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TV critics (like me) who resort to clichés should ease up on the trite stuff

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Recently, I was extremely tempted to use the phrase “stick the landing” in a review.

It’s frequently employed in TV criticism in terms of endings — as in, did the show in question stick the landing and satisfyingly complete the story line in the finale. When I come across it in TV reviews, I cringe a little, because it has become a cliché. It’s certainly an accurate series metaphor — the athlete, too, starts off, flies, and tries to finish the feat properly — but I’ve seen too much of it. Still, there I was, wanting to use it, trying to justify using it despite my aversion to it.


There are a bunch of words and phrases that are fairly exhausted in TV criticism, and, reader, I have often succumbed. (Oops, there’s another one.) I tend to lean hard on the words “narrative,” “arc,” and “trope,” for example, despite their overuse. Early on in my TV writing career, I liked to find words that seemed reserved for literary criticism, as a way to indicate that I was taking the fast-improving medium seriously. Post-2000 TV storytelling deserved to be analyzed with a scholarly affect, I thought.

But at this point, those words have lost their weight with overuse. The bulk of online TV critics these days use them as much as if not more than I do, especially the ones who write a bit like bright PhD students, their reviews like miniature dissertations. But yeah, that’s not going to stop me; I still employ the words on a regular basis; they’re embedded in my critical vocabulary at this point, and that’s that. I need them like I need “like” and “need.”

“Backstory” is another too-common word — I believe it found its way into critical vogue during the run of “Lost,” which featured one elaborate backstory per episode. But it serves a valuable purpose, despite its overuse, and, when I flash-forward (another “Lost” word) to my future reviews, I can see that I will continue to use it without self-reproach.


Most stock critical phrases are less academically tinged and less efficient than “narrative” and “arc” — I’m thinking of those in the “laugh riot” family. There are times when I actually deploy “laughed out loud,” arguably the mother of all critical banalities, and I continue to see it in some of the most elegantly written reviews out there. I only use it when it is a fact — when I have actually sat laughing out loud while watching. But there it is, in all its boilerplate hideousness.

Another go-to term, “hypnotic,” has no true basis in fact; no show, not even “Breaking Bad” or the 10-hour fireplace video, has managed to hypnotize me. I have, however, been “mesmerized” and “captivated” by a show, and will continue to use those words without shame. “Riveting”? “Compelling”? “Fascinating”? “Haunting”? They’re the same kinds of mildewed adjectives, but, no, no, I don’t think I can quit them.

I’ve learned to dodge certain constructions, finally, after abusing them for years. I no longer say a show is “X meets Y” or “X meets Y with a little bit of Z thrown in” without thinking twice. But many critics rely on that kind of secondhand description. The temptation to go there, to describe by using references, is great, and I occasionally cave — but it’s usually a bit of a cheat. It’s a shorthand approach, and it assumes a lot about the reader’s body of TV knowledge. Yes, “Ozark” is “Breaking Bad” meets “Justified,” in a way — but it’s also its own thing, and it merits descriptions that honor its individuality.


Likewise, I work to avoid saying that a show is “X on acid,” or “Y after a bottle of scotch,” or “Z on crack.” It’s not because using the terms makes me seem like a druggie who knows the specific effects of every substance available. It’s because the phrasing has been done to death (another one!), and because it has always been a stretch since, TV shows can’t ingest and get off on drugs since they aren’t people.

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not include the aside “I’m looking at you, ____,” locution, which needs to disappear from all critical writing for the rest of forever. It’s a phrase that drags the narrative arc of a review into the ground, like criticism on a bad acid trip, so that, ultimately, sadly, the review will not stick the landing.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.