Friday, August 26, 2016

Critical Popularity

I had the misfortune to listen to a local radio station the other day.  It was only for a few seconds, so I only heard a snatch of conversation, but that was more than enough for me to switch it off.  Before proceeding, I should emphasise that my hearing this snatch of local radio cobblers was a complete accident.  I'd just retuned my Freeview receiver, (in order to ensure that I could still receive BBC 4HD after the BBC had fucked everything around so that they could broadcast every tedious minute of the Olympics), and was going through all the channels to check they were all there, when I found myself in the local radio section, which now boasts three stations ,(four, if you count the fact that it offers both regional variations of Radio Solent).  All of them shit, obviously.  Anyway, I clicked through one of them at the precise moment some stereotypically parochial local radio DJ was asking their equally dull sidekick if they knew what had come first in a public poll of the century's favourite sitcoms, with both of them apparently astonished that it was Mrs Brown's Boys.  They seemed befuddled and mildly outraged by the fact that it should have triumphed over the likes of Are You Being Served?, Dad's Army and Porridge.  Except, of course, that it hadn't.  All of the aforementioned were made in the twentieth century and the poll was specifically focused on sitcoms made in the twenty first century.  Quite apart from emphasising the general ignorance of tinpot local radio DJs looking to stir up a bit of cheap controversy, this desultory exchange also highlighted the extraordinary amount of hostility which continues to be directed at Brendan O'Carroll's sitcom by people in the media.

That it won the poll should be a surprise to no one - it's viewing figures indicate it's popularity with audiences.  Yet this leaves critics and commentators unmoved as they still codemn the sitcom as being rude, crude and obvious.  Which, to be fair, it is, but so, in reality, many of the sitcoms of yesteryear currently hallowed as classics.  Sure, it lacks the elegant plotting and intricate character study of, say, Hancock's Half Hour, the pathos of Steptoe and Son or the wit of Porridge, but Mrs Brown's Boys certainly delivers in the basic laughs department, something most modern sitcoms are sadly lacking in.  Furthermore, it is certainly no cruder that the likes of Are You Being Served? or 'Allo 'Allo (when considered in the context of their times and the broadcasting restrictions of those eras).  It also boasts a a degree of post-modern sophistication absent from other sitcoms in that it knows that it is a sitcom, with the fourth wall frequently breached and the fact that it is shot on three studio sets made part of the situational comedy.  Yet the critics and their ilk continue to dismiss it out of hand.  There are many reasons for this - one being, I suspect, is that Mrs Brown's Boys is unashamedly working class.  It's main characters have no desire to 'better themselves' by aspiring to middle class values.  They recognise that there is nothing wrong with their values and lifestyle.  This sort of attitude is anathema to many, predominantly middle class, critics - the sitcoms they rate are often about the frustrated middle class aspirations of the lower classes , (Hancock, Steptoe, even Only Fools and Horses, for instance).

The other is because of its popularity.  There is a persistent belief in some critical circles that what is popular cannot be 'good' and vice versa.  For them, mass popularity equates to 'lowest common denominator' in terms of content,  In many cases, they are undoubtedly right: popularity most certainly doesn't always equate to quality - just look at the continued success of reality TV series and talent shows.  All of which, in my opinion, are utter, brain-rotting, shit.  Of course, the key word there is 'opinion' - our responses to what we watch are deeply personal and affected by purely subjective factors, (something you wouldn't know from reading the outpourings of many critics who clearly feel that their pronouncements are incontrovertible fact). Which isn't to say that there aren't objective measures of quality: some things are obviously bad because they are poorly executed with weak scripts, inadequate acting performances and non-existent production values.  But do the opinions of critics actually matter to audiences?  The popularity of Mrs Brown's Boys would suggest not.  Moreover, this year has seen several movie blockbusters panned by critics yet attracting huge audiences.  Part of the problem is that audiences and critics are frequently using completely different sets of criteria for judging their enjoyment of what they watch.  After all, that recently published list of the hundred 'greatest' movies of the century so far was clearly compiled by critics - I doubt many regular cinema goers would have put Mulholland Drive at the top of the list.

There's another reason why many critics, especially the self-styled critics of social media, dislike that which is popular: exclusivity.  They like nothing better than to feel that they a part of a tiny elite sophisticated enough to appreciate some cult TV series or obscure movie.  Once it becomes popular, it is lost to them.  They are no longer the 'experts' on it, they no longer 'own' it.  I've discussed here before how this seems to have happened with the successful revival of Dr Who.  After years of being a half remembered cult series, its memory kept alive by a relatively small band of die hard fans, it was suddenly back and hugely popular.  Far from being happy, these 'keepers of the flame' reviled the new series, as they no longer had' ownership' and the new producers had the audacity to take in new directions without consulting these fans.  The rise of digital and on demand TV has been a boon for this type of viewer as it has created a whole clutch of niche TV series which are popular in terms of the outlets they play on, but still aren't seen by enough people to become huge mainstream popular hits.  Thus, they are allowed to feel a continued sense of exclusivity about their viewing.



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