Call me short-sighted, but I don’t understand academic-level television criticism. I’m not saying it’s not interesting or it doesn’t stem from accurate—and often passionate—viewing; what I mean is you can bring to the table all the readings, all the theories, all the analogies you want, but if you lack a solid analytical method, it will show. And it will make your argument moot—academic, as they say.1
No worries, I won’t start praising the many wonders of the semiotic method. Mostly because there is no single semiotic method, and semiotics itself has been plagued by its conflicting internal currents. But what semiotics has is a clear goal that goes beyond the idea of saying why a show is good (says who?), or why it works (for whom?). Answers to questions like these are most often subjective (as are the canons they perpetuate) and, as such, easily dismantled, with the danger of using only the readings, the theories and the analogies that work toward one’s specific goal. That’s politics, not academia.
What comes to my mind is one bit of criticism I once read about Scrubs (and I’m glad this is not an academic paper, since I’ve clearly lost track of where I read it. But I’ll be back with the reference as soon as I find it), according to which the show is bad because it’s supposedly badly written and the characters are childish and cartoonlike. I don’t think the “badly written” part can be applied indiscriminately (I maintain the first five seasons were particularly brilliant), as even shows that have the best writers and overall the best writing suffer from occasional lacks of tension (let’s not start enumerating all the episodes of Lost that were totally botched in this respect).
But what bothers me (and almost hurts me) the most is that this idea of the characters being childish and cartoonlike could possibly ever be considered a valid criterion by which to judge how good (or how bad) a television show is. As if these two qualities were attained completely by mistake, and were never part of the original discursive plan of the show. Claiming that would be disingenuous at best. You can say you don’t like characters being that way, and I accept it, but your criticism must stop there. Don’t insist the writing was bad just because the characters were written as cartoonlike, since that had been the goal all along.
(Of course, it’s always easy to slip into gratuitous criticism when we talk about shows we don’t like. Just ask me what I think of Glee and see how critical I become.)
Here’s the gift semiotics brings: it takes into account initial conditions such as the ones I mentioned above, and doesn’t ask why a show works the way it does; rather, it asks how it works, how it produces meaning (and of course what kinds of meanings it produces), how—to put it simply and in a slightly non-semiotic way—it talks to its audience. After these questions have been answered, criticism can step in, if necessary, and evaluate how well the job was done. The judgment will, once again, be subjective, but at least it will be based on some accurate analytical activity.