It was just over a month ago that Entertainment Weekly announced the simultaneous firings of three of their most prominent staff writers, including founding film critic Owen Gleiberman. Restructuring more than just in house talent, the move cleared the way for the magazine’s new focus on user submitted content through ‘The Community’. Since launched, and currently in an introductory beta form, ‘The Community’ offers a new platform through which “superfans” can add their voices to the pop culture conversation. Though EW’s main page still relies on content from paid senior writers, ‘The Community’ currently provides reviews and commentary from a growing army of amateur bloggers. That these supefans’ work will receive little to no compensation is sadly unsurprising. And as one more outlet narrows the number of professional opportunities available to burgeoning writers, it also further muddies the separation between fan and critic, amplifying the reach of a perspective that has long been the norm among online communities. Enabled by the format of the long form video review, it is leading to a new kind of critic, one whose emotional connections supersede their critical faculties, whose ability to analyze is eclipsed by their desire to perform.
In the foreword to the reissue of her novel The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing raises an important question about modern critics. “Why do they always atomize and belittle,” she asks. “Why are they so fascinated by detail, and uninterested in the whole? Why is their interpretation of the word “critic” always to find fault?” Lessing’s words were written years before the existence of internet culture. Yet they anticipate the further expansion of a selectively negative philosophy. Ground zero for this kind of criticism can be found at the website That Guy With the Glasses, home to dozens of pop culture obsessive critics, each with multiple series of regular videos. The names of these series alone is enough to evoke the website’s general tone.
For film reviews there is “Bad Movie Beatdown,” “DVD-R Hell,” “Shameful Sequels” and “The Blockbuster Buster”. Angry Joe provides angry reviews of video games. “Atop the Fourth Wall” and “Long Box of the Damned” condemn horrible comic books. The cheekily titled “Twatty New Who Review” provides viciously critical takedowns of Doctor Who episodes that often rival the length of the television series itself. Under the banner of Channel Awesome, the site is a panoply of voices focused on various geek-centric genres. And though the majority of the site’s content is not specifically negative, there is an undeniable sway towards the kind of ultra-deconstructionist philosophy that so often drives fandom. Taken one by one, all of these series seem well intentioned and harmless. Taken as a whole, however, they indicate a relationship between art and audience that values the trees over the forest, in which opinion is expressed through impulse driven emotional screeds.
The sites central presence is Doug Walker, whose various review personas provide a tonal baseline from which the site’s many other personalities have sprung. Like most of the other Channel Awesome contributors, Walker’s reviews are focused on a highly specific sub realms of geek culture, in his case the cartoons and films remembered by his borderline Gen X/Millenial audience. Most of Channel Awesome’s content contains about as much production value as the average Youtube video. Walker himself records in front of a blank, white wall and with little flair beyond the occasional homemade costume or green screen effect. A video’s typical format involves the “host” introducing their topic, intercutting clips of the film, game or television episode with a scripted monologue in which they respond to, mock or critique their subject. Walker’s “Nostalgia Critic” is best known for devolving into bouts of uncontrollable rage over some obscure piece of pop culture detritus, from the treacle soundtrack of “The Pound Puppies” movie to the mind numbing offenses of the 1994 film North. Walker’s rants are punctuated by moments of abrupt theatricality, including an often repeated gag in which he angrily fires a fake gun into the air in a futile attempt to vent his frustrations.
It is common for Channel Awesome videos to spend up to five minutes meandering through scripted scenes before even getting to the review itself. Long running characters appear, are killed off and then resurrected. There are callbacks and crossovers and in world mythology. Reviewers frequently provide cameos in each other’s videos. The sense is of a tightly knit community of reviewers with a bargain basement approach to in world continuity, as if Disney were to recreate the Marvel movieverse with nothing but sock puppets. This is supposed to be the appeal, and one wonders if Entertainment Weekly’s recent restructuring was in any way influenced by this brand of community driven content.
One could see this format as an expansion of the definition of criticism. Long gone are the days of two men in sport coasts sitting on a balcony set and arguing. Now, the review is the content. When not fueled by faux rage, reviewers use their platform for bouts of sudden autobiographical sincerity. Kyle Kallgren’s character, OanCitizen, specializes in analyzing “art house” films through a self-aware, tragicomic intellectualism. His conclusions are often insightful, as when he outlines the political allegory of Yeelen through in depth discussion of Malayan history. More often than not, however, he resorts to the same kind of broad dismissal that points to his failure to meaningfully engage with films.
