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Please Kill the Expert Review: A Modest Proposal

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 9, 2014 at 2:33PM

What the Expert Review gets wrong about cultural criticism.
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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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