Four Great Ongoing Critiques

As they say, everybody’s a critic. As they should say immediately afterward, “Not everybody’s good at it, but there you go.”

Criticism is difficult to perform intelligently. I should know; I’m a particularly shitty critic myself. But every so often some anonymous stranger on the internet says something that — against all odds — turns out to be extremely insightful. From there, a great series of ongoing criticism can be born, and I wanted to take some time to share with you four of my absolute favorites.

This is not just a list of links…these are sincerely fantastic critical explorations that I endorse wholeheartedly.

1) Fred Clark’s Dissections of the Left Behind series.

For the past nine years (incredible but true) Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been analyzing page by agonizing page the entirety of the Left Behind series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, here it is in a nutshell: God loves me, but not you. Fred, being a religious man himself, is appalled by the many levels of spiritual, literary and humanitarian stupidity on display in these pages, and he pulls them apart gorgeously. It’s a discussion about bad writing, yes, but it’s also a learning experience. I challenge any writer to come away from this series without being significantly more aware of the mistakes he or she is already making. You can check out his archive starting here, but many of the posts have annoyingly gone missing thanks to a change in URL. Regardless, he’s only recently begun the third book in the series, Nicolae, Rise of the Antichrist, and you can read these posts as they go up…which is the best way to enjoy them. First post here.

2) Dead Homer Society’s Discussions of Modern Simpsons.
We can argue all day about when The Simpsons officially became a shadow of its former self, but there’s really no arguing against the fact that it is a shadow of its former self. Dead Homer Society offers a shockingly sharp look at the current state of the show, with every new episode handled over at least four posts: a preview, a next-day recap, a feature that compares and contrasts it with an episode from the show’s golden years, and a transcript of a live chat discussing all aspects of the episode. It’s a surprisingly respectful way of conversing about a show that so clearly disappoints them in every way, and it makes for fascinating reading. Or, at least, it did. Yes, for Season 24 Dead Homer Society will be scaling back coverage, which is disappointing…but they will still be in operation, and — likely — just as worthy of your and my time. They’ve also released a fantastic new ebook called Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead that you can buy from Amazon or read for free here.

3) ProtonJon’s “Let’s Play Superman 64.”
The Let’s Play is a strange beast. I’ve recorded some myself, but even so I can’t say that I’m sure why people want to watch as somebody else plays video games for them. ProtonJon’s brilliantly exhaustive trek through Superman 64, however, is a glorious exception to a tedious norm. Two years into the project and with only 6 stages under his belt, it’s clear that ProtonJon has a lot to say. He spotlights glitches from the games, discusses characters both inside and outside of their roles in this adventure, and generally goes out of his way to provide fascinating — and sometimes exclusive — information along the way. Superman 64 is widely reviled as one of the worst video games of all time…and rightly so. ProtonJon can’t — and won’t — defend the game on its merits…but he sure does have a lot of fun pulling it apart to learn everything he can about the many, many ways in which it went wrong. From interviewing the developers to playing it alongside other Superman games to comparing it to unreleased beta footage, ProtonJon has taken an effortless YouTube staple and elevated it to the status of genuine — and remarkable — documentary. Tune in.

4) The Annotated Sonichu.
From the moment I started this site, I wanted to do a Noiseless Chatter Spotlight on Sonichu, the addictively weird creation of Christian Weston Chandler…also known as Chris-Chan. Sonichu himself is an unabashed hybrid of Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, and Chandler’s comic is meant to follow him along on his exciting adventures. Instead, though, the comic sidelines Sonichu in favor of Chandler himself, who appears on the page — as he does in real life — as a man searching for love, and unable to grasp why he hasn’t found it already. Its childish art style and bizarre narrative flow make for an easy mockery, but The Annotated Sonichu takes its source material seriously, and discusses page by page the many direct carryovers from Chandler’s personal life that shape and enrich CWCville, the town in which Sonichu takes place. Family members, friends, his dead dog and strangers online who pretend to be females interested in him all make their way into the comic at some point, where Chandler uses his narrative authority to cope with them in the only way he knows how: with Crayola markers. Truly fascinating, and an unexpectedly respectful deconstruction.

Kid Icarus: Irony Uprising

I picked up Kid Icarus: Uprising this Friday, its day of release. I’ve pre-ordered games before so there’s nothing special about my immediate purchase, but I do think it’s worth pointing out just how promising the game looked. For starters, it’s the first entry in a long-dead — but classic — franchise in twenty years or so. That’s enough to at least get me interested. Then the advertising materials started to surface, followed eventually by reviews, and everything seemed…well, everything seemed pretty perfect. It looked like a strong title and a safe bet, so I pre-ordered it…and I love it. It’s great. It exceeded more or less every expectation I had, and my expectations were pretty high.

But there’s one issue I do have with the game. Not a problem, but an issue.

See, the game is self-aware. And while this is not an issue exclusive to Kid Icarus: Uprising, the fact that even tried and true Nintendo franchises are becoming self-aware is really making me think that this self-awareness thing has gone too far.

