A Cohesive Response
Last week, I got a lot of feedback on Twitter. Within my reply page were a lot of people who disliked something I said and who responded by suggesting the review was ‘biased.’ It mostly did feel angry, though some of that can be translation and the medium. Whatever its impetus, it is relevant and interesting, and way more than I could delve into on Twitter. And so, with a week off of regular reviews, I thought we could dig into that a little bit here.
What is bias in relation to TV viewing, why is ‘biased’ an accusation, is bias a bad thing for a movie/TV consumer, and how do I think I am impacted by and use bias in my reviews?
More Direct Access Than Ever Before; Cuts Both Ways
We’ve entered a new age of interaction with television. Shows suggest their own hashtags in the corner of every significant scene (hatehatehate,) Dan Harmon starts a viral campaign for #sixseasonsandamovie (love), and writers, actors, creators, etc., take to twitter, tumblr, reddit, and more to talk directly to fans.
In general, despite the pitfalls which can accompany all social media, I think it’s a fantastic thing that people are more engaged, and I think this on both sides of the coin. We as an audience get more out of the viewing experience when it’s communal and our thoughts are heard by those making the art. We as a production team get much quicker and more detailed feedback than can be given by Nielson. It connects viewers to each other, allows a quick exchange of various readings and conspiracy theories, and lets creators talk directly to viewers and find pockets of fans.
Lost Girl, a Show Which Engages More Than Most
Lost Girl is one of the shows taking real advantage of this, from live-tweeting episodes, to reminding fans to vote in various polls which increase the show’s media presence (for free!), to continually getting the show’s airtime out there for new episodes as well as reruns.
Heck, we’re having this conversation right now explicitly and only because of Twitter, and because Lost Girl‘s production team is so engaged. The blog is a labor of love in my free time, a way to study current art and thus up my own game, and I’ve been lucky enough to have an incredible audience who will tweet and tumbl and comment and react and keep it alive in the social mediasphere. I assume that is how Emily Andras found it late last season, and then last week she retweeted my link, and people engaged, and voila here we are.
Twitter as a Platform
There are a couple problems, however, which occur directly because of social media and technology.
The first is the mass volume of information available on Twitter. It can overwhelm. It can obscure. Quantity isn’t quality, especially when you’re talking about how many tweets are devoted to discussing portemanteaus and continuity flubs. Interesting things to plenty of people, but things which aren’t going to improve the in-universe action, and things which can rapidly drown out other feedback. (I’m sure there are also, as with anything on the internet, trolls, but I’ve not had to deal with that in relation to this blog, knock on wood.)
The second problem is the anonymity and social distance created through the internet. Besides enabling the trolling thing, this can create impossible expectations. When certain show creators take a fan suggestion, or reply to some fan tweets, through the magic of online dehumanization, the fan interaction becomes expected, sometimes even demanded. Demands are going to come from all sides, and of course you can never make everyone happy all the time. Plots which don’t flex or shows which don’t engage may get slammed for not meeting certain subjective expectations, missing opportunities for ‘grassroots marketing,’ or not having producers/directors/runners who ‘do’ social media.
The third problem is that Twitter gets really confusing really quickly. It’s hard to clarify a complex thought in 140 characters, so often thoughts get chopped across multiple tweets. Or, words get omitted or subbed out for ones with fewer characters, but not as focused or accurate. Add to that the fact that most of the people you’re talking to you aren’t familiar to or with you. Suddenly, not only are you all trying to keep straight who’s who, but you’re trying to project the correct tone of voice onto a stranger’s choice of words. Things get misread very quickly, maybe because your word choice could have been better, or maybe because you pointed out a plot problem, or maybe just because you said that Bo looks hot making out with the ‘wrong’ cast member. Whatever the cause, suddenly your replies page looks like a papier mâché project on steroids.
And then, in those words and those tones of voice from those strangers, come accusations of bias.
It’s a Review, not a Recap
Sometimes people use those words interchangeably, like ‘oh did you see the What’s Alan Watching review/recap of How I Met Your Mother?’. It’s kind of entered the colloquialism, and I’m not the grammar police insisting people use one or the other. But it’s problematic when one assumes they mean the same thing. I call what I do ‘reviewing’ intentionally; there are plenty of sites which will tell you ‘A guy drugged and was trying to rape a young woman named Kenzi, this bartender named Bo sucked blue light from the guy until he died, Bo then helped Kenzi to safety, two cops showed up and it turns out they use their jobs to help investigate and cover up supernatural deaths . . .’ and that’s great and those sites have a purpose and making those sorts of writings interesting and funny is a whole skill set, but that’s not what I do.
