics like themselves! People like that I suspect would regard the Canadian Screen Awards (honouring Canadian talent in Canada) as less prestigious than the newly created Golden Maple Awards (which honour Canadian talent in Hollywood and, essentially, seem intended to reward talent for moving south).

Anyhoo...

There are different categories of entertainment reviews -- each as valid as the other.

There is simply the review. A writer saying whether they think something is good or bad, and whether it successfully accomplished what the storyteller intended.

Then there is what is sometimes called criticism. It's more in-depth, considering themes and the subtext.

Then there is what we might call analysis. This might look at socio-political ramifications more.

Maybe we are there. Maybe there are enough great critics out there. Maybe you have a favourite "go to" entertainment writer.

But one of the steps on the road to great TV (and film) is great TV and film commentary.

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