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Please Kill the Expert Review: A Modest Proposal

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by Sam Adams
April 9, 2014 2:33 PM
12 Comments
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(Artist's Rendition)
(Artist's Rendition)

You've seen it before, probably half a dozen times today: the Expert Review. Usually presented under a headline reading "What X Gets Wrong About Y," it's a most often a niggling fact-check disguised as a piece of criticism. At Politico, you can read "What 'Noah' Gets Wrong About the Bible" and "What 'House of Cards' Gets Wrong About Money in Politics." (Newsweek will also tell you what "House of Cards" gets wrong about "real-life Washington"; the fictional show's real-life hometown paper, the Washington Post, went to the videotape.) At Slate, software engineer David Auerbach attacks Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley" for not "pulling back the curtain on startup hype and eviscerating empty techie values." Read how "Mad Men's" Don Draper would never have cut it at a real Madison Avenue agency, and -- why not? -- "What 'Mad Men' Gets Wrong About French Canadians." Not doubt this coming weekend will find a raft of pieces informing us "What 'Oculus' Gets Wrong about Haunted Mirrors."

I am not an expert in any of those things, although as a professional journalist and a graduate of a liberal arts college, I can pretend to be one with a couple hours' notice. But I am an expert in cultural criticism, which in addition to giving me access to vast riches and a top-secret trove of state secrets, entitles me to say this to the legions of Expert Reviewers: You are Doing It Wrong.

By its nature, the Expert Review evaluates what the director Werner Herzog calls "the truth of accountants," the extent to which a work of fiction dots its i's and crosses its t's. At best, it guards against the devolution of drama into sloppy generalities. At worst, which it most often is, the Expert Review is a half-step up from the goof-squad niggling of cinematic and televisual trainspotters who derive a puny sense of superiority by pointing out that a license plate has the wrong prefix or that particular style of telephone wasn't available until the following year. 

Silicon Valley

In his piece on "Silicon Valley," Auerbach argues that "the best satire... homes in with laser precision on its target’s weaknesses," which is right, and says it "only gains its viciousness from knowing particularity," which is dead wrong. ("What Slate Gets Wrong About Satire.") How does that formulation, to cite one of Auerbach's models, fit Jonathan Swift, whose most enduring novel is purely allegorical, and whose most famous essay suggests the eating of babies for food? ("What 'A Modest Proposal' Gets Wrong About the Nutritional Value of Human Flesh.") Satire gains strength from a specificity of tone, but there's no reason it has to stick to the facts, and many compelling reasons for it not to. Besides, in evaluating "Silicon Valley" solely, or primarily, as satire, Auerbach has essentially decided what the show ought to be -- what, presumably, it would be if anyone had bothered to ask him -- and judging it for falling short of his personal standard.

Here's the thing, and you might want to print this out and tape it somewhere you can see it: "Silicon Valley" is not meant to be realistic. It takes some of its inspiration from reality -- in the pilot, a budding programmer creates an app called Nip Alert, whose unapologetic sexism evokes the real-life Titstare controversy -- but that reality is sometimes heightened, or bent, or just plain ignored, because "Silicon Valley" isn't only, or even primarily, a show about Silicon Valley, any more than "House of Cards" is meant as a how-to guide for usurping the Presidency. (I don't, frankly, know what it's meant to be, but not that.) Auerbach might want to consult with Slate's own David Wiegel, who in spite of his background in political reportage understands that "Veep" is not a show where a surfeit of realism would be especially helpful, and that accuracy and truth are not always one and the same. That goes as well for the review of "Silicon Valley" by Vulture's Odie Henderson, who's both a veteran computer programmer and a fine critic.

One of the best things about watching movies and television for a living is that you get to inhabit other worlds on a regular basis, osmotically soaking in the details. But while details taken from the real world can inform and enrich those worlds, it's the story that allows us to inhabit them, and when the two are in conflict, story should win. Maybe "The Good Wife" isn't scrupulously accurate about every last aspect of the law; maybe "The Wolf of Wall Street" doesn't cover the full extent of Jordan Belfort's crimes. But in purposefully told stories, those omissions and even distortions are sometimes not only necessary but beneficial. Drama is life with the distractions pared away.

So, to all the Expert Witnesses, past and present, a plea: Before you hold forth on how X gets Y wrong, consider that X's primary purpose might not be to act as a dramatic interpretation of a Wikipedia entry, and in getting Y "wrong," it may get something else right. Take it from me. I'm an expert.

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12 Comments

  • KHallebo | April 28, 2014 12:10 PMReply

    Mr. Adams,

    As an aspiring filmmaker I am conflicted towards film criticism in the very same way you note in regards to Expert Reviewers, “At best, it guards against the devolution of drama into sloppy generalities. At worst … the Expert Review is a half-step up from the goof-squad niggling of cinematic and televisual trainspotters.” I think it important to note, however, the difference between the classically defined film critic and the Expert Reviewer you discuss. More and more the writings on film and television are being taken from the hands of the critic and into the arms of other cultural experts. In some cases, blogs are seeking out critics in order to start a film column, but usually these Experts have little film background. A prime example is The Atlantic’s recent articles on sexual violence within Game of Thrones, which focuses on the social implications of the show, rather than its cinematic virtues. That being said, I agree that these Experts have no place in altering the structure of story, even if that conflicts with accuracy, because that would be the destruction of the most basic cinematic quality of film—storytelling. Film is an artistic form and should be allowed the freedom afforded to any other art. Cultural reviewers should respect that.

