The A.V. Club Problem: On Lists, Fandom and Mortality

By brian longtin • Feb 3rd, 2012 • Category: side notes • Popularity: 38%

The excess of cultural options and opinions have made it so that the pressure to stay current could simultaneously keep us from ever living in the present. So what do we do instead?

Too often the choice comes down to this moment. Do I take a few hours to write about something I’ve recently consumed — be it a movie, game, book — or use those hours to consume something else new that might be even better, more involving, more thought-provoking than the last thing I’ve barely finished digesting? The former is challenging and occasionally rewarding, but carries with it the risk of exposing my lack of wit or originality; the latter is safe and comfortable and easy to accomplish while snacking. Often I lose those hours to Twitter and RSS feeds and end up doing neither.

But not today, my friends! Today I return to these dusty columns — which by now should have contained a Best of 2011 list — to explain why they do not.

The short version: you don’t need one. No one really does any more, do they? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that pop culture has exploded in quantity and quality, ease of access and abundance of enthusiasm to the point where suggestions arrive so steadily they’re becoming meaningless. We’ve reached a level of entertainment saturation such that the expanding class of culture junkies are largely redundant and potentially harmful to us as mortal beings with a finite amount of life-minutes to spend on said entertainment.

We need fewer recommendations, not more.

Think about it. Everyone sharing a list presumes to be doing the world a favor by steering us toward transcendent works we may have missed. And sometimes they do. Sincerely, I thank you, wise writers, for helping me discover such overlooked cultural treasures! I will also admit that were it not for best-of lists and award recognitions, I may have missed out on A Single Man, which is a beautiful, moving film. Same with The King’s Speech. But aside from learning I should pay closer attention to the career choices of Colin Firth, any given list is going to have some picks I will love, some I will not enjoy at all, and some that are fine but don’t leave an impression on me the way they did the list-writer.

Here’s the root of the problem. Say I were to take the best-of lists of films, albums, books, TV shows, podcasts and video games of 10 major outlets and follow every single one of their recommendations. After accounting for the certain percentage I’ve already seen/heard/read/watched, it could still easily take all of 2012 to catch up with what was supposedly the best of 2011. There’s my entire entertainment agenda set out for a year, with no room left for discovery, serendipity, or personal preference. The pressure to stay current could simultaneously keep me from ever living in the present.

Or take just one site, a personal favorite with critics I’ve found both insightful and adept at pointing me in the direction of quality work: The A.V. Club. They employ a full staff of writers to examine the best across all of pop culture, to go back and mine treasures from the past, and provide an all-around primer on everything worth my time. At least in theory.

But let’s be honest. Even setting aside the time it would take to read all of their criticism (some of which is seriously illuminating and valuable, I should note, particularly the ‘Scenic Routes’ column), which could become a whole hobby unto itself: if I were to subscribe to every podcast, play every game, dive into every bit of Cult Canon or Undercover artist, I would have to quit working, exercising, socializing or daydreaming just to keep up with all this great stuff. As they dig deeper into culture gone by or further off the beaten path in search of more pop art to feed their opinion machine, no human can possibly have time to enjoy everything they work so hard to determine as enjoyable.

In fact, once they’ve interviewed every auteur, considered every hypothetical, and list-ified the world from every possible angle, they risk going beyond expert, past obsessive, and entering a whole new dimension of hyper-pop-literacy. A sort of geek singularity in which everything is amazing and disappointing all at once, whose paradoxical vortex of arcane knowledge threatens to spaghettify Nathan Rabin’s head while Tasha Robinson screams on in horror, eyes bleeding. No one wants to see that happen. Maybe we need to establish some personal boundaries to prevent it instead.

