I’m sitting in John Allemang’s office on October 20, 2000, his last day as The Globe and Mail‘s television critic. It’s a spacious office containing a TV and VCR for Allemang to watch tapes of the programs he reviews. The tapes, sent by the networks for Allemang to study, are piled hip-deep in two of the office’s four corners, occupying entire cabinets, stacked on just about any flat surface available. They spread across the room like soapsuds in an episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy floods the house while trying to do the laundry. They consume the office so completely that it’s easy to imagine Allemang wading through them to get to his desk each day. “Take whatever you want,” he offers with a dismissive wave of his hand. Deciding I probably don’t need a 1998 episode of the fifth estate, I politely decline. But how is he going to clear all these tapes out of here by 5 p.m.? “There’s a Dumpster waiting somewhere,” he jokes.
The sea of tapes makes for a fitting scene: Allemang navigating the morass of mediocre programming to find something worth watching. That’s what a good TV critic is meant to do-slosh through the mess for the reader who’s too busy to get his feet wet. But being a good TV critic, writing intelligently about television, isn’t easy. It’s a thankless job. Viewers don’t believe television matters and, unlike Allemang, most TV critics aren’t inclined to try to change their minds. It is easy, after all, to cop a condescending attitude toward the boob tube, the idiot box, the medium charged with the dumbing down of society.
Toronto Life media columnist Robert Fulford says people, TV critics included, like to feel superior, “and television is something they feel they can be superior to.” A quick glance across the dial reveals that Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and Temptation Island aren’t exactly raising the intellectual bar. It’s junk food TV, and it’s leaving us all with a bad case of gut rot. But Canadian TV critics aren’t, as Fulford suggests, “professional scoffers” who believe themselves to be superior to the medium they’re meant to review. A look at dailies across Canada shows that most TV writing in the country is smart and well written. It’s competent. It’s good. But it’s not great.
In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that good critics, true critics, do more than just review programs (using the term “reviewer” a bit derisively), but actually provide a cultural context for what they are reviewing, in addition to their own opinions and thoughts. So, outlining what happens in a given episode ofWill & Grace and then weighing in on whether it was funny or not gets the job done, but it does little else. As renowned former New Yorker TV critic Michael Arlen writes in his book The View from Highway 1, a good critic should “speak of television as if it mattered.”
In every other school of criticism-film, music, literary and theatre-there are Great Critics, critics whose writings are required reading for anyone even peripherally involved in that business. Movie critic Pauline Kael’s columns in The New Yorker in the ’70s and ’80s were must-sees in Hollywood. “You had to read it,” Fulford says of Kael’s column. “You just weren’t in the business if you didn’t.” Today, Kael is considered one of the most influential film critics in the history of the medium. But television, particularly Canadian television, has never really had that one important critic. If television is the most truly vital and culturally significant of all media, why is it so hard to find truly vital and significant writing about it?
Television is a complex medium. It’s relatively cheap, it’s nonelitist and it’s widely available. As such, it’s arguably the most significant medium?more people are watching television any night of the week than attending a play or going to the movies. TV permeates our culture, yet critics can’t decide how much it matters (or whether at all), and viewers are left wondering the same thing.
Sometimes the reviews in other dailies aren’t even reviews. One of the biggest problems with TV criticism today, according to Robert Fulford, is that too much ink is devoted to what goes on behind the scenes. “There’s an awful lot of writing about the industry-I think an awful lot more than the public needs,” says Fulford. “Many critics would much rather be covering or criticizing a CRTC hearing than actually watching television trying to figure out what it says or what it means.”
Toronto Star television columnist Antonia Zerbisias would rather be covering a CRTC hearing than reviewing the new fall season-she writes reviews only because her job calls for it. “I think of myself as a reporter on television,” she explains. “I never refer to myself as a TV critic-it’s so pretentious.” Pretentious or not, it’s a bit unsettling that Canada’s largest daily has a TV critic who dislikes writing reviews.
Fortunately, a disdainful view of criticism is not a problem at most Canadian papers. Indeed, most TV critics at Canadian dailies do their jobs well: they watch the programs, and pass the verdict on to the reader, occasionally making reference to other shows and movies to provide context. The typical formula is to review one show per column, spending the majority of the column describing the show, and at the end deliver the verdict. Critics like Brad Oswald at the Winnipeg Free Press and the Globe‘s Allemang all reviewed the fall 2000 retread of The Fugitive in the context of the movie as well as the original series. (They also resisted the temptation to slam it just because it was a remake.) Again, while not glowing, reviews were fair. It was solid TV reviewing. (Explaining how the show’s premise does not hold up to 21st-century DNA and forensic testing, Oswald called for “a little bit of ’60s-style suspension of disbelief…but the payoff is worthwhile.”)
Oswald’s treatment of The Fugitive is indicative of Canadian television critics today; it’s actually harder than you’d think to find an example of anti-bias from TV critics anymore. Indeed, just about every critic claims to greatly enjoy television, and a look at their writing proves it. The fact is, it’s hard to do good work (let alone vital work) if you hate what you do. Dan Brown, who reviews television for the National Post (even though the paper has no official TV critic), believes it’s natural. “People who do the best TV work are the people who are generally enthusiastic about it,” he says. “That’s not just limited to TV, though. If you want somebody who writes well about American politics, you’ve got to find somebody who loves American politics.” And this, of course, is true. Canadian TV criticism is good. Good, but not great. But someone’s working on it.
If Allemang was an above-average critic, then Doyle is well on his way to being one of the most important TV columnists Canada has ever produced. Doyle, like Allemang before him, clearly believes in the importance of television as a medium and is well aware of its cultural importance. “So much of what we know about the world, what we know about our own society and culture, comes from television,” says Doyle. “We form our impressions through distilled images from television.”
Much of Doyle’s writing is about those images, rather than the programs themselves. During the Canadian federal election last November, Doyle regularly devoted segments of his columns to the election and its coverage, often discussing how politicians manipulate television for their benefit. For example, in October, Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day used giant prop markers to circle blown-up newspaper headlines about the auditor general’s report. “It was dimwittedly simple,” Doyle wrote of the tactic in his October 26 column, “and anyone who thinks this kind of unalloyed electioneering is too corny for a modern electorate is in for a surprise.” The mere fact Doyle wrote about the election in his television column at all is remarkable?even more so is the fact that his columns were sharper than those of many political reporters. “Sure, some of Stockwell Day’s antics look like cheap ads for an insurance company,” Doyle continues, “but they have a visceral impact, sticking in the minds of viewers.”
Because Doyle is the only TV critic at a Canadian daily today who writes about matters as complex as how an election plays out on television, sometimes he seems like the only critic who truly understands the power of television. And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the one-show-per-column formula, Doyle prefers to cover two or three shows each time. This format, in addition to allowing him to discuss several shows each day, gives him the opportunity to write about a TV-related issue (like the election) and still have space to squeeze in a proper review.
Reviews aside, the thing that makes John Doyle the most likely candidate to become a Great Critic is the fact that he doesn’t write about what’s on television; he writes about television itself. He, like Michael Arlen before him, uses the TV column to write about issues, something that has gone out of style with other TV critics. For Doyle, television is more than the idiot box, where the lowest common denominator can gawk at hokey reality programs or insipid sitcoms. Doyle believes that television is worthy of respect. “That doesn’t mean it’s the best,” says Doyle, “but it is the most important and influential.”
That John Doyle understands this is certainly a good sign. It means that someone is looking at television as a cultural force, that someone is looking deeper at the medium that most closely mirrors our society. It means that someone is finally producing truly important work about TV. John Doyle doesn’t just write about television as if it mattered; he knows it does.