Reviewing Reviewing

I’ve been trying to expand my own vocabulary when it comes to praising or criticizing entertainment, partly as a reaction to how much of the “drive by” reviewing I see online. That’s a bit of an over-simplification of the reviews we often read, but I can’t deny that my reaction to those reviews that’s spurned me to talk about entertainment differently.

Turns out, it’s not so easy to raise the level of my vernacular to a place where I’m comfortable.

Let me quickly say that nothing I write here is meant as a condemnation of anyone’s particular reviewing style nor is it a declaration of some universal truth about discussing entertainment. I’m merely verbalizing my thought process in order to perhaps learn a better way to review entertainment.

I often tell people that TOP GUN is my favorite movie and that’s often interpreted as “Arune thinks it’s the best movie he’s ever seen.” There’s an important distinction—“favorite” refers to my own reaction while “best” refers to some undefined criteria for determining the inherent value. I’ve often disliked the term “guilty pleasure” because I’m not sure there’s any reason to feel guilty about liking something that someone else doesn’t deem “good.” I have no interest in seeing THE KING’S SPEECH but I can’t wait to see FAST FIVE (the fifth film in THE FAST & THE FURIOUS series of films). That’s not a criticism of the former, as much as it’s a statement the latter appears to me. It’s entertainment and I want to be entertained. At the same time, a relentlessly serious television show like THE SHIELD interests me more than a lighter show like BONES. We like what we like. Limiting our discourse to “good” and “bad” does a disservice to both the entertainment and people with whom we share these conversations.

And it’s that realization of my own perspective that’s made me more conscious of how I discuss the favorite entertainment of others. Working at Marvel Entertainment, I’m reading a lot of comics and interacting with the editors behind them. If I don’t enjoy reading a comic, saying the issue “sucked” feels disrespectful to the creators involved (who I’ll often speak with frequently) and to the editor, who I know is working their butt off to make this the best comic book they can. It’s easy to forget that there are real people who make the movie, comics, etc that we consume every day, people who are affected by the things we say about their work. That isn’t to say we have to like everything or hold back our criticism, but I do feel like I have a responsibility to put some thought into what I say because there’s a heckuva lot of thought put into the work that’s created.

So the first step is to realize what I mean when I say something “sucks” or was “awesome”. I really mean to say “I didn’t enjoy this” or “I really enjoyed this”, respectively, which are much different statements than the lazy vernacular to which I’m accustomed. It’s also one that encourages a lot more stimulating discussion that a blanket statement about the inherent value of the entertainment, which can only lead to more confrontational discussions with someone who has a different reaction to the item in question.

For me, raising the level of my own critiquing requires me to stop thinking of things in the popular shorthand of “sucks” & “awesome”, instead embracing a much more patient, well-thought out verbalization of my reactions. It’s much easier to have a conversation with someone about a movie, for example, if I couch the discussion in terms of my reaction. It doesn’t immediately attack a differing point of view and keeps me open to learning from others. If I say “that was awesome” and you respond “That sucks”, we’re going to quickly get locked in a back and forth of defending our positions. If I say “that didn’t really work for me because the story felt too familiar” and you say “I loved the way they worked with familiar tropes to create something new”, we have an actual discussion about how we perceived that film.

On a much simpler level, who am I to say something automatically “sucks” if someone else enjoys it? I can point to a number of popular films that I couldn’t finish due to boredom or frustrations with certain aspects of the script. To dismiss it as without merits, as “crap”, ignores that a lack of response from me doesn’t mean a lack of response from others.

It also doesn’t really matter if we think a piece of entertainment is “good” or “bad”, does it? The important thing is for to be, well, “entertained” and I’d rather bring some positivity– or open-mindedness at least– to discussions about the things meant to bring us smiles.

Even with this all in mind, it’s not easy to actually review anything because we’ve been conditioned to react with a certain amount of hyperbole. I still catch myself saying “oh, that sucked” in conversation with friends and instantly kick myself for not remembering to actually qualify my statements. It’s not always easy to understand why we enjoy or don’t enjoy something—there’s no simple road map to our tastes. But that quest for greater understanding of our tastes can only result in becoming better people, even if now means I need to think a bit more before I speak.

Which may not be such a bad thing, eh?

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