The alternative for the community of enthusiasts could be to put value in critics who help us scale back, filter out, and maybe even determine there are plenty of things that aren’t worth our time [*cough*MarthaMarcyMayMarlene*cough*] instead of making lists of “Standout Episodes of Shows that Aren’t Great but Are Worth Checking Out Just This Once.” I’m at the point where I want a critic who says definitively, “Dexter only gets worse after season one; don’t bother.” or “You know what, the Harry Potter books are great for kids and it’s good they exist, but as an adult there are better ways to spend your time.” Of course then the issue becomes one of lack of choice and freedom and diversity of opinion, which no one wants either. And we still end up with all these goddamn lists.

Not to sound merely negative or contrarian, I offer a counterpoint. But first, a goddamn list:

No Color by The Dodos
David Comes to Life by Fucked Up
Attack the Block
I Saw the Devil
Batman: Arkham City on Xbox
Bastion on Xbox
Louie on F/X
Breaking Bad on AMC
Game of Thrones on HBO
A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Bossypants by Tina Fey
The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman
The essays of John Jeremiah Sullivan
The WTF podcast by Marc Maron

These are some of the things I enjoyed the most in 2011. If you haven’t heard of any of these, by all means look them up and enjoy them. Maybe you already have! There are certainly enough people in the world telling us these things are good (or bad) that you’ve probably made up your mind by now anyway.

The point is, I’ve realized I would much rather talk at length with one person who loved — or even hated — any of these things listed, rather than have the satisfaction of knowing I turned 100 new people on to any one of them. The discussion, the analysis, the extrapolation, these are all way more valuable to me as a human being than convincing a bunch more people to enjoy what I enjoyed, before immediately moving on to the next shiny thing.

So, after some delay, that counterpoint:

We need fewer recommendations, not more.
We need better conversations, not more judgments.

Here is something that has happened to me several times recently, to the point I’ve become very self-aware when caught in its clutches. It’s a lot like this already-classic Portlandia sketch, but for television shows and without the competitive edge or paper-eating. It’s a friendly and well-meaning conversation that goes like this:

“Have you watched Louie?”
“Oh yeah, it’s so good. Man, I love Louie.”
“Me too, it’s sooooo gooooood! You know what’s great in a totally different way, is Archer.”
“Yeah, I watched a few episodes but it didn’t really do it for me. Have you seen this season of Always Sunny though? They are so back on their game!”
“Oh, I’m not caught up yet, don’t spoil it! I’ve been burning through Boardwalk Empire though and that show is sooooo goooooood. Especially season two.”
“Totally! It reminds me of The Sopranos, which I just started re-watching. Man, what a great show…”
“That should keep you busy until Mad Men and Game of Thrones come back, right? Oh my god, I can’t wait.”
“Me neither!”
[everyone dies. the end.]

Okay no one dies. But there is a zombie quality to this conversation once you become self-aware. Everyone spending hours and hours absorbing these deep, complicated, wonderfully high-quality series, just to gloss over them all with a quick thumbs up or down. If you’re lucky someone might pause to identify a scene that was particularly memorable, so others can nod in agreement. Everyone has proven they are current, they are with it, and they have opinions, without committing to anything of substance or actually engaging in a meaningful discussion.

No one asks, “How do you feel about fatherhood as presented by Louie’s character?”, “Why are we so drawn to protagonists trying to balance power struggles and family life in all these HBO series, and how does Daenerys flip that trope on its head?”, “Do we really want Don Draper to shed his false exterior and be genuinely happy despite his natural skill at manipulation, or do we get more satisfaction by seeing a handsome uber-man fall repeatedly into misery despite his outward perfection? And what does that say about us?”.

I’m not saying every conversation should be exactly that (or that pretentious). But I would hazard a guess that the people making all this art, television or otherwise, were hoping to spark thoughts, emotions, and discourse. If art is supposed to convey meaning, why don’t we spend more time talking about that meaning instead of just rendering verdicts on any artwork’s supposed quality? Perhaps we’ve been conditioned by a culture of Like buttons and American Idol text-to-votes to express opinions in binary, or a lack of the vocabulary to articulate our reactions because we’re starving out all the good high school English teachers. Or as I suspect, it may be simply that it’s much easier to take another trip back to the stimulus buffet than spend much time savoring those rare morsels of truly great work.

