Film

Everyone’s a Critic: How Reality Competitions Made Reviewers TV’s Newest Stars

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Critics rarely receive love from filmmakers. Last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Birdman, featured a vengeful harpy of a theater reviewer (played by Lindsay Duncan) hellbent on annihilating a play before she’s even seen it. Birdman was joined in its release year by other unfair portraits of critics in Top Five, Big Eyes, and Mr. Turner, which depicted reviewers as snooty, deceitful, spitefully jealous, or, at best, gratingly hyper-analytical. Then there was Jesse Eisenberg’s satirical “honest film review” in a recent issue of the New Yorker, which might as well have been the movie star waving his thumb and index finger at critics in the shape of an L.

But if critics are punching bags at the multiplex, they have also become unexpected stars on television. Four decades after Siskel and Ebert pioneered criticism as entertainment, the acts of evaluation and analysis — of food, clothes, cars, dancing, singing, smizing, and whatever else — have become part of TV’s DNA. Most reality show competitions, like The Voice and Top Chef, depend on the pronouncements of critics — in the guise of expert judges like Blake Shelton or Tom Colicchio — to shape the narrative. But even on shows like Project Runway that are seemingly edited for maximum cattiness, the critics end up establishing for viewers what criteria should determine a dish or dress or performance’s excellence.

There’s a reason why your best friend calls vocalists she doesn’t like “pitchy” like she’s Randy Jackson, why your sister describes a dress she wrinkles her nose at as “costumey” the way Michael Kors would, and why that new acquaintance channeled Padma Lakshmi by dubbing the arugula salad you guys shared the other day “bright” (whatever that means). When done with passion, imagination, and a sense of fairness, critical assessment makes for inherently watchable (and innately conflict-driven) TV. It also represents the democratization of criticism, where audiences are offered nuances, categories, and other evaluative tools to become critic-consumers themselves via language that’s often accessible but specific to a discipline. Even when viewers might disagree with a judge — no unusual occurrence — they now have a broader vocabulary with which to appraise an object or performance. No wonder, then, that it’s more often a judge than a contestant who’s launched as the show’s real star. They’re the ones we learn from (or rage against) and thus connect to.

There’s no end to reality’s parade of experts, but three shows stand out as particularly great examples of critic TV: RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo TV), Top Gear (BBC America), and Chopped (Food Network).

Drag Race is a wonderful illustration of how a show can serve as a primer to a new domain while clarifying the benchmarks by which each participant and performance should be assessed. The judges generally don’t offer deep criticism, but they demand that each competitor wow them during the weekly challenges with such talents as fashion, charm, comedy, lip-syncing, and persona creation. Those trials then paint a larger picture of the many skills required of drag queens to triumph in the “Olympics of drag.” And, in a moving touch, host and judge RuPaul never lets himself or his fellow critic-judges devolve into bitchiness for its own sake, instead applying a bit of honey on potential wounds by always espousing self-love. Not for nothing is his motto “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” He’s the rare example of how a good critic can also be a helpfully honest friend.

While Drag Race allows viewers to form their own judgments about its participants, the long-running British car-review program Top Gear offers an entirely different mode of criticism: that of vicarious experience. The three hosts’ observations — delivered in a mix of immediate reaction and mulled-over voiceover — are funny and accessible, as when one mocks a Mercedes model’s “stormtrooper body-kit look” or expects that turning a corner in a slippery BMW sports car is like “wrestling with an excitable crocodile.” Most fun of all, the trio borrows from Siskel and Ebert by dispensing criticism in character, allowing for playful banter and fierce debate heightened by personality clashes. That we can’t judge for ourselves if the latest version of the Bugatti Veyron really is worth its $2.4 million price tag is inevitable: Many of the vehicles evaluated on Top Gear are eye-bulgingly expensive or exist only in rare collections. But a car’s a car, which means you can take something from the show to your next trip to the dealership: aesthetic concerns, balance while making a turn, steering-wheel sensitivity. (Unfortunately, the hosts recently left Top Gear after one was fired by the BBC for allegedly assaulting a producer, but their antics and analyses are well worth catching up on via the five seasons available on Netflix or the fifteen on Hulu.)

The best criticism currently on the air might come from Chopped, the cooking competition that has chefs putting together a meal from four seemingly random ingredients, like halibut, herbed cheese, asparagus, and packaged mango pudding (that’s from a real episode). Even on an episode devoted to something as familiar as pizza, viewers should pick up something fresh, like what “rabbit escabeche” is and the difference, on a cellular level, between thin and deep-dish crusts. The critic-judges expound on the variance between dough that tastes like “bread” versus a “cracker” and opine that an ingredient is “flat” or a meal is “thoughtful and composed.” Some of the descriptions are beyond my ken — I’m not sure what it means for a potato to “seize up” — but it’s the kind of interesting reaction that I’ll be on the lookout for in my next fancy (or even not-so-fancy) meal. It also helps enormously that the show lays bare what its critics look for when evaluating a dish: presentation, taste, and creativity. It’s a little nuts that taste is only one-third of their assessment, but thanks to Chopped, now I’ll know to be accordingly skeptical when I read the Times‘ next takedown of a beloved restaurant.

The best that critics can do, after all, is help readers — and now viewers — find and explore their own tastes and reactions. And, thanks to television, criticism is able to reach more audiences than ever before. (See that, filmmakers? We’re not all so bad.)

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