Someone reporting on or recapping something (say for a TV menu, etc) should give the clearest possible rendition of the facts. Someone commentating and analyzing and speculating about something is allowed – nay, I say encouraged – to be biased, so long as it’s clear how the bias affects the interpretation of events and how any cant is substantiated.
The Nature of Bias
“an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment” – Merriam-Webster
It always amused me how Roger Ebert would like anything Nicholas Cage was in at least a star better than most of the rest of the population. Whether he and Cage simply had similar tastes, or he had a predilection for Cage, or he could see something deep in the acting of even the cheesiest or most absurd role, he did love him some Nic Cage.
Ebert had other biases, too. Against chainsaw slashers and torture porn. Towards beautiful women in impossible situations, actors playing against type, and films which toyed with the very nature of cinematic art. I mean, he gave Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow four stars.
I’m not saying I’m Roger Ebert (heavens!). I’m saying everyone is biased.
We’re all inclined to a certain viewpoint based on our experience and the compilation of cultural interaction, specifically our art and literature and media consumption. I was predisposed to like Lost Girl because of the strong female lead, extensive metaphors, low-budget can-do construction, and that it was described to me as ‘like Buffy but with more sex’ (ding ding ding, we have a winner!). I’m extremely interested in any show which touches on hyper-religious upbringing, and I’ve written pages on how fundamentalism shaped and stunted and continues to affect Bo’s psyche; I see and lean towards that because of my own past and present. Bias. Not unreasoned, but personal.
In the same way I’m biased, everyone who says my viewpoint is biased has his or her own particular tendency or inclination, based on a plethora of things. There can be mostly objective analysis of technique and production value and execution etc., but keep in mind when it comes to the whole, there is no “objective” lens through which an individual views art.
Bias becomes a problem when and if it becomes “an unreasoned judgement.” So, when and if I start saying things entirely unsupported by the text, the arc and structure of the show, the context of TV culture, that would reflect a bad bias on my part. But in my reviews, I work to provide not just clinical analysis of shots and angles and scene breakdowns and plot mechanics, but personal story interpretation which is informed by my own understanding of literary structures, my ongoing work in the film industry, my life itself including good and bad experiences, and the things I value most about humanity.
Reasonable and Unreasoned Review
The AV Club’s coverage of this show was uncharacteristically abysmal, which is what actually led to me writing my own reviews; the reviewer obviously either didn’t fully understand or didn’t like most of the things the show was doing, and tore them apart mostly as ‘I don’t like when they . . .’ without understanding the actions in context of the show, the genre, society, or functionality as metaphors or tropes. The reviews were quite badly biased, maybe from being assigned a show not in his wheelhouse at all, maybe from not liking ‘genre’ or supernatural shows. Whatever the case, the reviews were often not well reasoned or supported with details from the show itself or shows typical of the genre.
If you think my perspective has become ‘unreasoned,’ then we can talk, but that requires a more thoughtful and supported argument than Twitter supports, and it becomes necessary to engage on not necessarily a more meaningful level, but definitely a more thorough platform. Hurling a water-balloon barrage of tweets isn’t a good way to convince me of either your point of view or my own mistakes. Did I mention I was doing this on my own time as a learning tool? I will make mistakes, and I will say things people don’t like or agree with.
All this is not to say two reasoned people still can’t disagree, because a text as large and sprawling as a TV show can often support multiple opinions. Often I hear a theory and go ‘hey I think you’re onto something’ or ‘hey I still lean towards A but your B sounds like it could work, too, let’s see what plays out.’ There’s a place where that ends, of course, a place where I can say ‘no, it’s patently untrue that so-and-so was actually doing such-and-such; here’s why,’ or a place where you can point out my logic is flawed or I misquoted a scene. But often both people can have a textually supported opinion, and agree to disagree. Often both sides are informed by some sort of bias, and the better we can each explain our own biases and how it informs our own understanding of the text, the better we understand each others’ points of view, the show, and the world in general.
Thus, simply hurling ‘bias’ as an accusation is neither helpful nor accurate.
I mentioned above my biases towards the show as a whole. I also have biases about specifics; liking certain scenes and characters and tropes more than others. I was asked by Drinks at the Dal if I wanted to do a podcast about a character, and I picked Tamsin because I’m almost absurdly biased towards the tropes and types which make up her character. It’s why I love Veronica Mars. It’s why my own first big film project was about a badass female detective.
