Within thirty-six hours of the release of the long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development, reviews—not just of the first episode, but of the entire season—started appearing online. Reviewers watched the full eight-hour season in one or two sleep-deprived binges, then spent the remaining twenty-eight hours spewing out essay-like things, some in excess of 3,000 words, purporting to offer an authoritative viewpoint on the show. One gets the sense that many of these writers would proudly refer to their essay-like things as thinkpieces, which is internet shorthand for unfocused, poorly edited conglomerations of words designed to project the appearance of depth without actually providing any.
Arrested Development, a show more intricately plotted than most dramas and featuring several layers of gags in nearly every shot, has long been renowned for its unprecedented levels of complexity. One reason it’s developed such a rabid cult following is that it rewards multiple viewings and intense focus.
How, then, are we supposed to believe that any of these reviews, churned out under pressure of an artificial deadline, offers anything like meaning or perspective? What can they be besides superficial responses that debase the function of actual criticism?
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There is obviously a demand for this kind of coverage. We live in a culture in which it is mandatory for entertainment (or even entertainment-adjacent) websites to post episodic reviews of every TV show, from Game of Thrones to Modern Family to The Real Housewives of Atlanta, whether these shows require this level of engagement or not (Is there a more trivial use of the English language than 1500+ words recapping a single Real Housewives episode?). Most of these reviews function as plot summaries followed by a couple of cursory judgments, lists of stray observations, and so on. The writer is bound by no standards and can write anything, as long as it takes on the veneer of a substantive review. The only goal is to give commenters a place to comment, because obviously there aren’t yet quite enough venues on the internet for people to offer their unfettered opinions and to argue with one another.
But, okay, you’re saying, if you hate this stuff, don’t bother reading it—it’s not hurting anybody. But that seems shortsighted to me. Because this culture of knee-jerk analysis furthers the destructive notion that just because it’s possible to do something quickly then it’s necessary. The best critics offer valuable insights into our culture and help us understand art in a new way, furthering the discourse around important social issues. This devotion to speed reduces the role of critic to that of an opinionator, which is an entirely different, and less useful thing. Further, it subordinates the language itself, stripping it of meaning and consequence, asking it to exist solely as a vehicle to drive clicks and ads.
If, for example, a reviewer watches an episode of a not-particularly-complex show like How I Met Your Mother, then posts a thousand word essay-like thing less than an hour later, what value do those words have? What can that person say that will enrich a reader’s life in any way?
I understand I’m in the minority here, because these reviews are very popular, but I don’t understand why we’re expected to congratulate someone for making words happen first and faster, whether they mean anything or not. I keep picturing a day in which we pay meteorologists to liveblog the rain, judging this drop too derivative and that one a little heavy-handed and the next not even believably wet, and I picture commenters saying hey, idiot, you don’t like the rain then don’t look at it and I don’t know about you guys but I thought this was great rain and rain makes trees grow do you hate trees?
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Stick with me through this next example.
During the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, Wolf Blitzer interviews Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick about the progress of the investigation. Patrick urges patience. “Patience is essential,” he says, twice. And Blitzer responds, I swear, “We’ll have time for analysis later. At the moment, can you just give us some quick thoughts and gut reactions?”
Which, even taking into account my lowered expectations for Blitzer and CNN, is a disappointment.
During election season, news organizations rely on hourly polls to create a series of false narratives that allow pundits to say more things and to have more gut reactions. It doesn’t matter what they say, just that they keep saying things, sputtering until the next poll comes in and they can keep gut reacting.
We value speed over complexity. I understand the impulse; I sometimes find myself getting impatient with my wi-fi for not being quite miraculous enough, and I hate waiting in line, and I check Twitter while I’m on elevators because I can’t handle solitude anymore. But there’s a creeping sense that the access to an endless fount of information, rather than leading us into a new Renaissance, has actually devalued knowledge for us; it’s now just another thing to go get, like buying a sandwich and an energy drink.
Spend a few days on a college campus, and you’ll see students—nineteen-year-old American-born students raised in major cities and affluent suburbs—who have literally never been inside a library in their lives and seem proud of that fact. Students who feel no compunction about begging the professor during class not to make them read a whole book, even trying to bargain down to a half-book or maybe just three-quarters, as long as it’s not every page. Students who know how to steal any media they want from the recesses of the internet, but cannot identify a reliable source for an essay. I once had a student come to my office with a cup of coffee in each hand and two energy drinks in his bag but no books; he had a lot of work to get done for all of his classes, and he was going to do it all in the next four hours.
This is not an attack on students, who have been raised with the internet and who have been taught the wrong lessons by people who should know better. Administrators find the potential of technology intoxicating for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it can help them churn out more degrees more quickly. Across the country, universities are increasingly investing in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, assembly line education). Some schools, including mine, are piloting one-week courses that meet from 9-to-5 for five days and then grant full credit. There is a growing concern that classes don’t move fast enough for the students, even if many professors agree that what students would most benefit from is slowing down. You may be able to read all of Kant in three frantic days, but it doesn’t mean you’ll understand it. You may study differential equations intensely for a week with the aid of Ritalin and Red Bull, but that doesn’t mean you’ll retain anything.
What it all comes back to—the sloppy news coverage, the acceleration of classes, the demand for a constant stream of opinions—is this: culturally, we have reached a point at which “tl;dr” (“too long; didn’t read”) is considered a cogent critique of something rather than an expression of ignorance. A point at which no entertainment site would feel comfortable saying to their readers, “Listen, we’re going to get to Arrested Development, but give us some time to process it.” A point at which the people who guide our discourse are the ones willing to subjugate themselves by offering vapid gut reactions rather than saying something worth saying. No, the spate of so-called “definitive” reviews of Arrested Development didn’t start this trend, and it’s not the worst of it, but it stands as the best, most recent example of the steady degradation of ideas and considered viewpoints in exchange for quick takes and instant analysis. It reinforces the notion that it never matters what you say, but only that you say it first.