By self-aware, I mean that the characters know they are in a video game. They keep referring to not having been around for twenty-odd years, they crack jokes about how — in previous installments — the gorgeous environments and characters we see now were much more pixilated, and they josh around regarding video gaming tropes, commenting ironically on characters who have titles like “Dark Lord” and writing off Pitt’s flight limitations as being a result of “poor fuel efficiency.”

Whether you find these jokes funny or not is beside the point. I haven’t found many of them funny, but that’s okay. Unlike Skyward Sword, you don’t have to stop and sit quietly while a group of moronic NPCs crack wise around you; this all happens in the background, as you play, and it’s easy to tune out if you’re not interested. Also unlike Skyward Sword the tutorial is skippable and doesn’t eat up the first six fucking hours of the God damned game but okay, okay, that’s a rant for another time, so back to the issue at hand.

My issue is that we, as a culture, have gotten to the point that this sort of ironic self-awareness, this postmodern acknowledgment of a product’s own shortcomings, this sidelong smirking at the audience to make us feel like we’re all part of one big in-joke, is kind of destroying entertainment.

It’s everywhere. My girlfriend and I discussed this recently when I was describing some Adult Swim show to her. (The fact that I can’t remember which one says something in itself.) I was talking about how it’s sort of an ironic undercutting of some genre or other, and she asked, “Aren’t they all like that?” And she’s right, more or less. An enormous portion of Adult Swim’s original programs are ironic undercuttings of established genres, which tap into our expectations and then — humorously — stopping short of their fulfillment. I’m happy enough, though, that Adult Swim does that. I’m not upset that so much of their original material trods the same ground. (Or, at least, approaches an audience with the same intent.) We need an Adult Swim that we can turn to, somewhere. What I’m upset about is that this self-aware game of pulling the audience’s expectations apart like taffy is infiltrating the mainstream. That’s destructive.

It’s destructive because it consumes itself. In order for expectations to be undercut, we need to have expectations. In order for us to have expectations, there need to be certain reliable tropes and facets of genre and type. Without that, the ironic commenting can’t exist. Or, at least, it can’t have any impact. When everything’s ironic, can there be any more irony? We need sincerity, too. We can’t have every piece of entertainment commenting humorously about its limitations. We can’t have otherwise straight dramatic films mentioning that their villains can’t shoot straight, or saying things like “Of course we’ll be okay; we’re the main characters.” We can’t have every commercial joking about how it wants to sell us something. And we can’t have video games making fun of what makes them video games.

At least, we can’t have that stuff all the time. And I honestly don’t think I’ve seen much, lately, whether comic or dramatic, that didn’t feel obligated to toss some broad wink at the audience. It’s not funny anymore. It’s not interesting anymore. Or, at least, you aren’t doing anything interesting with it. We don’t want you to be part of our in-joke…that defeats the purpose of it being an in-joke. When we watch a terrible movie and we laugh at it, that bonds us as an audience. When we watch a terrible movie and the movie laughs at itself for being terrible, it’s over. There is no bond…it’s just out of place and annoying, like a seventh grade teacher quoting Beavis and Butt-Head to try to find common ground with his students. It doesn’t bridge any gaps…if anything, it just encourages us to push things further away.

I like you, Kid Icarus: Uprising. I think you’re a great game. You’re a lot of fun, you look beautiful, and you’re already enticing me to replay earlier levels with a more difficult setting. You’re everything a game needs to be. You don’t need to be my ironic, smirking friend. That’s not what I want from you. That’s not the kind of bond I’d hoped we’d achieve.

You don’t need to tell me how silly and contrived things are about the story you’re telling. Because you know what, Kid Icarus: Uprising? If you really feel your story is contrived, then maybe you should have told a different one. Hanging a lampshade on these shortcomings is a way of humorously drawing attention to them, but it’s not an excuse. If I have some problem with the story, I get to laugh at it. That’s my right as an audience member. If you have a problem with the story, you need to fix it. It’s the only respectable thing to do.

I know your story is about an angel fighting mythical Greek monsters. I know that. I know it’s stupid. I know it’s absurd. But it’s a video game. By commenting on yourself ironically, you’re not endearing yourself to me; you’re only robbing me of the opportunity to enjoy the story in my own way. You may not guide the gameplay as much as Skyward Sword, but you sure are leading my interpretation by the neck.

Let us enjoy whatever story it is you have to offer. Video game, television show, film, novel, commercial, song…anything. Write a few sincere pieces. Reinforce some genre conventions. Stop tearing away at what’s established; that is not constructive. Build upon it. Learn from it. Grow stronger.

Because until you start doing that again, there won’t be anything sincere left to comment upon. The ironic outlook is self-defeating the moment it becomes universal. In fact, at this rate, it won’t be long before a genuinely sincere work of art would look like an ironic undercutting, simply because it adheres to conventions without wanting to make us laugh at them.

And that, my friends, is irony.

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