Culture Critic

A television review has the shelf life of a popsicle in August: its value is in the moment. A TV program that proves to be a failure will vanish from public consciousness, carrying the commentator’s observations with it. A show that succeeds will insinuate itself into the culture and become a fact of life, as critic-proof as gravity, or the Pacific Ocean. Shock over the finale to The Sopranos reverberated for weeks through the press, but who remembers, or cares about, any pundit’s reaction to the pilot episode, back in 1999?

Still, no ambitious critic likes to think of his or her work as a glorified ratings system for consumers who are deciding how to spend a buck or an hour. There’s far more glory in defining a review as commentary that helps hone an art form-or as an installment in an ongoing dialogue between a society’s creative cohorts and everyone else.

Award-winning essayist and former Commonweal contributor Lee Siegel opts for the latter paradigm in his new book Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television, a collection of boobtube-related musings written for the print and online versions of the New Republic. (He is a senior editor at the magazine.) Though the pieces dutifully touch on such towering aesthetic achievements as Friends, Deal or No Deal, Alias, RENO 911! and SpongeBob SquarePants, the writing inevitably hares off into the intellectual stratosphere, exploring the shows’ connections to, and implications for, contemporary politics, contemporary art, democracy, the culture wars, the future of religious general, the state of the American soul. A television show, the essayist explains in his introduction, is inherently thin, “so stretched in different artistic, cultural, social, economic, and commercial directions that you can dive right through the small screen into the world outside it.”

One of the most disturbing trends Siegel detects in that outside world is the modern business ethos run amok-a pervasive sanctioning of greed and a fascination with financial values that threatens authentic creativity and meaning. He detects the kudzu-like growth of this “money culture” not only in the Donald Trump showcase The Apprentice but in the whole phenomenon of reality TV, in which capitalist competition is “ritualized and formalized” (the quote comes from a riff on Iron Chef America). We can blame the money culture, too, Siegel suggests, for the success of the CSI franchise, which glorifies crime-fighting techniques that require expensive technology. In a blistering attack on Curb Your Enthusiasm (whose humor is uncompassionate, Siegel thinks), he even proclaims that rampant consumerism has “devoured the comedic impulse itself.” (There are more sweeping generalizations in this book than Adam Smith could shake a stick at.)

Siegel’s very conception of criticism defines itself in opposition to the get-rich-quick mentality he sees infecting modern culture. In the provocative introduction to his previous essay collection, Falling Upwards, he postulated that “the individual work of art in our time...has assimilated not just the values of commercial society, but the vast supple consciousness that a universal spirit of commercialism fosters.” The duty of the critic, he concluded, is to break free from this corrupting perspective, to see the work of art and its context clearly, and, in doing so, to “hearten the true artist.”

It’s a vision not far removed from the one Matthew Arnold proffered in his seminal 1865 essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” with its principle of “disinteredness.” Both philosophies hold that criticism should be intellectual rather than practical; both claim the critic can, and should, create the conditions that foster good art. But Siegel takes a more self-righteous stance on the matter: his prose seethes with indignation over artists and writers who have bought into the money culture and failed to approach each writing assignment “as if it were a lesson in freedom.”

His sanctimony is a little hard to take, especially given the scandal in which he was involved last year: The New Republic briefly suspended him for using the anonymity of an online alias to attack critics who posted comments on a section of his blog. Where was the lesson in freedom in that episode?

Of course, anybody can make a mistake. Still, there’s an irritating smugness and ostentation in the essays in Not Remotely Controlled. The conceptual acrobatics can be impressive, but they can also be bewildering, as if the primary goal were not to communicate with readers but to illustrate the agility of Siegel’s mind. His demonstration that the HBO show Extras is the only comedy “that uses laughter to try to define the contemporary sound of laughter” sort of makes sense, if you read the sentences that come before it several times-he seems to mean that the show’s comic perspective is ambivalent, so that we’re not sure whether to laugh at the primary characters or with them, with the result that we are conscious of our own impulses. But should a TV critic indulge in logic that’s so hard to follow?

When Siegel states, apropos of Rescue Me, that “few novelists nowadays seem able to imagine anything that doesn’t already exist,” isn’t he overstating his case? In an otherwise illuminating piece on Lost, when he asserts that recent biographies of the “cathartically transparent” Founding Fathers illustrate our culture’s preoccupation with secrecy in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, isn’t he turning a fact on its head so that it fits his theory?

Perhaps one can detect, both in Siegel’s relentless brilliance and in his occasional sophistry, a hint of the panic that has gripped many cultural journalists of late. As newspapers lose readers and arts sections dwindle, as blogs and postings usurp the critic’s traditional authority-chalk it all down to the encroaching “money culture”-what arts writer wouldn’t like to borrow a little historical and existential grandeur? Who wants to believe that a television review is just a television review?

Published in the 2007-10-12 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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