Tuesday, February 24, 2009

No Critical Favors

I finally sat down to watch the Oscarcast I had waiting on DVR (I can't bear to watch such things as they happen, I need the security of the fast-forward) and I thought Hugh Jackman did a bang-up job. He was charming, classy, and (as opposed to the usual Oscar host, who for 30 years has been a comedian) multi-talented. I thought his musical numbers were a hoot, and his camaraderie with the audience was fun and endearing.

Not everybody shares my opinion. Though the NY Times gave the broadcast a nice nod, the critics in the LA Times and the Washington Post fell over themselves with snarky comments. So what else is new? Since I read the Post daily, I am accustomed to the attitude which oozes from their two television writers, Tom Shales and Lisa de Moraes. Shales, for example, wished the hosting duties had been handled by Tina Fey and Steve Martin, who were hits during their introductory spot. This is nothing new from Shales, who wrote an exhaustive book about Saturday Night Live years ago, and since then, allows no opportunity to pass without plugging one of the show's cast members, past or present. Truly, there is rarely a week of his columns which does not include at least one mention of SNL, even in reviews of shows which have absolutely nothing to do with it. It's true, Fey and Martin were a success, but neither of them can be counted on to boost the TV ratings for the Oscarcast, as Fey cannot get her own highly regarded sitcom out of the ratings dungeon, and Martin's previous stints as Oscar host did not lead to improved ratings. Jackson, however, was clearly a ratings hit with viewers, who provided a large increase in ratings from last year (and this was a year which was predicted to be low-rated, lacking any blockbuster hits in the major categories). So while the LA Times TV critic complained brutally about Jackson's musical numbers, the audience disagreed. So did the LA Times film critic, Kenneth Turan, who loved the show and the clips and the recognition of the rich history of film (Shales at The Post hated all the clips, writing "people tune in the Oscars to see stars in the flesh, not to see clips of stars in roles they have already played." I'd like to see his research on this outrageous statement, as he's dead wrong).

Critics such as Sales and de Moraes at the Washington Post never seem bothered when the general public disagrees with their assessments, as they are sure their opinions are better informed and superior to those of common television viewers. And regarding de Moraes, I've wondered for years why her employers continue to pay her to write about a medium she so clearly despises. Every column she issues drips with sarcasm toward her subject; I wonder how she sleeps at night, when her days are spent writing about a topic she thoroughly hates.

I've been thinking about critics this weekend, as the local review of our Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was published on Sunday. I'm new to the area, but I think, though am not sure, that this will be the only print review the show receives. The critic was enthusiastic about the production and the players, but issued one of those caveats which do not help increase attendance. Phrases like "the evening lengthens to three hours" and "don't worry if you don't understand it. It's not supposed to be easy" will hardly cause a stampede at the box office. I admit to a bit of frustration here, as, after a tentative start, the show has blossomed into a real crowd pleaser, from what I can tell. The laughs are plentiful and the surprises in the text are well played by our leading actors. With two well-placed intermissions, the show moves briskly and hardly seems like an experience which is "good for you," like attending the opera or the ballet. (This local critic even spent a paragraph discussing the intermission, railing against patrons who went outside to smoke.)

As the great Hans Meyer, playing our Rosencrantz (to the hilt), said, the review, while very positive, "did us no favors."