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Don't read the reviews

The critic speaks

The Rings of Power has wrapped up its first season and my friends are sharing their joy with one another. They’ve longed to return to Middle Earth for years, and the show’s aesthetic and simple good vs evil are a welcome change from the grimdark that pervades fantasy in the twenty-first century.

So it came as a shock when a review in the Guardian dropped with the title, “Now it’s over, let’s come out and say it: The Rings of Power was a stinker”.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

There has long been an adage online which springs immediately to mind: Don’t read the comments. The internet is filled with vitriol oozing from every pore and comments are the zits ready to pop.

But what about a critic review? That’s clearly not the same thing as the ravings of the masses, right?

What is a review?

Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves for a definition of a review. Is it really so different from an internet comment? Is it more than a random opinion?

Queen’s University Library has this to say:

[…] reviews are written for the general public by usually journalists or other non-academics and appear in newspapers, magazines or online around the time the [work] is released […]. Their purpose is to describe the plot, characters, director, etc in order to help determine whether or not a [work] should be seen.

What I like most about this definition is the given purpose. This is not just an opinion by a journalist or non-academic, but a work intended to inform, and in some cases, persuade a reader whether to watch or read something.

To be informed

Do we need to be informed? Do we need to be persuaded?

If we’re about to go to see a film in a theater where we will spend up to $20 on a ticket and take out a small loan to afford popcorn and a drink, well then having some guidance seems warranted. In theory, reading a review could save you a lot of time and money.

But what about a TV show on a streaming service you already have access to? What are we saving now? Time, surely. Spend an hour watching the pilot or spend a few minutes reading an opinion in the paper. Or more accurately, spend 10 minutes trying out that new show before deciding to abandon it or not… The choice is yours!

What about my opinion?

Except the decision isn’t as binary as that. We have to assume that the critic gets it right or the math no longer works. We have many historical examples where all the major critics misjudged a film, loving it when audiences panned it, or shunning it before it turned out to be The Shining, or Psycho, or Predator, or Scarface. (Yes, all had terrible critical reviews at release).

If we look at reviewers individually and not as a whole the norm is to find critics with differing opinions. Did you trust the right opinion? The worst film you’ve ever seen? Someone liked it.

And what if, by some miracle, you are the odd-man-out? What if you enjoy something that most others didn’t? Take a thought for just a moment and you’ll come up with your own example of something that’s a “guilty pleasure” or that you cherish despite the criticism. What if you had listened to a reviewer and never experienced it? What would you have lost? How much greater is that loss than the time given to trying it?

Not worth the time

The cost-benefit analysis of reviews doesn’t add up. Taking for granted that the writing is genuine and not designed to score mass readership through hot takes and a clickbait title, the chances of a review accurately representing the opinion you yourself will have after watching or reading something isn’t high enough.

Conversely, reading something in advance risks undermining your ability to fully enjoy the work. It could contain spoilers, directly undermining a great reveal like in Fight Club or the Sixth Sense. It could spell out something explicitly we are meant to have held in suspense until later. All too often these reviews lose the focus of their purpose and treat their task as if they are meant to dissect and disassemble rather than inform. They want to enter the realm of criticism rather than review.

Queen’s University Library describes criticism thusly:

[…] criticism is the study, interpretation and evaluation of a [work] with regard to issues such as historical context, theory or technical analysis. […] criticism is written by academics and is published in books or scholarly journals. It may sometimes address a specific aspect of a [work] or focus on the work of a particular director or genre. Critical reviews may be published many years after a [work] is released.

Clearly the reviewer of The Rings of Power wanted very much to be doing this task instead, but without the rigor of scientific scrutiny, peer-review, or publisher validation.

Ignorance is bliss

I don’t believe we have a need to engage with reviews. Entering a viewing experience ignorant of the details offers you the unique experience of seeing something for the first time without bias. You can never experience this again. You can’t unlearn what you have learned, unspoil the big surprise, and you cannot shake the voice of criticism you read before sitting in front of your screen. It will be there whispering in your ear telling you that the accent isn’t very good, or these set pieces aren’t accurate to the time period.

What does this bring you? You will not enjoy a film or TV show more if you had read that review first. But you might enjoy it less.

And if you really enjoyed the show you just watched, why would you open up that experience to being undermined? Take your bliss, enjoy it, and go watch something else instead. Let the vitriol of reviewers go. Be at peace.

Photo by Aleksandra Sapozhnikova

Photo by Aleksandra Sapozhnikova