Gus Van Sant’s Gerry is boring and therefore bad. Harmony Korin’s Trash Humpers is obnoxious and therefore bad. Most interestingly, his two part review of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia ends not with a conclusive opinion statement, but with Kallgren in a closet talking to the camera about his own struggles with inferiority, failure and depression. But these sincere digressions are rare, overwhelmed by a sensibility that sometimes feels like the equivalent of smashing a watch against the ground and then complaining when it doesn’t work. “Any critic is entitled to wrong judgments,” Susan Sontag said in Against Interpretation. “But certain lapses of judgment indicate the radical failures of an entire sensibility.”
If we must give a name to the Channel Awesome sensibility, let us call it geek entitlement. It is a philosophy that demands art provide us with constant engagement. Married to a preexisting passion for, a genre or a series, this entitlement meets the failure to satisfy these demands with negativity and symbolic destruction. The previously mentioned Blockbuster Buster concludes most of his reviews by destroying DVDs of low grade genre films with a hammer. The host of “Atop the Fourth Wall” (“Where bad comics burn”) ends many reviews by setting fire to comic books.
This philosophy demands internal coherence, a demand visible in the channel’s review of Southland Tales. One of the sites popular ‘crossover reviews’, it features multiple reviewers sitting in a hotel room, blasting Richard Kelly’s divisive film from every possible angle while making room for narrative diversions and comedic skits. Though the video’s hour long run time includes contributor cameos and Doctor Who references, little time is spent on analysis. “Southland Tales is really something else,” Village Voice critic J. Hoberman said of the film in his initial review. It, “may not be entirely coherent, but that’s because there’s so much it wants to say.” But this is the kind of ambivalence that is hard to make funny. And, judging by the comments section of the video, it’s not the kind of engagement that viewers are looking for. Dozens of commenters provide feedback on the review itself, praising its funny moments or critiquing its own lapses in coherence. Little mention is made of Southland Tales.
The review has now become the source of engagement, the circle completing itself. “The experiments of the avant-garde take a long time to catalyze into mainstream culture,” Kallgren says in his review of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. “But they get there eventually. And all thanks to a bunch of unknown doofuses trying and failing and succeeding in their own, unorthodox way.” Here, he is drawing an explicit parallel between the Channel Awesome aesthetic and the by now mainstream ethos of the mumblecore movement. And, obviously, the established guard always fears and dismisses the innovation of the new. But the innovations of the online video review replace nuanced criticism with performative hysterics. The assembly line production schedule of the video reviewer eclipses opportunities for professionally sustainable criticism with the ubiquity of the superfan and a sense of entitled critical impatience. If this is the landscape waiting over the next hill, then Kallgren’s words are more than a prediction. They’re a threat.
By definition, fans tend towards fanaticism. Their vectors are those of the emotional and the reactive, which are not necessarily the terms best suited for the analysis of a piece of art, the equivalent of asking for an honest review from someone’s doting mother (or, conversely, an overbearing detail obsessed stage parent). This is not the same mental climate in which thoughtful critique is cultivated. And yet it is one that is not only hugely popular, but highly profitable. Though Doug Walker is Channel Awesome’s public figurehead, the site is in truth the brainchild of producer Mike Michaud. Every video and podcast supported by the site is hosted by Blip.tv, and every piece of content is accompanied by advertising before and during the content. It was enough to earn the site an estimated $150,000 in ad revenue in 2009, not counting the $11,000 per month the site reportedly received in viewer donations. It’s the type of revenue that seems to contradict that surface level DIY aesthetics, compounded by the endless resalability of the sites content. Channel Awesome’s online store features the expected merchandise, from t-shirts to CD’s to prints, but also autographed photographs of the site’s most popular personalities. Viewers can compete to win autographed DVDs, while the site itself features numerous commentaries of the reviewers commenting on their own material.
In a video called “Please Let the Ads Play,” posted in May of 2013, one of Channel Awesome’s many contributors, Lewis Jeffery Lovhaug aka Linkara, speaks candidly about the necessity of the site’s sponsorship. He needs us, he says, his viewers, to see the ads. And he is alarmed by a recent spate of users who employ ad blocking software to avoid doing so. “This is my day job,” he says. “This is not a hobby for me.” Though this situation is not the case for all the Channel Awesome producers, Lovhaug says, it is the case for some. It is unstated exactly how much he makes, but his tone is still one of supplication. He needs the money from his advertising, and is relatively helpless to do anything about it. He, like all of those superfans EW hopes to have waiting in the wings, is not employed by his parent company. They are perhaps the modern day equivalent of pulp authors, earning a few cents per word in the shadow of much more profitable syndicates. And both sites seem to have perfected a winning formula for putting the geek to the plow. The byproduct, already visible on Channel Awesome and now beginning to spread across ‘The Community’ of Entertainment Weekly, is an entitled impatience, where critical distance is replaced by emotive reaction.