Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Web is Alive with a Difference of Opinion

Ever since NBC broadcast its grand experiment “The Sound of Music Live”, the Internet has been abuzz with both the naysayers and those who have embraced the production as a new holiday monument. It is the most polarizing TV event I can remember in recent years. Initially, I had no plans to cover it on this blog, but when I found myself catching about half of it during the live broadcast and with the strong immediate reaction audiences were having toward it, I felt I had to weigh in, for my own sake if no one else’s.

Since I posted my negative review, which did not pull punches about my opinion on Carrie Underwood’s performance as the iconic character of Maria Von Trapp, I’ve seen a great many of my friends post reproaches against the negative reception of Underwood. One particular post that was written by one of the many who took to Twitter to bash Underwood live during the broadcast contained an about face of her negative views of the production and compared the critical hazing of Underwood to cyber bullying.

This notion of going too far with negative comments is something I struggle with as a critic, but there is a difference between bullying and criticism. I've been there as an actor, and for many years I never mentioned a word about acting in my criticism. Then I realized I wasn't being fair to everybody involved with a production by criticizing the direction, the writing, the scoring, the editing, the production design, the costuming, but never the performances. Much of what occurred on Twitter and Facebook in conjunction with the live production of “The Sound of Music” was bitter and mean and disrespectful. Most of it was directed at Underwood. That may just be one of the new hurdles that a live performer on such a large-scale production must face. This twitter mindset isn't going away anytime soon.

When I blogged about the production on my site, I designated it under my Penny Thoughts, which aren't necessarily fully realized reviews of the productions but contain thoughts that occur to me because of them. I laid into Carrie Underwood's performance pretty hard, accusing her of attending the "Wooden School of Acting". My criticism of her acting was not personal, but a genuine impression of it. I wish I had written an outright review, because I would have elaborated on my opinion more fully. I would not suggest that she couldn't act, but rather express that I didn't feel she was right for the role of Maria, who should be a lively soul that has magic about her that appeals to children and grows on adults. I did praise Underwood's singing because of how expressive she was during the songs, but her spoken dialogue just didn't have the same life to it.

Perhaps my choice of phrasing in the article was not the most delicate, but even writing criticism requires an art to it—as does bullying—in order to be any good at it. Like genius and insanity, there is a fine line between criticism and cruelty. I think when we get too sensitive about the way people take things on a personal level, we run the danger of creating a society unable to cope with adversity. This makes us vulnerable to people without sympathy for others, like bullies. Ironically, it was only a couple of weeks ago that I was arguing the other side of this issue when a professional film journalist took a cheap shot at Justin Timberlake’s career.

While I don't condone much of what occurred in the name of the new social media that night, it's important that we don't forget the value of constructive criticism. My blog was the victim of what I call a "comment drive by" because of the views I expressed about Underwood and the production in general. I wouldn't have categorized the comment as bullying, but it had a distinct lack of thoughtfulness to it that seems to drive much of the bullying nature of what can be found in our new social media culture. I don't pretend that my opinion is the "correct" one. I'm merely expressing my own thoughts on something many people experienced.

The fact is, however, that no artistic endeavor is perfect. The purpose of the critic is to help people understand their own perceptions of art and help mold a culture that hopefully demands a higher standard to the art we consume. Certainly acting was not NBC's only consideration when they cast Underwood, who was virtually untested as an actor. Considering that, she did do a remarkable job, but there were many other known names they could've cast in the part. Some surely even turned down the role before they settled on Underwood.

The choice to cast Underwood certainly had a major business angle to it. It cannot be coincidence that this production falls during the same season in which Underwood took over the long held NBC Sunday Night Football theme from Faith Hill. Any artist knows that when business is put ahead of art, the results are not always desirable. This is what NBC did, and it paid off on a business level with a staggering 38 million viewers for the network. The artistic response was a bit more divided. It's these love it or hate it responses that get people heated up enough to lose their cool about them. This tends to be when we all seem to circle our wagons and treat any difference of opinion as a personal attack.

NBC will be re-airing the production this coming Saturday. It will be interesting to see if anyone is willing to have a second thought about his or her opinion on the show. As it won’t be live, the vitriol from both sides will surely be a little more muted now that there is no longer the opportunity to be the first with a clever remark about one aspect or another. I do hope that NBC rolls the success of this production into an annual or even more frequent return to the format with other classic plays and musicals. It’s a wonderful opportunity to expose a great many people to genuine American culture. However, just because it’s a great idea and a great deal of hard work, that doesn’t mean its existence alone will prove it as great art.

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