I know there’s probably not much audience for it, in part because it wouldn’t provide a lot of take-fodder, but I would love to see more TV and film criticism that didn’t hold the critiqued object up to an ultimately arbitrary standard and find it lacking. I feel like in every TV or film article I read, there’s a moment when the author “turns the corner” and expresses their disappointment that the work didn’t do something they wish it had done, either aesthetically or (especially annoying) politically. There seems to be a lack of clarity about what we actually expect a show or film to do. Do we want it to mirror our political views? But why do we need that? Do we expect it to educate other people in our political views? But why would the producers want to do that?
This really came to a head for me when Mad Men was on the air, and after a certain point, no one was talking about what the show was actually doing, only what they wished it would do. Why should anyone care what a random critic would do if they were in charge of the show? The one exception to this trend was a blog that did this amazing close reading of the wardrobe choices in Mad Men — what they would have signalled in that historical moment, what symbolism (e.g., color patterns) are emerging, etc. I felt like I actually learned something. Is Mad Men a perfect show with perfect politics? No. Did they always make the best possible decisions in terms of plot or emphasis? Obviously not. But it is extremely artfully planned and produced, and criticism that brought that to the fore was much more satisfying to me.
This style of criticism is somehow most exhausting to me when it comes from very smart people I respect. Take, for instance, Aaron Bady’s characteristically lengthy critique of HBO’s Watchmen, which presents the series as a series of missed opportunities. Angela and Lady Trieu should have teamed up to overthrow American white supremacist imperialism! The show somehow should have incorporated climate change even though it takes place in a world where that problem has been solved! And what’s most tragic is that the show was so close to fulfilling Aaron’s demands! (He is self-aware enough to be self-deprecating in the article itself about his tendency to read everything through the lens of climate change, so hopefully he won’t mind if I poke fun a little here.)
More interesting is his claim that the HBO series does not live up to the vision of the original Watchmen, but it is here that his extrinsic demand that the series must usher in a post-imperial utopia and solve climate change comes into conflict with his loyalty to the original text. Where is this series more faithful to Alan Moore’s cynical anarchism than in its profound distrust of Lady Trieu’s claim that she will use the Dr. Manhattan powers for good? And should we really be rooting for her to use her obsessive emulation of one white patriarch (Adrian Veidt) to seize the powers of another (Dr. Manhattan)? By the same token, what if Angela’s lack of agency once Dr. Manhattan comes on the scene is not a “disappointment” — similar to how Mad Men really should have put Peggy in charge, damn it! — but the point itself? And what if Angela’s decision to eat the egg that will purportedly grant her the Dr. Manhattan powers is tragic, just as Moore clearly presents the origin of Dr. Manhattan as a trauma and a tragedy?
Rereading the original comic in light of the new show, I was struck by how deep the adaptation goes, not just on the level of plot but in terms of the story-telling style. Each episode feels almost like an issue of the comic, cmost of which focus on a particular character or relationship. Clearly Damon Lindelof has thought about how Watchmen works, not just on the level of plot but on that of technique. He is no JJ Abrams thoughtlessly shunting a beloved property into a blockbuster formula — by his own account, he has immersed himself in the text for basically his entire life, and he has turned down previous opportunities to work with Watchmen. Indeed, on my copy of the graphic novel, he has a blurb declaring it the greatest work of popular fiction ever.
With this in mind, I think it is worth pointing out a parallel between the endings of the comics and the series. In the original, we see the editor of the slush-pile at the right-wing conspiracy rag discovering Rorschach’s journal — in other words, finding the ticking timebomb that can undo the fragile peace that Veidt’s squid attack has created. In the adaptation, we see Angela finding the one unbroken egg that will (perhaps) give her the powers of her ex-lover. If we take for granted that a writer and director who is deeply immersed in his source materials would make such parallels intentionally, then I think we must see a parallel between the squid attack and the destruction of Dr. Manhattan. Both are necessary to secure peace, and that’s why Veidt can finally be held accountable for his crimes, by the very woman who went along with the scheme originally. After all, Veidt’s calcluation is not simply that the Cold War stand-off as we know it will inevitably lead to nuclear holocaust — it’s that the standoff as destabilized by Dr. Manhattan will. For all the miracles Dr. Manhattan produces, that power ultimately cannot be used for good. It must be abolished. That is what Lady Trieu has inadvertantly accomplished, and what Angela threatens to undo.
Is this Lindelhof’s intention, or that of the writer’s room? I guess we could ask them, but I honestly don’t care what they would say, because the text they have actually produced does allow for this reading — as well as the more straightforward one (which I spontaneously adopted on my first viewing) that it’s good for a black woman to take up the power that Dr. Manhattan “wasted,” and indeed preferable over the plans of a “self-made” megalomaniac trillionaire. Yet I couldn’t quite land on that reading, couldn’t quite accept why it was supposed to be so obvious that Lady Trieu must be stopped — any more than I could accept that our heroes (sans Rorschach) were right to go along with Veidt’s scheme in the original. And this brings us to Aaron’s lament that Angela and Lady Trieu couldn’t find a Fanon-style racial solidarity against US imperialism. Again, I think this “failure” is a feature not a bug. They can’t find solidarity because Angela is a cop and Lady Trieu is a trillionaire.
Another way of putting this is that they can’t unite to fight white supremacy (as a structure, rather than an ensemble of nameable and killable individuals) because they both buy into the white patriarchal figure of the superhero/cop. Lady Trieu clearly believes that she has inherited Veidt’s genius — whether or not the show wants us to believe she “really” has — and Angela clearly believes that US imperialism is justified, hence why she can take up with Dr. Manhattan, literally in Vietnam. The show lampshades the fact that Dr. Manhattan is walking around in blackface, but within the frame of the show itself, why would Angela allow it? The same reason she can be a cop, and the same reason she’s ashamed that she’s taken reparations — because she has internalized white standards. And perhaps the show is suggesting that the very figure that Dr. Manhattan becomes — the perfect responsible black father, with no memory — is ultimately a white fantasy as well.
None of this is to say that Aaron’s reading is necessarily wrong or implausible — just that it’s not the only thing that’s going on. If I’m pushing an overly “optimistic” reading, it’s more to highlight the artfully constructed ambivalence of the text. And if that ambivalence seems to center on the political stakes of a text, then maybe that’s because we’re dealing with a capitalist product here and there are intrinsic limits, not just to what the people with the money will allow, but to what is even thinkable within the terms of capitalist ideology, even by the most skilled and thoughtful artists (or critics). This is something that we should probably take for granted as a premise of our criticism, instead of laboriously rediscovering it again and again — each time with fresh disappointment.