Archive for September, 2010
Tonight is the premiere of the fifth season of 30 Rock. Despite its poor ratings, NBC has kept 30 Rock on the air because it usually cleans up at the Emmys and because it is a critical darling.
Oops. Did I say “is”? I meant “was.”
Last season, 30 Rock suffered from the dreaded double whammy of any critical darling: Emmy backlash and critical fatigue. What is Emmy backlash? Shows that do well at the Emmys consistently lose their critical champions because by winning many Emmys (a good thing), it excludes other shows that critics and TV fans think are also deserving (a bad thing, apparently). People begin to list shows that were better than the Emmy winner in that particular season. Suddenly, shows that made us laugh or cry or tense up all seasons suddenly appear to have massive flaws that gnaw away at us. If your show is experiencing any of these symptoms, it may have Emmy backlash. Consult a script doctor immediately.
Critical fatigue is a related phenomenon. Some shows (Chuck comes to mind) become critical darlings, but fail to live up to critics’ high expectations. Really, this is a problem for critics rather than shows, since the shows may not have changed at all, but the critics’ viewing experience has. Chuck may not have been ambitious enough or it may have been too ambitious, depending on what the critic thought Chuck could and should be. It fails to meet expectations. Critics lose interest in championing the show. In a case like Chuck, this fatigue may be legitimate. Weighing perceived benefits to the cost of championing the show, a TV fan or critic may not want to put the effort into hyping the show.
The case of critical fatigue surrounding 30 Rock is a bit different, I think. In this case, the overriding critical complaint about the show is that it hasn’t grown any: its characters are thinly drawn, its plots are being recycled from earlier episodes, these jokes were used before. All of these lead critics and other viewers who watch shows intensely to conclude that the show is less funny than it used to be. But this is only because critical viewers typically watch shows in order even when there is no particular reason to do so. Apart from a few mini-arcs and the occasionally callback, there is really no reason to watch 30 Rock in order. But most of us do. So we recognize the same jokes, the same plots, the same everything. Then we begin to notice that Kenneth, who seemed like a breakout character that first season, has broken out into nowhere. Tracy’s glorious non sequiturs now seem like a stretch. And why did we ever think Jenna was funny?
But here is the problem: The last season of 30 Rock was as good or nearly as good as the previous seasons. Why do I think that? I apply the new viewer test. Would a new viewer of this show, entering at the fourth season, think this show is as hilarious as in-order viewers thought the first two seasons were? In this case, I think the answer is probably yes. (Or at least, close enough to being as good as not to justify the critical disparity.) For someone who hadn’t seen these plots before, there would be no reason to expect more from Liz and Jack’s relationship or to have grown tired of the use of guest stars that draw away from the strengths of central characters.
Now, there’s no easy cure for critical fatigue. The new viewer test is really just a check on our intuitions about how funny a particular season is. In fact, we might do a variation of the new viewer test called the syndication test: if this episode showed up out of order in syndication, would we think it is as funny as the earlier episodes? I suspect many comedy series that last four or more seasons will see a marked improvement in critical judgment if we apply either of these two tests.
Critical fatigue, I suspect, is a side-effect of the particular sort of careful viewing demanded of critics. This form of viewing and criticial analysis is particularly well-suited to the long-developing dramas that have become the calling card of “quality television.” As a point of comparison, because the characters change little over time and the plots often follow the same beats and twists, popular procedurals like CSI and Criminal Minds tend to get little critical attention even though they are typically the most watched shows on television. That’s just the way it goes. Contemporary television criticism, which is getting more refined and more impressive, hasn’t yet found a way to adjust to procedurals and, I am arguing, the later seasons of television comedies.
So when we turn to 30 Rock and the other returning comedies this season, I encourage us all to watch (if we can) with the fresh eyes of a new viewer, or at least the blurry vision of a future viewer watching out-of-order syndication. I suspect we will all enjoy the returning comedies a good deal more.