Alessandra Stanley’s instantly infamous column on “angry black woman” Shonda Rhimes offended plenty of people who’ve never heard of the New York Times’ chief TV critic. But for those who’ve followed the Times’ TV section for years, the reaction was less one of shock than “Here we go again.” In addition to her well-documented factual slip-ups, Stanley has long demonstrated a congenital inability to take the medium she’s assigned to cover seriously, one that’s reflected in the Times’ approach to TV as a whole.
It beggars belief that in 2014 one of the country’s most prominent publications could demonstrated such an outdated approach to the “idiot box,” but as Anne Helen Petersen writes at BuzzFeed, the Times’ issues with TV are systemic, and not likely to change any time soon.
Stanley doesn’t exist in a vacuum. According to several Times staffers, the paper’s secondary critic, former copy editor Neil Genzlinger, was appointed to his job after then-culture-editor Jonathan Landman promised him that the next critic position that came open — whether books, TV, or any other field in which Genzlinger had dabbled — was his. (Landman declined to comment on this story.)
The section’s other critic (described to me by various television critics outside the Times as “the only one who gets it close to right”) is Mike Hale, who previously served as the deputy editor of the Weekend Arts section. So the core of the section is three writers who might be good at editing, copyediting, and reporting — with none of the deep, medium-specific knowledge that distinguishes the criticism of the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, Slate’s Willa Paskin, NPR’s Linda Holmes, and the critics mentioned above.
There’s no excusing Stanley’s slipshod, supercilious approach, which makes the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane look like a monk of cinema by comparison, but it’s also clear that, as the saying goes, the fish stinks from the head. Just as a Times editor (or three) rubber-stamped Stanley’s preposterous contention that Rhimes’ “Scandal” takes place in world where people are “so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned,” so in 2011, they let stand Ginia Bellefante’s suggestion that “Game of Thrones” was “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half,” an ungrounded assumption about the gender makeup of the show’s audience that turned out to be laughably wrong. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the overreach of Stephen Holden — notably, one of the Times’ film critics — calling “The Sopranos” arguably “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.”
In areas like film, pop music and theater, the Times employs some of the best critics in the business; you may not agree with Manohla Dargis or Ben Brantley, but you can’t accuse them of not taking their jobs seriously. But in TV, it lags behind — way, way behind. Outside the TV section proper, things start to perk up: The recaps that run under the ArtsBeat rubric online often demonstrate a degree of commitment and enthusiasm absent from more formal reviews, and the paper’s feature coverage can be sharp and insightful. But there no reason why one of the country’s best newspapers shouldn’t be running some of its best TV criticism.
In her BuzzFeed piece, Petersen points to the fact that Stanley isn’t, in effect, part of the club: She’s not on Twitter, she doesn’t belong to the Television Critics Association; most of her colleagues have never met or even spoken to her. But none of those are fatal flaws: Neither the New Yorker’s Nussbaum nor Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz attend the TCA’s annual conference, but you’d be hard-pressed to demonstrate that it has a negative impact on their criticism. The reason seems simpler: Alessandra Stanley just doesn’t seem to like TV very much. It’s often a critic’s duty to find fault — to, you know, criticize — but that fault-finding has to come from a sense of potential: You criticize because you want things to be better, because you’re invested in a medium’s potential and disappointed when it’s squandered. I feel the same way about criticism, which is why I wish the New York Times would find and employ any of the dozens, even hundreds, of smart TV critics in the world and make the Times’ TV criticism as great as it should be.