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Modern Cliches: Critical Suggestions

Simon Pitt | News | Thursday 17th June 2010

It's a hard life being a critic. You're faced with a mountain of average programmes, print deadlines are getting shorter and your newspaper circulation is falling. How do you show your disdain for cliché, demonstrate your own impeccable judgement and entertain your audience all at the same time?

If you're a bit of a wag, you'll probably want to become known as a 'caustic critic' (since it's funnier to say, "This show is so rubbish that it made me want to eat my own face" than it is to say "I really, really enjoyed this. It was very good" or the even less common "this had good bits and bad bits, and I'll go on to examine these individually, rather than coming up with an arbitrary number to represent it's artistic worth".)

Regardless of this, you'll want to put in a joke at some point, and chances are you'll find yourself going for the old faithful, which, in my head, I refer to as the "critical suggestion".

The critical suggestion is when a critic points out a generic feature (usually present for dramatic reasons) and says something like "what I'd like to see is an episode where..." or "what they should do is make a series where...". For example: "What'd I'd like to see is a love story where at the end they run out of washing up liquid and have an argument" or "What I'd like to see is a Sherlock Holmes film where he doesn't wear a deerstalker".

Often this is played for laughs:
Anyway that's what I'd like to see from the next episode of Doctor Who. That and an episode where the Doctor gets a rash on his bum...
Charlie Brooker, Screenwipe

The standard way is to invert a cliché, and end up with a ridiculously banal suggestion, as Euan Ferguson did in last Sunday's Observer:
I'd personally love one where the bad cop doesn't look already like a granite-faced squirrel. Where the good cop, framed, and then taping the confession from the bad cop/ politico/ developer/ senator, realises later he forgot to put the batteries in his Sony and it's just: "Old friend, I do admit I hissspthhsssss."
The response to this, and to Charlie Brooker, is of course, "no you wouldn't!". Having a hammed up scene where Luther gets so angry with a double A battery that he hurls it through his window would not make it better. And even if you did think that, it's an old joke. This has already been done in The Thin Blue Line episode Court in the Act, where Fowler fails to record a confession because he doesn't realise you have to press play and record at the same time.

I'll have to admit, I'm not immune from making critical suggestions. In a previous article about TV crime dramas, I pointed out that I'd "like" to see a crime drama:
about a happily married detective, who has an occasional glass of wine with a meal, and who is more than happy to follow the correct procedure for dealing with criminal investigations.
No I wouldn't! That would be a cross between Midsommer Murders and Emmerdale. It might subvert a cliché, but it would be boring in the process.

The thing is, the critical suggestion taps into something larger: critics, often newspaper or magazine critics, are struggling along with the whole print media industry. They need to claw back any reputation for authority and intelligence they can. One way of doing this is to suggest that, even though creating content isn't their job, they'd be wonderful at it, and that the TV and cinema is churning out trite, repetitive nonsense.

The most common form of the critical suggestion is for a critic to invert a dramatic cliché (rendering it banal) for comic effect. It's the reductio ad absurdum argument played for laughs (to show that TV is trite and repetitive). And when not like this, it is played straight (to show that the critics are more intelligent than the film makes), as Euan Ferguson does with his suggestion:
I'd personally love one where the bad cop doesn't look already like a granite-faced squirrel.
Yet these suggestions are usually basic or uninformed. And when they're not, they're unrealistic if not boring. In this case, for example, Ferguson is complaining about a casting issue. But this wasn't the problem. The problem with Luther (to examine this specific example) wasn't that Steven Mackintosh was badly cast as DCI Ian Reid because he had a slightly grizzled face. After all, he was a policeman in Criminal Justice, and it wasn't as if everyone was waiting for him to turn out to be the villain there (in fact, if anything, he's become a bit type cast as a policeman: he was in Inspector Morse, Between the Lines, The Bill, Murder in Mind, A Touch of Frost before Criminal Justice and Luther).

The problem with Luther was that it was fundamentally clichéd. Taping suspects' confessions has been done before so many times. Luther is a cop who doesn't play by the rules, and whose relationship is falling apart because of his obsession with work. He's also incredibly observant, and deduces victims guilt or innocence from the smallest clues (his deduction based on Alice's failure to yawn in the first episode was mocked by largely every newspaper that reviewed Luther). Luther is more or less the same as every detective who's gone before him (except he's black).

The solution to this isn't to have an episode where the double crossing policeman doesn't look like a villain and the tape doesn't work, it's to create a plot that doesn't revolve around these same set pieces. Where the hero doesn't face the same problem that a thousand before him haven't and doesn't use a solution that has been used a thousand times before.

The irony is that in their rush to be funny and original and show how intelligent they are, the critics have, themselves, fallen into the trap of repeating a tired old cliche over and over again.



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