Are Socially Conscious TV Shows Above Reproach In 2016?
Why it's so difficult to criticise 'groundbreaking' television.
Dissing elements of your favourite scripted television shows is part and parcel of the viewing experience: lamenting the casting of a new character, or questioning a farfetched plot twist.
But with television beginning to offer increased diversity and progressive content, a new form of self-censorship has emerged. In support of programming that moves beyond mainstream tropes, challenging (among other aspects) gender inequality, prevalent heterosexual representations, and a limited casting spectrum, viewers are refraining from publicly criticising elements of a program they’d usually tweet the hell out of — and this is potentially problematic.
A close friend admitted to me that he didn’t think Transparent was very well made, and after explaining why, said: “but obviously you can’t say that in public”. This struck a chord because I acted in a similar way when criticising Jessica Jones; delivering my opinion hesitantly to another close friend, as if confessing a terrible secret.
The reasons for balking are manifold. Wanting to be supportive of progressive TV, I can put up with a haphazard production and questionable elements if the show is making a stand in some way. And let’s face it; nobody wants to be attacked online by a PC brigade drunk on righteous indignation. Skipping the topic altogether seems the easiest path to take. But in the long run, is that truly supportive?
Helpful or harmful?
For television shows to survive and earn the Holy Grail of renewal, audiences have to stay interested. Most of all, they MUST tune in. Part of the fun is breaking down the latest episode or series instalment. From water cooler conversations to social media mentions and following of recaps, expressing opinions keeps the viewer’s relationship with the series organic — by which I mean alive and flourishing.
And herein lies the conundrum: if audiences self-censor in an attempt to be respectful, avoiding critiquing a show openly, are they limiting their engagement? Polite support will only take a viewer so far. If a fan feels they can’t tweet an actor’s haircut is terrible, or the actor is a clumsy onscreen kisser — regardless of the gender of their lover — long-term enjoyment of the series will likely lessen, especially when compared with a competing series they feel free to rant about without hesitation.
By tiptoeing around the content, the viewer may accidentally create an unconscious distance between themselves and the material.
The power of feedback.
Today’s entertainment world is an interactive one. The arguments for and against fan service are manifold, but there is no denying public opinion can impact the direction of a series if upper management deems it so — think about how the team behind Game of Thrones listened to critiques of the show’s depiction of violence against women and showed a marked difference in their approach last season.
Refraining from commenting on aspects of a TV show means both the company producing it and the network or online channel screening it are denied blunt but informative feedback. Whether or not to actually take it on board is an option denied to them.
By avoiding criticism of a progressive show, are we the viewers creating a gap in communication that doesn’t allow the program to adjust elements that might, over time, aggravate us to the point we stop watching? In the long run, how is this supportive? Stats matter. Every hashtag draws attention to a TV series (especially if it manages to trend on Twitter) and it seems viable online mentions help increase a show’s chance of survival.
Avoiding commenting on a program means one less hashtag or online search result. In the past when blogging and choosing between two shows to cite as an example of a trend (for better or for worse) I’ve gone for the less controversial choice, later realising the series originally inspiring the piece hasn’t ended up scoring a mention in the blog post, let alone a tag.
The blame game.
Increasing authentic diversity in the entertainment industry remains a constant struggle. If a show addressing current social issues scores low ratings, it may be assumed the “controversial” focal point of the content is the reason: that mainstream audiences aren’t “ready” for this “kind” of story.
In actual fact any number of elements may contribute to dwindling ratings: a miscast lead actor, a designated OTP (one true pairing) lacking chemistry, annoying soundtrack, uneven editing pace, poor cinematography, or lack of continuity in a character’s decisions. The same material in the hands of another production team may have rated remarkably higher.
Alas, the groundbreaking element usually takes the blame — especially if a politely “supportive” audience is avoiding pointing out other factors that are annoying AF.
In today’s world there will always be someone who tars you for daring to criticise progressive programming in any way, shape or form, but that’s okay. Existing in an online world calls for thicker skin, and when commenting on a progressive program it’s important to consider whether you are in fact being judgmental because what’s happening onscreen is unsettling you in some vague sense. Not many are comfortable with the idea they’re harbouring subconscious prejudices, so really considering why you don’t like an aspect of a TV production is important, in case implicit bias is making the call.
In the past, I’ve complained about love scenes pairing swelling music with awkward camera work — regardless of the gender or sexuality of the characters. Physical intimacy can be integral to a story, and mainstream programming has a frustrating tendency to shy from explicit non-hetero scenes. My preference is for sexually charged scenes to be acted, filmed, edited, and soundtracked in a way that ramps up the erotic atmosphere, rather than dampens it.
Expressing the above thoughts felt okay regardless of the response: they’re opinions, neither right nor wrong. Helping a progressive TV show survive by becoming a fan — happy to applaud and complain, hashtag and post — feels like a more honestly supportive road to take.