I’m perpetually torn about the concept of “not for me,” the response to a given piece of art that suggests that there’s nothing necessarily deficient with it but rather that I myself don’t connect with it and that’s fine. On the one hand, I have experienced exactly that feeling so many times in life that I can’t doubt the utility of the concept. Ariana Grande’s music is not for me; the kind of fiction that James Wood likes is not for me; the collective work of Danny McBride, I’m genuinely sorry to say, is not for me. “Not for me” is a pleasant kind of critical detente in a world full of shouting, and I get it.
I feel really glad that I've never seen any of these shows or heard of any of these people.
It's funny, I interpreted The Rehearsal as Fielder's examination of and penance for Nathan For You. The whole shtick of The Rehearsal, in my view, was that you didn't in fact know how much you, the audience, were being fucked with: were these people actually real? The show, again and again, suggested that they might not be, and that the audience was the real mark. The thrust of the first episode was that Nathan Fielder was not to be trusted, that the entire conceit of the show was not to be trusted.
The key point here is that comedy is subjective in a way that drama isn’t. We have stumbled upon the 3 act structure that makes for a satisfying narrative, but comedy doesn’t quite work like that. There is definitely a craft to writing jokes and gags, but you can do everything right and still have a joke fall flat with some audiences. And unlike drama, which you can gain an appreciation for by better understanding the craft, comedy doesn’t get funnier when it’s explained. I think there will always be humor that doesn’t work for some of us, for me, I just don’t find Adam Sandler or Will Farrel movies to be funny, it just doesn’t work for me. The tricky part of comedy is that when it doesn’t work, it’s a disaster. A bad drama can be inadvertently entertaining, even funny. A bad comedy is just excruciating. An even worse experience is when everyone is laughing but you, it’s hard not feel like the joke’s on you
"The complication here is that I have a lot of moral reservations about Fielder’s project, because I think the basic reality that people don’t want to admit to is that he is in fact making fun of the real people who show up in his shows, and the audience laughs its biggest laughs when he does."
This was my reaction to -- when everyone was falling over themselves about -- things like "Borat". Until I saw that -- and the reaction to it -- I thought *I* was a cynic. But in reality, I could never get past that Sacha Baron Cohen essentially preyed on people's decency to mock them.
So while all my friends thought it was the greatest thing ever, I absolutely hated it.
I felt the struggle between "this is dogshit" and "this doesn't match my taste" when I saw Asteroid City. I didn't feel it, it hardly felt like a real movie. Watching positive reviews of it though, it's like we saw two different films. Clearly, I just didn't "get it" and instead of saying it's bad out of ignorance, I give the most polite refusal of "not to my taste."
Now though, I really just didn't like it. Wes Anderson's style is so overbearing, the movie feels set in a fantasy land separate from our own even compared to actual fantasy lands like Oz or Middle Earth. None of the characters feel like actual people, and any "development" they're meant to have is obfuscated by the fact that they are characters playing characters in a movie in a movie. I cannot seriously hide behind "not my taste" because I've enjoyed Wes Anderson movies in the past.
To get even a little more irate, Wes Anderson is just known to critics as "the man you like if you have good taste" and the reviews of Asteroid City start with that premise to reverse engineer a positive review. Reading the positive reviews, it was like reading Hieroglyphs. You really got THAT out of this movie???
Well, there's always money in the banana stand.
"Under those conditions, the critical role of praising good and criticizing bad will be more important than ever, as the curatorial function will help decide what gets made and what doesn’t."
This ship has already sailed. Parsing what's good and bad in a work of art requires a commitment to understanding the form in question. Criticism has been moving in the opposite direction. Instead, what we're getting is slapdash cultural criticism and plain old PR. The dynamics of TV and movies are increasingly driven by the need to manage IP, do fan service, and hyper focus on market segments. I'm not sure there's much of a role for old fashioned criticism.
"And I especially think an essential part of Fielder’s shtick is to cover the mockery of rubes in several layers of irony and knowingness and misdirection to make it palatable for the kind of TV-watching sophisticates who define mass entertainment culture. "
The truth is, TV watchers are not sophisticated. They've just been coded that way. The big illusion at the heart of the current cultural moment is that almost everything coded highbrow is in fact middlebrow to lower-middlebrow. What makes prestige TV prestigious are the aspirations of the audience that watches it. The outlets that cover this stuff make their money by catering to the pretensions of their audience. Doing incisive criticism is far too risky.
"And yet I also think we badly need criticism that goes beyond 'not for me' ..."
One reason I came to prize Roger Ebert's film criticism was that you could plainly tell what he loved and what he understood to be good within its context. There was a code in the ratings that reconciled film-as-art and film-as-entertainment. He bridged the gap between the old guard critics, and suggested a way forward that leaves us with something better than the recap hellscape we're dealing with today. Probably a little too populist of me, but I re-read Matt Zoller Seitz's "Mad Men Carousel" and I think it occupies a space where the critic is both relatable as a fellow admirer ... a fan ... while still bringing some critical rigor to the writing.
Humor is definitely tricky, especially in episodic form. I can watch Seinfeld or Cheers over and over and over and still laugh, but something like The Office doesn't do a damn thing for me. I remember talking to someone a decade younger than me who had the exact opposite take. So maybe it also matters when you are, and not only who you are?
I don't watch movies because the industry is fraud but I did note that "The Marvels" didn't receive 95%+ on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that the end of chumminess is coming even for sacred cows (Strong Female Character superhero slop). Perhaps we're entering a golden age of criticism, or at least a slightly less coal age.
Fielder's previous shows are absolutely making fun of buffoons, but specific types of buffoons who generally lack any semblance of self-awareness and who often times desperately want to be on TV. This is in no way an ethical defense of the show, but that's because I don't particularly think any defense is necessary. I do believe there is an affection for a number of these characters (that often times comes from pity, of course), but even without affection, the show works for me simply because I think Fielder is very, very funny, and I think there is something extremely impressive about being able to pull off the sort of things he does.
I have a number of friends that love Nathan for You and The Rehearsal, and most of them are not people at all who care about gentrification or anything like that. So, you might be on to something as far as HIS motivation, but I don't think the relative success of his shows says anything about these types.
How do you square your insistence on real criticism that bravely goes beyond the “Not for me”-cop out with this penultimate shrug: “As I said, I just don’t connect with Fielder’s work, in a way that says more about my weird brain than anything else.” Sorry to be so critical. You have a pretty good brain but it’s not as weird as you claim.
I haven’t seen or heard of any of those shows, but enjoyed your observations (and, writing) as I always do. I did watch the movie “Uncut Gems” quite awhile ago, and from what I can recall, I liked it a lot even though it was dark and disturbing. I remember being very impressed (amazed, really) by Adam Sandler’s performance.
This was one of my main curiosities about White Lotus. Does the core audience have any idea that they're the subject of its content? The people in my life who love it so much and talk about it the most might as well be the Aubrey Plaza character in S2.
This is a great sentence: "as one of the essential roles comedy performs is troubling simplistic notions of power and agency." I'd add "morality" to the list as well, but maybe that is a subset of "power."
For me it was Mr. Show. I heard nothing but praise, nothing but how brilliantly funny it was. So I watched it and found it aggressively unfunny. I'm willing to accept that the fault may be mine, but that still doesn't make me laugh.