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Friday April 11, 2003, 01:47

I don't watch a lot of television. Between working and the Internet and actually wanting to spend time outside of my apartment away from working and the Internet, there really isn't too much time to sit around and watch the idiot box. I used to take breaks in the middle of the day to watch Ricky or Jenny or the news, and when this war thing started I was actually watching some network news, some cable news and some BBC that was happening on the local public television stations that didn't have their own news and wanted (presumably) to offer something resembling the "alternative perspective." But that was more the exception and the box sits in the corner, silent.

I could not, however, resist entering the contest on the local public radio station to win tickets to a panel discussion on television criticism (no, the irony is not lost on me either and I applaud your perceptiveness) at the Museum of Television and Radio. Not only did it sound interesting, but I was also fairly certain that the number of people entering these contests is so small that I might actually have a shot of winning. So I entered and I won, and I arrived a couple of minutes late and was unable to remove my coat during the entire hour and a half long discussion for fear of disturbing those around me (including the person sitting behind me and to the left who kept on rubbing the inside of his, or her, thighs, vigorously, every couple of minutes).

The panelists were Sarah Bunting from Television Without Pity, Anita Gates from the New York Times, Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly, and James Poniewozik from Time Magazine and they had relatively little to say on the subject of television criticism, which is unsurprising considering the admission that most television critics just "fall into" their jobs and have no credentials other than being able to stomach enough television to actually write relatively intelligently on the subject. Which isn't to say that the discussion was not interesting, because it was. It's just that I found the study of the critics themselves far more interesting than the discussions themselves.

The panel was assembled brilliantly, if only for the characters that each of the panelists played so well. The balance was truly stunning. Two men, two women. Two older, two younger. Two from online beginnings, two from print beginnings.

Ms. Bunting, the only one of the four currently involved with a purely web-based venture, spoke with the same cynical and sarcastic voice that she uses in her online writing. She spoke intelligently, but I found that when confronted with a lack of a solid conclusion she typically fell back on a mutter and an "eh, pffft" which served both to end her thought dead in its tracks and pretty much close the book on any further discussion on the subject. "...I mean, come on, Dawson's Creek? Pfft."

Mr. Poniewozik, now at Time, originally cut his chops on the mean streets of Salon, cashing out while the going was good and landing himself a legitimate job at Time. His beginnings at the now flailing dotcom seems to have left him a bit unsure of his own cred and he was overly fidgety and made ample use of the word "um" throughout the discussion. He was quick to answer a question posed to the panel but always seemed to be seeking some manner of validation at the end, a sort of "That's what I think, are you guys with me? You are, right? I did that right, right?"

Ms. Gates, with an actual degree in television, edited the Arts and Leisure section of the Times for two weeks and never left. She was much more grounded in a literary background, it seemed, and compared the works of David E. Kelly to John Irving ("I'm expecting someone to get eaten by a bear or have a heart attack on stage" which I took to mean that his work is just a bit too scripted to be real life, and suffering for it) while Ms. Bunting instead compared him to George Lucas (his early work isn't very good, but it's fast, so you end up cutting him some slack, but as his work goes on, it slows down, and there's nothing to distract you from the fact that it's a steaming pile of dung).

Ken Tucker started as a rock reviewer and moved on to television when the mass appeal of rock began dwindling and he found television to be the new mass medium. He seemed the most experienced reviewer of the group, the most confident in his ability to hold his end of an argument and the most likely to quote Parliament Funkadelic song titles as illustrating his point. I, knowing nothing about the subject, am at a loss as to what he was talking about.

Taking it even further, we can examine their wardrobes. From stage right to stage left (or from left to right, looking at them on stage) we have Ms. Bunting in all back with a big red necklace. Very New York. Ms. Gates was wearing a maroon top and a tartan-patterned ankle-length skirt. Understated and classy. Mr. Poniewozik seemed like he had the most to say in his black shirt, black pants, green tie and, could that have been a green suede jacket? Again trying to gain cred, this time through clothing, I can't say for sure but I don't think he pulled it off. Mr. Tucker on the end wore a grey suit and a white shirt. No tie. A matching suit, though, which says traditional, with no tie and the top button undone, which says "I used to be a rock critic, but not any more."

Of the four, Ken Tucker seemed the most adept at giving sound bites, a function, perhaps, of his overall experience in the media. The discussions themselves started meandering starting with the panelists describing how they got started as television critics (which all ended up being some version of "well, I was doing this thing, and then I started writing about television, and now I actually get paid to do it" - though admittedly, Ms. Bunting blames it all on her parents not letting her watch the Dukes of Hazard when she was younger, which I can completely relate to as my parents didn't let me watch You Can't Do That On Television because it was "too stupid," the fear being that I too would get stupid. No comments, please.) and drifting through the Reality TV genre (conclusion: it is a new genre of tv, the shows themselves tend to move in packs, the audiences seem appalled that there is not enough humiliation on these shows - that people should really be far more embarrassed about what they're doing on tv but aren't, and that good reality tv does exist and is far better than a bad sitcom), a discussion about whether the sitcom is dead (pretty much, yeah) and ending up at what television show the panelists would take with them on a desert island (The Simpsons was the big winner there, simply for bulk, but so were The Andy Griffith Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and 90210). There wasn't any time at the end of the program for questions from the audience, mostly because the panelists were so damn long-winded (they are all writers after all - live appearances don't have the benefit of a rewrite).

Which is to say that the panel was entertaining. When looking at a medium with such mass appeal, where the main goal is entertainment to begin with, entertainment is going to be the outcome. The job of the television critic is to discuss the social significance of television through anecdote and personal experience, showing the larger picture by focusing on an individual's reaction. As was said, the job of the opera critic is to dumb down something smart, and the television critic's job would be to smarten up something dumb. Or something like that. Oh hell, I don't remember.

I suppose there's a reason why I'm not a television critic.

Television Without Pity
New York Times: Art: Television
Entertainment Weekly
Tomato Nation (Sarah Bunting)

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