Critics, They’re Just Like You and Me

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read

There has been something gnawing at me since the launch of Apple TV+, and that’s the general frustration some people have with “critics.” This sort of disconnect is perpetuated by sites like Rotten Tomatoes which condenses critical and user perception to single numbers. So for example, The Morning Show has a 63% score from the critics (aka 63% of critics, or two out of three, recommend the show) and it has an “audience score” of 94%. We see similar things from the latst Star Wars film (54% from critics, 86% from the audience) and Ad Astra (84% from critics, 40% from the audience).

Some take this as proof that critics are out of touch with what people actually like and that their opinions are unimportant. As someone who cares deeply about film and criticism (I literally went to school for this stuff) I think it’s important to recognize that criticism is not a couple things.

  1. Criticism should not stop you from enjoying what you like. Good criticism explains a work of art in the context in which it was made and how it compares to its peers.
  2. Criticism is personal. Like the last point, criticism is an expression of someone’s personal feelings about something, not a universal truth they are trying to impart on the read. They’d love it if they could convince you, but criticism is not invalid if it disagrees with you or another critic.
  3. Criticism is not just a score. Scores are put on many reviews because people want that, but criticism lives in the explanation, not the score.
  4. Criticism is not just an elite way to hate something; people who do this love what they’re criticizing, otherwise it would be a pretty shitty job.

Also inserting here that audience scores are prone to review bombing in some cases as well, as a small group can wreck the audience score for something because of something unrelated to the quality of the media itself. Critics are not immune to the pile-on mentality, but I think it’s far more rare.

Additionally, I’d like to criticism of media in a context more in line with the world of tech punditry and bloggers.

Let’s look at The Sweet Setup, a site that is well respected in the iOS community and makes their picks for the best apps for all sorts of things. They say Tweetbot is the best Twitter app, iBooks is the best reading app, Things is the best task manager, and Bear is the best notes app, yet if I asked “the audience” what their favorite apps were, I bet we’d hear Twitter, Kindle, Reminders, and Notes.

Or how about 1Password, a password management service that I and The Sweet Setup agree is the best option for Apple users. My wife begrudgingly uses it sometimes because I insist on it. She’d much rather use Chrome’s password syncing or Safari’s. 1Password is a wild pain in her ass, despite me, app critics in general, and probably you agreeing that it’s one of the best options out there, and certainly better than the built in browser options. Are we, the critics, wrong because the audience prefers something else? Is Chrome’s password management better than 1Password because more people use it? Because more “normal” people like it?

I don’t think so, and I suspect you agree. If we bring this back to media criticism, hopefully we can agree that the situation is not that different after all.

Film critics see more movies than the average person. Tech pundits use more apps, especially third party apps than the average person.

Film critics are enticed by movies that do something new and interesting, that move the medium forward. Tech pundits do the same.

Film critics can spend thousands of words explaining why they love something even though wider audiences don’t seem to care. You see where I’m going…

So when someone says “isn’t it interesting how critics and audiences are out of sync on this?” I don’t find it particularly surprising. It might be interesting to understand why audiences and critics have differing feelings about a film, show, or game, but I don’t think that a delta between the two implies critics are out of touch.

Oh, and for the love of god, read critics’ words before getting upset about an aggregate score.