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In a new piece on Wired.com, “Could This Be the Year Movies Stopped Mattering?” Brian Raftery suggests that movies have “devolved from Culture Conquering Pastime to merely Something to Do When the Wi-Fi’s Down,” and that their former centrality to the culture has been taken over by a diverse range of media events—serial television above all, but also Pokémon Go, “Hamilton,” YouTube memes, and visual albums such as Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” The simplest refutation is that what matters is determined not by media discussion but by each person for herself; movies matter to me, therefore they matter.
But Raftery is on to something important, even if, as I think, he comes at it backward. He’s right that the kinds of work that capture widespread attention and find widespread favor have changed in recent years—and he’s right that these changes are inseparable from the realm of criticism, the very nature of which has changed drastically in the same period. Raftery’s fixation on “the popcultural conversation” and the “zeitgeist” is one that’s shared by the era, by the critical community at large, and this fixation yields its own predestined results. Modern cultural criticism gives rise to its own cultural artifacts, and the two fit together like a lock and key. As a work of criticism, Raftery’s essay is exemplary of the very phenomenon that he’s documenting—and that circularity, that selffulfilling critical criterion, is the defining trait of the time.
The rise of so-called quality television has coincided with the advent of widespread access to the Internet, which is closely correlated with consumers’ level of education. The serial nature of serial television lent itself to online discussion—blogs, comments, e-mails, and then, a few years later, social-media postings—in a way that the one-time-only and freestanding experience of going to a movie doesn’t; at the same time that it also locked specifically into the new habits of the educated in a way that moviegoing didn’t.
The principal quality of quality TV has proven to be its ability to generate discourse—not just on the part of critics and viewers but on the part of journalists. As particular series, and television over all, became the subjects of widespread public discussion—discussion in the literal sense, of writers and viewers responding to each other—that discussion became news. Suddenly, television was propelled from the arts page to the front page, and that trend was accelerated by the nature of the shows. Their emphasis on stories and characters involving iconic phenomena in cultural history and hot-button issues of contemporary sociology and politics grabbed—and still grabs—hold of journalists’ nose for stories. Many series seem to exist only to present topics in ready-to-debate form; they are built to give rise to “think pieces,” which have become the dominant, if easily parodied, critical mode.
The experience that the watching and the critique of new serial television resemble above all is the college experience. Binge-watching is cramming, and the discussions that are sparked reproduce academic habits: What It Says About, What It Gets Right About, What It Gets Wrong About. There is a lot of aboutness but very little being; lots of puzzle-like assembling of information to pose particular kinds of questions (posing questions—sounds like a final exam), to explore particular issues (sounds like a term paper). For these reasons, television’s actual competition isn’t movies or museums or novels but nonfiction books, documentary films, journalism, radio discussions, and general online clicking. Serial television is designed to gratify the craving for facts to piece together and analyze. The medium seems created for the media buzz that’s generated by the media people who are its natural audience, and to whom the shows owe their acclaim, their prestige, and their success.
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