Alessandra Stanley and the Diminishment of Criticism

exclusive look at TV Twitter finding out that Alessandra Stanley is no longer the NYT TV critic

— Bertrand Hustle (@EricThurm) June 24, 2015

Over the years, I can think of no person that New York readers of the New York Times wanted replaced more than Alessandra Stanley — besides, of course, her friend Maureen Dowd. The difference is, they were wrong about Dowd.

Announced today, Stanley’s departure — she has held the post since, as near as the Internet can tell, January of 2003, although she wrote about TV in 2002 — is overdue. I suspect the Times kept her on this long just to look like they weren’t bowing to bloggers and those oh-so-important users of Twitter who like to discuss how much they hate her work. But Stanley’s recent work exhibits that she’s surely stayed on past multiple cycles of burnout. Her reviews of two very thoughtful and unusual new TV shows — Mr. Robot and Sense8 — were neither revelatory nor inaccurate but were more like flicks of some big cat’s lazy tail on a hot day. There are at this point hundreds of these place-filling stories in the archives of the paper. They are a far cry from her earlier work, like the 2003 review of Jimmy Kimmel’s show, which begins: “It would be unconscionable to judge ABC’s new late-night talk show, ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ after one week. Two nights are plenty.” Now you will be lucky to get an inspired sentence or two.

But how could she do more? The practice of endless criticism is terrible! I would look at my TV in terror after just six months. But the times (lower-case) made it all much worse, because Stanley’s career as chief TV critic overlapped almost completely with the existence of Gawker. (If Gawker goes out of business next month, it’ll be the neatest narrative coincidence ever.) Stanley was the site’s perfect hometown enemy; perhaps she still is today. Stanley was elected — although it might be fair to say that she volunteered — as a symbol of a generation of aging, phoning-it-in journalists of power who suffered no public consequences for inaccuracy or badness, even while their good work went unremarked upon. These were people who thought the Internet was beneath them. Dowd, and Dowd and Stanley’s friend Michiko Kakutani, have also gotten a similar treatment — How dare this woman step all over the Clintons? and How dare this woman step all over this nice man’s book? — and there’s several good grad school theses about this and them and how they’re all women and etc. But then, do people treat Roberta Smith or Manohla Dargis like that? I don’t really think they do, although I can’t remember the last time I saw either of them pick up a big correction. What’s more, plenty of women have expressed vivid hatred of the work of Stanley anyway; certainly more than a few Times employees have openly expressed astonishment at the longevity of Stanley in this role.

The Alessandra Stanley announcement reads like when you take your boo’s phone and tweet nice things about yourself from their account.

— Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLemieux) June 24, 2015

Critics of the Times were never safe from criticism, to be sure. There was no better time, back in some misty day. “The nicest mail was from people who wrote as though they thought I was having a hard time,” Renata Adler wrote of reader input during her brief stint as the Times film critic. But being Gawker’s favorite punching bag must have been extra-tiresome.

Because, you know, what power did they have really? Just how far up were any of us punching? So Kakutani and Stanley work at a well-known newspaper. Big whoop. It didn’t turn out to be such a big deal. At this point, salaries, benefits and job security may very well be better at Gawker than they are for many at the Times. At the same time, over these dozen years, agents and writers alike have largely stopped reading the daily book reviews. Producers and publicists don’t read the TV and film reviews as they used to. Mega-dealer David Zwirner is not springing from his bed at dawn on Fridays to check the weekly art exhibition reviews. They do not make or break artists as they once did. These are not the days of Frank Rich closing down Broadway productions with 800 words of copy.

The paper’s criticism is valuable, but the critics — maybe the institution at large? — lack both the vitality and the influence that they (it?) enjoyed. I have always believed, rightly or wrongly, that the longevity of critics’ tenures is what is responsible for the dimming of the former. The paper, too, is afraid to inflame. The copy desk and the bench of editors, even as the paper changes and loosens, still will not tolerate crudeness, lewdness, and sternness. They do not often tolerate ferocity.

Stanley’s role as TV critic wasn’t really ever even a good match. The department kept her sharpest claws filed down. She could rarely be naturally rancorous in a fun way. She was ripe for misunderstanding. Her tone ruffled TV enthusiasts and industry people alike. Her new beat, covering the very rich, is at last, an impeccable match. It’ll be a treat for everyone. The more disastrous it might be, even, the better for all of us. This is the very definition of going big or going home. How great.

The thing is, I trust in Alessandra Stanley SO MUCH that I’m sure she’ll have us all feeling sorry for the 1% in a few months

— Ira Madison III (@irathethird) June 24, 2015

And it’s terrific to breathe a bit of air into the department of critics. Critics are long-serving, and they are uniform as hell. Other departments are also getting a slow and deliberate shake-up. It’s needed. But nothing will meet with as much celebration as the departure of Stanley. Except… who will we kick around now? Oh don’t be silly, we’ll find someone!