Thursday, January 18, 2007

Professionalism: An Object Lesson

Over at Strange Horizons, Dan Hartland writes about Battlestar Galactica so I don't have to, and is, as usual, thoughtful and eloquent on the subject:
Moore these days seems almost exclusively interested in the endpoint rather than the journey. So "Unfinished Business" needs to be a story about Apollo and Starbuck's relationship, and thus crafts an entirely unconvincing sequence of flashbacks to justify the resuscitation of their on-again off-again love affair. We are expected to accept this ret-con of the characters without question, even as we beg to know why not a hint of this sudden backstory has been dropped before. Similarly, in "Hero," Adama reveals that just prior to the Cylon attack on the colonies he had led an illegal incursion into Cylon space, thus arguably provoking the machines' devastating onslaught. The viewer resents such massive elements of backstory being conjured from nowhere. This is not merely another permutation of the show's hopeless attempt to equate the humans with the Cylons—there is simply nothing humanity could have done to fairly invite the holocaust delivered upon them by their robotic creations. It also exhibits a simple lack of respect for anything but the moment. If Battlestar Galactica wants to tell a story about Adama feeling guilty for causing Armageddon, it will tell it however it can. There is no pleasure in watching a series happy to rewrite its own mythology for the quick shock (predictably, in subsequent episodes, Adama's revelation has not been mentioned again).
(If you haven't done so already, check out Dan's previous Galactica essays: 1, 2, 3. I'm particularly fond of the second one, in which Dan lucidly diagnoses the Cylons' core disfunction months before the show's writers got around to acknowledging it.)

I came to Dan's article in a bit of a mood, having previously been pointed towards this write-up of a visit to the set of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which included a Q&A with Aaron Sorkin. Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that the press gaggle in question was eager for a chance to bait the medium's resident enfant terrible, and he doesn't fail to deliver: first attacking the LA Times for what he describes as irresponsible reporting on his show, and then segueing to his favorite punching bag, online fan writers:
Next Sorkin ridiculed the whole idea that bloggers -- many of whom come from parts unknown, bearing grudges, perhaps, and not always a reliable sense of who they are and what they're really after -- be taken more seriously in the mainstream media than any random josephine walking down Main Street. "An enormous rise in amateurism," Sorkin said of the blogosphere. "And everyone's voice oughtn't be equal."
I do realize how futile it is, at this point, to get worked up over the fact that Aaron Sorkin doesn't understand the internet and takes every opportunity to parade his ignorance of it, but in the context of television writing, Sorkin's words are nothing short of baffling. When was the last time any of you looked to mainstream, professional publications for thoughtful, in-depth television reviews? Against Dan Hartland's Battlestar Galactica series, here is some of what the professional media has to offer:
  • First we have Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker, whose alleged review of the show kicks off with the following paragraph:
    It’s easy for people who aren’t science- fiction enthusiasts to laugh at the genre—its earnestness, its lingo, its fans’ awestruck romance with the idea that God is in the details of equipment and uniforms and security code and how many moons orbit Planet X and why it’s called Planet X in the first place. Does it have something to do with the number ten, or is it meant to be a leaning cross, or is it a reference to the mark on Captain Blah’s forehead in the second episode of the third season of “Star Bores”? (Usually, a writer’s answer to such questions is “I called it Planet X because I liked the name.”) Making fun of science fiction became even easier after William Shatner, in a 1986 “Saturday Night Live” sketch set at a “Star Trek” convention, exploded at fans who asked him insanely pointless questions, “Get a life!” At first, even civilians who had never owned a “Star Trek" trading card or a toy phaser were a little stunned by this slap at the faithful; it’s amazing that Shatner ever worked again after inflicting that Vulcan nerve pinch. But his admonition was eventually incorporated into the fans’ self-image; you see self-aware, amused references to it in sci-fi blogs when someone goes on about something in a way that he knows may brand him as a geek.
    Not only is Franklin indulging in some of the most tired clichés about genre fans, she isn't even remotely close to her topic--how does she get from the new Battlestar Galactica to William Shatner? And while one can imagine bringing up fan reactions to a cultural artifact later in the article, how is it good writing to open with them?

  • There are, of course, several variants on the 'I'm not a geek, I swear!' boilerplate. Attacking the fans is a popular option, but in her Salon article, Laura Miller chooses another old favorite--knocking down other works in the genre as a way of reminding the audience that the subject of her review is an abnormal specimen, and that she therefore can't be blamed for paying it any attention. "These shows have ranged from the passable ("Farscape") to the appalling ("Lexx," a sort of R-rated "H.R. Pufnstuf")," Miller wrote, and then got all excited over the fact that Galactica features a female character as innovative as Starbuck, who is a capable military officer and treats sex as recreation.

