TV Criticism So White and Male

Riley Keough attends to business as sex worker Christine Reade on Starz's The Girlfriend Experience.

In an essay last month for New York magazine, Angelica Jade Bastién posed the question in the title of her article, “When Did Audiences Stop Taking ‘Middlebrow’ Television Seriously?” In the piece Bastién, a TV and film critic who publishes regularly in outlets like NYM, Serpentine and Bright Wall/Dark Room, argued that contemporary TV audiences and critics are so primed to expect the conventions of shows considered “prestige,” or what she referred to as “highbrow,” that they no longer respect TV shows that offer entertainment to the audience as their primary goal, what she termed middlebrow or midbrow.

Story continues below.

Defining middlebrow in comparison to highbrow, Bastién said,

If “prestige” television aims for the intellectual, midbrow is concerned with the visceral experience and pleasure that can come from TV. It cares less for blatantly weighty themes, instead prioritizing personality, directness, and engaging viewers without talking down to them.

The best of the current middlebrow offerings, Bastién argued, were shows like Orphan Black, Outlander, The Americans, Jane the Virgin and UnReal, shows on networks or in genres that have previously not been given much critical respect.

Responding to Bastién’s article on Twitter, fellow NYM critics Mark Harris and Matt Zoller Seitz, The New York Times chief TV critic James Poniewozik, and The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum all took issue with the use of the terms “middlebrow” and “highbrow” to describe different kinds of television shows. Tweets and comments on the article by readers not only disputed the validity of those terms but how they had been used, arguing, for instance, that a show like The Good Wife was a better example of middlebrow TV than something as ambitious as Orphan Black or UnReal.

Bastién herself later tweeted that the conversation had made her realize those terms were “damn near obsolete” but repeatedly noted that people were stuck on the descriptors she had used while ignoring the argument her article was actually making. Unsurprisingly, particularly because Bastién is a woman of color, she also noted that some of the people tweeting had felt free to question her intelligence and credentials.

Story continues below.

Bastién is a critic whose work I regularly follow and admire, and her essays on Keanu Reeves and Joan Crawford, as well as her piece on the way that genre TV has let down Black women, are all must-reads. While I disagreed with some parts of her middlebrow essay (I would agree that brow-based criticism is antiquated, however, I’m not sure it’s general audiences who aren’t taking these particular shows seriously but rather professional critics on Twitter), I think her argument and the responses it generated point to several recurring problems in television criticism, namely: What kinds of TV shows are worth critical attention? What terms should we use to describe TV with different artistic aims? And who is deciding what those shows and terms will be?

Because as Bastién and other critics have pointed out, when it comes to quality, the widely used term “prestige” is relatively meaningless. In fact, shows generally earn the term prestige before they air by accumulating markers of quality rather than by proving themselves to be quality. Worse, the shiny surfaces and big names behind prestige television projects often obscure a lack of quality and guarantee critical attention for television shows that don’t really deserve it.

Story continues below.

Take, for example, the slavish review by Zoller Seitz for Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, in which he refers to the series executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh as “one of the best shows of the year.” TGE has the rich cinematography, opaque dialogue, and morally ambiguous heroine (who is great at her morally ambiguous job, here prostitution) seen in so much other prestige television. It’s also garbage — a beautifully brittle shell wrapped around nothing new, less interested in offering an empathetic or nuanced portrait of sex workers than it is in indulging moralistic notions about how sociopathic a person would have to be to engage in such work. Oh, plus tons of female nudity, such a rarity in pay-cable TV. (Snark.)

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]TGE’s female nudity is such a rarity.[/pullquote]In a line from his review that amused me a lot, Zoller Seitz defended the way the show deals with sexuality and prostitution by pointing out that one of the co-creators of TGE is a woman, Amy Seimetz, who co-wrote every episode, directed several, and also appears as the sister of the main character, as though her authorial and actor-y presence inoculated TGE against the charge that every female escort on the show is portrayed as shallow and duplicitous. As anyone who watches police procedurals knows, this is not exactly a revolutionary representation of sex workers, although I suppose the fact that girlfriend-experience provider Christine Reade, the lead character played by Riley Keough, manages to survive through the opening credits does count for something.

One of the new faces of The CW, Grant Gustin as The Flash.
One of the new faces of The CW: Grant Gustin in The Flash.

Note also the somewhat flabbergasted recent coverage of current network success story The CW. In another unintentionally amusing observation, Vulture critic Josef Adalian noted that The CW had finally started, “making shows people cared about.” This is a confusing statement about a network whose programming has survived on extremely loyal and passionate fan bases not much smaller than those of some low-rated critical darlings.

That is unless you assume that Adalian means that The CW has started producing shows that the right people care about. It isn’t a surprise that the most consistent, positive critical attention I have seen The CW receive centers around Arrow and The Flash, shows built around white male protagonists. This ignores the fact that, of the eleven shows renewed for this year’s season on The CW, only four have female leads, a disappointing development for a network that used to be heavily associated with shows starring and aimed at young women. Then again, next year’s lineup, with the addition of Supergirl, No Tomorrow and Frequency, looks better in terms of gender balance, but two of those three shows have not yet proven themselves with either viewers or critics

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]TV critics reflect TV’s lack of diversity.[/pullquote]At the same time that TV shows are being taken more and more seriously on the basis of their artistic merit, a canon and a critical language to categorize and describe them are developing. Articles in the last few years about the dearth of women film critics, particularly in major jobs at prominent publications, have examined what happens when the voices leading the cultural and critical conversation about film lack diversity. TV criticism, in comparison to film criticism, has much greater gender parity, with prominent women writers like Nussbaum, who was just awarded the Pulitzer for criticism, or Variety’s Maureen Ryan. But while all of the critics I’ve mentioned here have written repeatedly about representation and gender, it’s worth noting that the majority of television critics in major jobs and prominent staff positions, the kind of high-profile gigs that lead to book deals, are white and in roughly the same age bracket. The major voices shaping the critical language of television reflect the same lack of diversity they purport to critique.