    Exploring this transition from film critic to Expert Reviewer brings up the question of why there seems to have been such dissemination of the cultural resonance of film and television. Why do science and faith Experts care about accuracies in film and television like never before? This is where I respectfully disagree with your argument that film and television “allows [us] to inhabit other worlds on a regular basis.” More often than not, the shows are of this world and they help us to better understand this world. Film and television is not merely a past time as it once was, but an important tool in the shaping and representation of culture. A professional historian wrote this in reply to your article, “Movies and tv shows shape the viewer’s notion of what the world around them is like and how they think history played out.” This is the line that I believe films and television must tread cautiously when depicting realistic circumstances. Yes films are imaginary—a lie on screen, if you want. The problem is that most audiences no longer see what is in front of them as untrue and so we, the filmmakers, are now infringing on the other liberal arts in changing their stories. How can we rectify this situation then? Spielberg said it eloquently when discussing his historical drama, Lincoln, “One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that history must avoid.” The facts surrounding the situation remain accurate, but the human nature at the center of the story allows for cinematic artistry.

  • Orrin K | April 21, 2014 11:03 PMReply

    I think you make great points about the story being superior to fact, but I think fact vs fiction articles are great ways to augment coverage of a movie. When I'm immersed in another world that a film has taken me to like Apollo 13 or Gravity with Space, my curiosity naturally leads me to go to NASA or consult one of those fact vs fiction websites like Chasing the Frog to see what the movie got right and got wrong. It has nothing to do with not enjoying the movie and I think your antagonism towards this trend is unnecessary to say the least.

  • Andrew Hunt | April 21, 2014 2:07 PMReply

    Excellent article! Well done. Very insightful and well argued. And then there's the little matter that the so-called "experts" are mostly being ignored by the public the fans of these shows and movies. I'm a historian and I've been asked to comment on the authenticity of historical novels, movies and TV shows, but I usually shy away from this stuff, for that very reason. The "experts," alas, often come off sounding petty and jealous. But occasionally, the very sharp ones do add something enlightening to the conversation, especially when pop culture becomes too revisionist for its own good.

  • WonderWench | April 14, 2014 10:47 AMReply

    I have tried to make sense of a very, and increasingly so, complicated world. One of the ideas I came up with is ... there are too, a way too many pseudo educated people being churned out into a public life that is already filled to overflowing with ideas, performance, implementation, scientific saturation ... so ... 'these' newly released spawn have to swim upstream ... they do this by taking on issues by contrary opinions ... I say put them all into a ring and examine each and every idea with our own knowledge and insights and our most powerful tool ... intuition ... in other words ... think for ourselves and don't be sheeple.

  • anon | April 9, 2014 9:23 PMReply

    When someone discovers a monument to a critic, the discussion may continue.

  • @harrisonjbender | April 9, 2014 8:20 PMReply

    I get it I get it, but there's also a place for some of these

  • RP | April 9, 2014 4:18 PMReply

    More modest proposal: Stop writing about the expert review and giving it attention. Otherwise it's a vicious cycle.

  • Nathan Duke | April 9, 2014 4:13 PMReply

    I mean, seriously, when is someone going to post the story on What 'Under the Skin' Gets Wrong About Extraterrestrial Sexual Predators? Still waiting.

  • Brian W. | April 9, 2014 3:59 PMReply

    There's nothing inherently wrong with writing a piece that gives people historical information and puts what's seen in the film, real or fictionalized, into context. The problem is that all of these pieces are framed as contrarian, i.e. "What X gets wrong about Y". Even the articles that seem to get that the film/show takes liberties and is stronger for it still have the antagonist, click-bait headlines or are written in such a way that the writer is trying to position themselves as the smartest guy in the room or defend themselves from what's depicted (Not all Wall Street Bankers are wild quaalude addicts or Not All Silicon Valley techies are nerds or Not All Astronauts are as good looking as Sandra Bullock).

    I don't want information or historical accuracy and fact checking to disappear, just the level of snarkiness and defensiveness to go away.

  • pol | April 9, 2014 3:50 PMReply

    This weak criticism of the critics tells only half the story. Distortions can come for many reasons, many ulterior motives. Blanket statements like this "necessary but beneficial" claim pointedly ignore the unnecessary and detrimental changes that are as common, if not more so. This is a mealy mouthed ode to ignorance, and I'd have to disagree. Analysis will determine whether these presumed "beneficial" changes were good, neutral or malignant, and on a case by case basis.

    Not that this pseudo critic said much about anything in this brief little rant, but I find it either disengenuous, self-serving or plain ignorant.

  • Darren R. | April 9, 2014 3:24 PMReply

    When will someone finally hold Jordan Belson accountable for his crimes against cinema??

  • Michael Sicinski | April 9, 2014 2:53 PMReply

    I think you mean Jordan Belfort's crimes. As far as I know, Jordan Belson was guilty of nothing more than overestimating our interest in swirling circles in the absence of pot smoke.

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