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Athens, Ohio, United States
"Art and love are the same thing. It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Too Late, Too Early, Right on Time

I think I speak for all of us when I say that critics completely represent my views in their totality regarding every movie, TV show, album, song or book I've ever seen.

Now that I can hear all of your collective Vader-like screams of "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" I've realized that I may be in the minority on this. Oh well.

Anywho, I am one of eleven people on the planet who still values critical consensus as a legitimate measure of something's quality (along with box office gross and number of fart jokes), so I spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing what goes into creating that consensus. And here is my controversial finding: there is always a consensus.

The internet has time and time again that all critics not named "Armond White" have generally the same opinions and thoughts regarding what they're reviewing. Now that your "NOOO!" scream has died out, I can hear your exasperated sigh: "Come on now, Alec, that can't be true. I just googled 'Rotten Tomatoes 50% scores' and see that Tron Legacy split critical opinion almost exactly with 110 critics recommending the film and 111 critics not."

It is true that some films, TV shows and albums receive mixed reviews, but if you just glance over to the right of Tron Legacy you will see that under "critical consensus" the Rotten Tomatoes editors have written:

Tron Legacy boasts dazzling visuals, but its human characters and story get lost amidst its state-of-the-art production design.

That is what the critics have (correctly) declared Tron Legacy to be. They have come to the consensus over exactly what kind of film Tron Legacy is....and half of them think that that makes it a film worthy of your time and money, while the other half would probably have you seek out more sophisticated fare.

There will never be a day when every critic in the country comes to a wildly different conclusion over a piece of art. Owen Glieberman at EW is not going to interpret Tron Legacy as an allegory of the working class's uprisings in 1930's Ukraine while Roger Ebert sees it as a shot for shot remake of Freddy Got Fingered. There will almost always be a general consensus.

Now what I want to know is how often these consensuses are correct....and by "correct," I mean "in line with what I think." I believe, for the most part, they are but, in the case of serialized entertainment (TV shows with multiple seasons and to a lesser extent albums from pop artists) not always at the right time.

Let me explain. Critics will come to consensus regarding something's quality but not at the exact right moment that they are trying to pinpoint. This means declaring that a show is the best show on TV during season three...when it really earned that title in season two. Or it means calling a band's first album a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, only to have that band top it handily on their second attempt.

So I've compiled a little list of TV shows and musicians who critics have been too late, too early or right on time in their collective opinions of. I am not tackling movies, yet because unless they are part of a series critical consensus is reached once and rarely changes over time.


Too Late: Fucked Up
Album #2 - The Chemistry of Common Life, Meta Critic Score - 85
Album #3 - David Comes to Life, Meta Critic Score - 86

Why critics were too late: I'm actually listening to David Comes to Life as I write this and it was my inspiration for writing this post. I love David Comes to Life and I think it will end up being my favorite album of 2011 (at least until I hear this shit). But I must admit to being a little taken aback by the critical response. In my opinion, music critics are correct in asserting that David Comes to Life is Fucked Up's best album, but I think they are exaggerating the band's supposed transformation into an indie force to be reckoned with. David Comes to Life isn't Fucked Up's big coming out party because 2008's The Chemistry of Common Life already was.

Too Early: Arcade Fire
Album #1 - Funeral, Meta Critic Score - 90
Album #2 - Neon Bible, Meta Critic Score - 87

Why critics were too early: Oh boy. Let's tread carefully here because if I don't say what I'm about to say as delicately as possible, I may be cast out of pop culture journalism forever. Funeral is a great album but Neon Bible is better...and so is The Suburbs. When something so fresh and exciting bursts onto the scene I know it can be hard to temper one's enthusiasm. Funeral is an undeniably wonderful and even whimsical introduction to one of humankind's great bands. But it sounds just like that: an introduction. It doesn't sound as sharp as I think Win Butler and Co.wanted them to be. Neon Bible and The Suburbs feel more like the official Arcade Fire business cards that all 9,238 of their members would be happy to hand out at some social engagement. If Neon Bible, Funeral and The Suburbs all came out at the same time, what would critics say was the best? The correct answer is anything but Funeral. But music critics had already exhausted every superlative in their thesaurus by the time Neon Bible came out that it just felt redundant to call it genius again.