  • Troy Patterson's essay at Slate needs no comment:
    Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), now entering its third season, is not science fiction—or "speculative fiction" or "SF," or whatever you're supposed to call it these days. Ignore the fact that the series is a remake of a late-'70s Star Wars knockoff. Forget that its action variously unfolds on starships and on a colonized planet called New Caprica. And never mind its stunning special effects, which outclass the endearingly schlocky stuff found elsewhere on its network. Sullen, complex, and eager to obsess over grand conspiracies and intimate betrayals alike, it is TV noir.
  • And finally, Dan Martin writing just last week in The Guardian.
    Before the sci-fi Channel's re-imagining of the series formerly known as "The Shite Star Wars", the genre was hardly on fighting form. As the Star Trek franchise declined exponentially with every splinter series, a spawn of even drearier efforts like Farscape and Babylon 5 sprung up in its wake. The only glimmer of quality, Joss Whedon's Firefly, was hauled off air after just half a season.
    The grammar in this paragraph is so tortured that I don't honestly know what Martin is trying to say, but I'm fairly certain he calls Farscape dreary. I realize that Farscape isn't everyone's cup of tea, and genre outsiders in particular might find it a bit of a trial, but the fact that Martin uses this particular adjective to describe the show can only mean that he has never watched a single episode.
This, then, is what passes for television writing in professional venues: unthinking, uninformed, its authors more interested in distancing themselves from their subject matter than engaging with it, and while I do realize that, by focusing on mainstream discussions of a genre show, I've skewed the results, I don't think this fact undercuts my point. Dan Hartland is equally fair-minded and thoughtful writing about Deadwood as he is about Battlestar Galactica. His professional counterparts, however, were so terrified by the genre of their subject matter that they fell over themselves trying to assure their readers that they weren't taking it seriously. And here, I believe, is where Aaron Sorkin misses the point when he talks about the virtue of professionalism (beyond, that is, the fact that in his personal dictionary, the entry for 'amateur' probably reads 'a person who doesn't like my work'). A professional is one thing, and a person who takes their work seriously is another. The two qualities are neither mutually exclusive nor inextricably tied--there are professionals who don't give a damn about creating something worthy, and amateurs whose day jobs are nothing but a way of subsidizing a hobby to which they devote the bulk of their mental energies. It's the latter quality that discerning readers should be looking for, regardless of venue.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for Aaron Sorkin to figure out how little he understands either the internet or the various facets of professionalism (frankly, if there are any epiphanies in his future, I hope they involve making Studio 60 even marginally watchable). It's probably best, when faced with the kind of outbursts that have become synonymous with his name, to sigh philosophically and try to concentrate on his still-impressive body of work. That said, I can't help but chuckle when I notice that the writer of the Oregon Live (the online version of the newspaper The Oregonian) article, who laps up Sorkin's dig at the amateurism of bloggers, ends the piece with a reference to "Matt Albie's drug problem."

7 comments:

Iain said...

I seem to have read five or six iterations of those meanstream Battlestar Galactica reviews. Every single one appears to believe that in order to convince any 'normal' person to watch the series, they have to hurriedly and repeatedly place as much distance as possible between the show and SF; between the show and being a geek. So Galatica is not SF: it's TV noir, it's a war show, it's a post-911 allegory, it's as politically complex as The West Wing (snort), as gritty as Deadwood .

I suppose that on one level these writers have assessed the audience they're trying to reach. They've assumed that anyone who likes SF is already watching the programme so it's the mainstream to which they must appeal. I just despair that they regard this kind of lazy "nerds in Spock ears" journalism as acceptable. Is this really the way to get a mainstream audience to watch the show - to ridicule its entire genre, then quickly try to put in a completely different genre?

It's also hard to sympathise with a rave review of an SF show which takes the stance: it's good so it can't be SF.

Jonathan M said...

This type of thing is a symptom of a wider problem with TV writing as a whole.

If you read the TV listings and the "what's on" guides from day to day you'll not only see people who really don't know how to write a review let alone criticism you'll also see people with utterly breath-taking levels of cowardice.

The Guardian's actually a good example of this as Sam Wollaston is their head TV writer and also their deputy editor for features. If you read him week in week out you'll see him use the phrase "I haven't worked out what I think about this quite yet..." quite often.

A) Why does he write about a programme when he has no opinion about it.

and

B) What generally happens is that he'll wait to see what other people make of it before agreeing with them.

This is why Buffy is spoken of in glowing terms NOW but was derided when it first appeared. Same goes for BSG.

It's the economics of working as a mainstream hack, especially in the culture sector. If you start having strong opinions that clash with those of your audience then you're deemed to be "out of touch".

Add to this the fact that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who became a journalist in order to write about TV and you get a recipe for the kind of stuff on display in the articles you link to.

No engagement with the material, loads of cliches and loads of arse covering.

Anonymous said...

Dan Hartland in one smart cookie.

That is all.

S

A.R.Yngve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.R.Yngve said...

As Nussbaum pointed out, there is plenty of ambitious and trustworthy criticism on the Web these days.

The best reviews do not merely serve up an "opinion" -- they make you think about what you have seen or read.

Good critics foster an introspective mind, and in fact bring about a higher degree of cultural tolerance: When we learn to understand the hows and whys of popular culture's popularity, we grow less inclined to casually condemn it and put on blinders to other people's tastes.

A.R.Yngve said...

BTW, I can strongly recommend the BBC series LIFE ON MARS... see it if you haven't already!

Turkey said...

Sorry to reply to a rather old post, but if anyone happens upon it, does anyone know of a blog or forum that is strongly critical of BSG, yet still interested enough to comment on it, as Abigail was back around season two? It probably doesn't reflect well on me that I want to see a show I used to like brutalized, but I do.

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