I do try and either lay those biases mostly aside or clearly delineate said bias (more on that later) when I write the reviews. I’m sure I’m never entirely impartial, but I also support what I say with what happened on screen (as mentioned earlier, and will be mentioned again later, too). One thing which helps me feel I’m doing a decent job is that every major fandom (shipdom?) has been extremely angry with me at least once. This episode people wanted to know why I ‘hated’ Tamsin and/or Valkubus, and that’s actually a first. Just seven episodes ago I had people sending me angry tweets that I was ‘obviously reading something which is not there, you must be a Valkubus shipper’ because I insist Bo and Tamsin had awesome metaphorical sex. So if everybody’s mad at me, at one point or another, am I doing something right? I hope so.
Am I still biased to some degree, even if readers disagree over which way I lean? Yeah, sure. What’s so funny is I mention one bias right in the review. “While I’m being honest, I’ll mention I was a bit biased against the episode before it started. In fact, the Groundhog Day trope is my least favorite episode stunt ever.”
My past experiences with Groundhog Day tropes have almost unanimously been annoying, repetitive, unfunny, and have stymied any overall season arc rather than moving it forward. This bias created a reaction I couldn’t help upon seeing the title “Groundhog Fae.” It is a prism through which I cannot help but look. What I can do, and think I successfully did, is acknowledge the prism is there and skews my sight, and make sure that I account for that when I’m writing and analyzing. When I say the plot does or doesn’t move, am I basing that only on this episode, not the countless other Groundhog Day renditions I’ve seen? Am I judging this episode on its own merits and use of the trope, not on the fact I don’t like the trope? I still talk about it in cultural context, because it is a trope used widely and for various purposes, but I can’t let the fact it’s a trope I’m not fond of dictate my verdict and analysis.
What I ended up saying is the way this episode uses the conceit is more successful than many shows, and then giving reasons for that.
We’ve established bias is universal, bias isn’t always bad, and bias can be accounted for at least somewhat.
But how much do I account for it in my writing? Well, I try not to say anything about anything without using proof from the text. It’s true that in the 4.08 review I did not go into detail about my comment about Tamsin and Bo, and this is another disadvantage to reviewing TV rather than movies. I’ve written so many thousands of words, sometimes I act like everyone has read all of them. What I offhandedly referred to is something I’ve talked about elsewhere scattered through my blog, and actually talked about a little bit in the comments when somebody simply asked. People may still disagree with my reading (the commenter did, and made some points to the contrary), but there is a basis.
Of course, a lot of people came across my reviews for the first time with that tweet, and thus didn’t have a knowledge of the foundation I’d laid before. That’s unfortunate. But if I were to expound on every aspect every episode, my reviews would quickly get repetitive and eighty-three pages long. At some point, however, I did cite what I based my opinions on. To dismiss my reasoned, canon-based point of view simply because it’s not yours is absurd. To make statements assuming that because at this point I don’t think Bo and Tamsin should buy a puppy and go houseshopping I must dislike and dismiss one or both of the characters displays either an egregious lack of reading comprehension . . . or possibly just that thing where Twitter is a sucky medium for discussion.
To come to the comments and say ‘well what about this or that’ or ‘this is how I actually interpreted the scene, and why,’ or ‘you missed something important which informs the whole thing,’ now that’s awesome. I appreciate it in any medium, though some are simply better than others for it. And in fact people who did just that helped me realize 1) I was totally off about Tamsin’s age in the episode and 2) I had misread the originating POV in the opening fantasy. [Oh, and also I had misspelled Rachel Skarsten's name because I'm actually terrible at spelling and I get really phonetic and proper nouns will kill me one day. So, three things. That one was a Twitter thing, and that's certainly fitting for the length, but no thanks for CC'ing Emily Andras on my spelling incompetence.]
People also disagree(d) with me about a half dozen other things, but we were able to share a little more about how we saw a scene, and gain some insight into another person’s point of view – or bias, if you will. And I don’t have to agree with a point of view to acknowledge it’s a well-thought, interesting point of view. And vice versa.
That, my friends, is the key. The key to good discussions about television. The key to reasoned debates about the nature of life, the universe, and everything. The key to friendship and communication and relationships. The end-all, be-all. Well-reasoned discussion in spaces built for it, interesting POVs, and the love and patience to develop both of them.