At the end of my life, I can’t imagine laying back in pride at having stuffed my every waking minute with as much entertainment as possible. All these nuanced expressions of human emotion shouldn’t be reduced down to a checklist. What I can imagine is relishing all the meaningful exchanges of ideas, facilitated through moving, provocative art, that enriched my understanding of others’ experience in this world. Those moments brings us closer to other humans, not our glowing screens large and small, and expand our minds, not our pupils. As Mr. G.R.R. Martin himself wrote this past year, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one.’ Though I would amend the fact that a thousand lives aren’t much good either unless they’re shared with other people.

All this is to say, that’s what I hope to do more of that this year now that I can stop pretending it mattered what I liked most last year. More posts if I can (last year was a weird mix of busy and lazy), with a mission to consume less, consider more.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go try to finish season three of Doctor Who, book four of Song of Ice and Fire, and part two of Assassin’s Creed. They’re soooooo gooooood.

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brian longtin still welcomes your suggestions of what's good or not good, because we have that kind of bond here.
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2 Responses »

  1. I’ve been feeling the same way about a couple of the points you brought up, but never found a way to (or made the time to) express that articulately. I move at a sloth’s pace typically, but when it comes to media consumption I’m totally ADD and don’t make time for anything else, let alone any time to reflect. I even wrapped up Skyrim after 150(!) hours, but immediately popped in the closest disc - “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing,” of all things - just to keep my grip on the controller.

    While I’m finishing a game or a book, I tend to get more analytical and start thinking of the things I’d write about the experience or mention to my friends, but it never comes out. Part of the problem certainly lies with me, but I think you hit the nail on the head with the conversation breakdown. I wrote 7000 words last year on a year-in-music post and, looking back, I never really said more than you said in your 2011 list here. I think we can retrain ourselves to have less judgmental and more meaningful conversations in person, but there has to be an effective way to translate that to the web and avoid the inanity of the average forum post or IM conversation. All I can think of is a podcast transcript, but that could get unwieldy. If you figure it out, I’d love to know.

    Since you’re still welcoming suggestions, I just watched the Showtime series “Homeland” and found it quite surprising. Based on the snippets I’d read going in, I was expecting a less sociopathic version of “24.” What I got instead was a well-crafted, character-driven psychological thriller. Claire Danes is unexpectedly excellent and Damian Lewis, who I was a fan of in “Life,” has the uncanny ability to portray the mystery and ambiguity inherent in his character. I had a lot of topics I wanted to discuss or see discussed, but all I found online were animated gifs and AV Club recaps. Let me know if you ever get around to watching it.

  2. jp - First off, thanks for reading this beast. Worked on it for two weeks and had the same thoughts you mentioned. It would have been easier to think them, try to remember to bring them up in a conversation, then forget and play more Xbox, so it’s good to know it’s not just me falling into this trap.

    As for solutions, I only mildly hinted at them because that’s the hardest part. I don’t know if you read The Awl much, but they have some of the most thoughtful blog posts I’ve seen. Either a short, smart, thought-provoking one, a long essay someone obviously took the time to craft well, or, oddly, a long transcript (probably edited) of IM conversations between writers on various topics that make for pretty great reading (look up their discussion of Twilight, or one person who defends and one person who is terribly disappointed by Treme, both worthwhile). I think it really comes down to slowing down though instead of racing through a conversation like there’s a finish line. That’s why my favorite thing to do will always be a long stretch at a bar with a smart pal (and no TVs).

    I actually fully intended to watch Homeland but it wasn’t on iTunes and we don’t have Showtime, so we should definitely catch up on that in a bit after I find a way to track it down. Once we get past the 20 minutes of crushing out on Claire Danes (from me anyway) I’m all about the well-crafted character dramas.

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