Right on Time: Kanye West
Albums #1-4 - Average Meta Critic Score - 82
Album #5 - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Average Meta Critic Score - 94

Why critics were right on time: Here is kind of the opposite example of Arcade Fire. Critics could have called any Kanye album leading up to Fantasy his seminal work and a touchstone of modern hip hop. And indeed many of them did, but one gets the sense that most critics were holding out for that one last bit to click in place, the place where Kanye's ego, talent and current emotional status all combine into one molotov cocktail of pure amazing. When that moment came along in the guise of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, critics finally let loose their unadulterated enthusiasm for both the album and Kanye's decade of sustained excellence.


Too Late: Breaking Bad
Season 2 Meta Critic Score: 85
Season 3 Meta Critic Score: 89

Why critics were too late: As things stand right now, Breaking Bad is the best show on TV (or at the very least the best drama on TV). And to television critic's credit, the general consensus recognizes this. Unfortunately, it took the critical mass one season too long to come to this conclusion. Even Alan Sepinwall, who is the finest television critic in the history of the medium argues that season three is where Breaking Bad is inducted into the TV pantheon. But Breaking Bad didn't make the jump in season two, as the current critical narrative suggest, but rather in season two. The two seasons are at least on equal footing but in my mind, season two even surpasses its more popular follow-up. Season three is a testament to creator Vince Gilligan's improvisational skill, moving along at a natural and exciting pace like a excellent jazz composition that just happened to be punctuated with several murders. But season two is a more complete and consistent vision in which every possible moment connects to every other moment in impossibly complex and emotionally devastating ways. I guess what I'm saying is that you should watch Breaking Bad.

Too Early: Lost
Season 4 Meta Critic Score: 87
Season 5 Meta Critic Score: 78

Why critics were too early: I wish Meta Critic had scores for Lost season 1 because I'm certain they would be in the 90s. I know it might be hard to remember now but Lost was one of the "buzziest" shows of all time. Critics were so intoxicated with the shows zeitgeist potential that they were tripping over themselves to declare it one of network's TV's finest triumphs. Then in subsequent seasons (particularly following season 3) Lost actually became network TV's finest triumphs, to which the critics responded "y r yooo foggots stil watching that gay show?!!?!>!!1" Ok, maybe that response isn't just from the critics but that is what many of them were articulating, only with better grammar. See, the early response to Lost wasn't just over what J.J Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Co. were producing onscreen but also for the potential of what might be onscreen later on in the show's run. Now I would argue that once Lost had an end date set, the show's quality skyrocketed as the writers could move from "potential" to "substance." And that substance included three seasons of pure sci-fi genius. Unfortunately, the fact that there was any sort of substance or resolution began to drag down Lost's critical consensus because they preferred the resolutions in their minds to the resolutions that Lost had finally committed to film. Season 5 of Lost is one of the 10 best TV seasons of the past 10 years...and it also has the lowest Meta Critic ranking of anything on this page.

Right on Time: Justified
Season 1 Meta Critic Score: 81
Season 2 Meta Critic Score: 91

Why critics were right on time: I'll make a confession here: I've not watched season 1 of Justified all the way through. It's definitely a good season of TV but when I sat down to watch it my dance card was already full of shows demanding my attention and Justified was only politely asking my attention, not grabbing my eyeballs and stapling them to my laptop. Then I sat down to review season two for the Post. Consider my eyes stapled from that moment on. The jump in quality from season one to season two of Justifed is the first time I can remember reading about the concept of the "jump" in critical essays. And they were completely, ahem, Justified.

So now I turn it over to you, friends and countrymen. What shows, music artists and maybe even film directors did critical consensus get right too late, too early or right on time?


Nick Harley said...

You are right on about Fucked Up and Kanye, but I think Arcade Fire is, like you said, tough to call. Here's how my mind works it (everything is a Springsteen album) in my mind, Funeral is Arcade Fire's Born To Run. It was their big, grandiose coming out party, containing hits and some of the bands best moments (everyone knows they pee a little from excitement when "Wake Up" starts to swell). Neon Bible is their Nebraska. It's slower, more ominous, just a darker album over-all, but its vulnerability and haunting sound chills you. And I think the Suburbs is their Darkness on the Edge of Town; they meet somewhere in between and encompass both sounds on one expansive record that really nails middle class America. My point being, besides making a comparison thats been done to death by critics already, yeah yeah I know, is that these are mood records. You go for a different one depending on where you're at that day emotionally, and I think its too tough a task to rank their work because they are all amazing, but different by design. Anyway, this was a great idea for a post, and was executed flawlessly, well done. (would of loved to have seen something about the Strokes or Arctic Monkeys, those bands got so much hype before they even had records out!)

The A.G.B said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this. I wish everything in my mind sounded like a Springsteen album.