Friday, February 3, 2017

Hate-Reading Reviews

I spend most of my blogging energy on reviewing ponyfics, but sometimes I like to talk about other things.  But nothing too far removed from what is apparently my core competency--mostly, I talk about things that at least tangentially touch up against reviewing and/or fanfiction.

Such is the case today, when I'm going to talk about deliberately subjecting yourself to reviews which you know you'll disagree with!  Head down below the break for my thoughts on why we do, and why it's okay.

There's a show I've been enjoying for the last few months called Son of Zorn.  If you haven't seen it, it's a Rodger Rabbit-style (visually speaking, anyway) mix of cartoon and live action, the premise being that Zorn--basically He-Man, but a murderous asshole--has come to Orange County from his animated land of Zephyria to be closer to his teenage son.  And, by proxy, Zorn also has to deal with his ex-wife, her new fiance, the perils of getting a white-collar job, etc.  

Now, if I was going to review it, I would say something like this: although the pilot is rather weak, relying too heavily on playing sitcom tropes straight except that He-Man is there, the show quickly finds its footing.  The comedy is primarily based on juxtaposition, as you would expect (e.g. Zorn celebrating the Zephyrian holiday of Grafelnik, an entirely revenge-based observance, while everyone else gears up for Christmas), but also gets a lot of mileage out of presenting a more grown-up, cynical version of what the universes of some 80's/early 90's movies and TV shows which I grew up with might look like if they were part of our "real" world, and how the mores of an inhabitant of those lands would clash with ours.

That last bit is actually best represented not by Zorn himself, but by his ex, Edie.  My favorite thing about the show might be that she's not secretly still lusting after Zorn despite claiming to have moved on, but does miss the aggressive, adrenaline-filled life she used to lead.  A lot of shows would have cast Zorn and Edie's fiance, Craig, as the two opposite extremes between which she's torn.  Here, although they are opposite extremes, Edie clearly knows who she loves; she may still be drawn to Zorn's life, but not to Zorn himself.

(I'd also mention that I grew up near the guy who plays Alan, Zorn's son, when I was little.  I don't actually know him, but the local connection's still kind of neat)

Anyway, after watching an episode, I'll always go check out Kevin Johnson's review of it on The A.V. Club.  I do this despite the fact that he's wrong about basically everything he says about the show.

Take his review of A Taste of Zephyria.  In that episode, Zorn discovers that his son Alan's knowledge of Zephyria is mostly informed by American pop culture references, and tries to teach him about his heritage--a heritage that involves stuff like wearing live (sentient, enslaved) animals as clothing, and musical instruments made from the body parts of murdered children.  Classic over-dark comedy, to my mind: taking a distasteful idea, and pushing it so far that it can't possibly be taken seriously (the cartoon aesthetics help establish and maintain this tone).  Here's how Johnson opened his review:
I have a question. How does Son Of Zorn want us to respond to someone like Zorn and his attempts to reconnect to his son? Should we be rooting for their re-connection? Should we be advocating for a full family reunion between Zorn, Alan, and Edie? Or should we be actively condemning Zorn’s behavior and laughing along when his arrogant and clueless ”toxic masculinity” blows up in his face? (Or should we just gleefully go along for the absurd ride, as if this was a lower-staked Adult Swim show?) Son Of Zorn could perhaps blend all of those aspects into something both hilarious and satirical, but at this point the show seems to be missing a clear narrative approach in figuring out how to do that.
To me, this is missing the point big time.  First, Johnson's (oft-repeated) suggestion that this show either is, could be, or should be a repudiation of "toxic masculinity"--that is, that it is/could be/should be an examination of how traditional masculine ideals degrade and destroy our ability to create relationships and sustainable happiness--seems frankly absurd to me.  Son of Zorn revels in Zorn's hyper-aggression, and while it's certainly happy to show its characters react to his horrific morality when doing so would be funny, it is and remains defined by what would be funny.  That is not at all the same as saying that it's a show where you need to check your brain at the door, or to "go along for the absurd ride," as Johnson puts it.  Looking for a consistent critique of gender roles in this show is kind of like looking for commentary on the limits of pacifistic intent in a paperback romance novel; you're seeking something which not only probably isn't there, but which probably shouldn't be there in the first place.

Johnson keeps coming back to this idea that Zorn is a negative representation of what we collectively define a "man" as, at the expense of understanding him through the cultural lens of an 80's cartoon character.  And, since Zorn and his homeland are both clearly rooted in a sardonic representation of the 80's cartoon aesthetic, he ends up regularly writing things that read as borderline idiotic to me.  For example, in the same review, he writes:
[...]Zorn is an ass. So I don’t exactly buy the sitcom-esque moments, like when Alan, Edie, and Greg have a sit down to discuss Zephryian heroism, or the clunky moment where both Alan and Zorn own up to their mistakes (which includes an embarrassing dance from Alan).
To me, it seems obvious that the clunky reconnection (at least, the embarrassing Alan dance one) isn't rooted in traditional sitcom--at least, not directly.  Rather, it's rooted in the shows of my childhood (in fact, I was a little surprised to discover when I looked up Kevin Johnson just now that he's close to my age.  I would have guessed he was significantly older or younger, and perhaps just wasn't all that well grounded in what was on TV when I was a kid), and fits perfectly into the show's aesthetic.  The scene and the show proper are both a mix of loving parody and subversive homage.

Okay, so we've established that this reviewer and I have virtually nothing in common when it comes to our opinions about this show.  And frankly, I don't think the opinions he expresses are particularly defensible, most of the time; his reviews come off as a hastily-written projection of his own biases*.  But I keep reading them, and that's okay.

I read them because I get a rush of smug superiority every time I get to mutter, "how could he not understand so-and-so," at my computer screen.  I read them because his sometimes bizarre fixations on minor plot elements help draw my attention to some of the clever visual gags which the show works in.  I read them because, when he says something nice about the series (which isn't actually that infrequent; his overall analysis to date is more "it's okay" than "it stinks"), it encourages me to think about my own appreciation for the series, and how I might enjoy the same scene for completely different (better) reasons.

I sometimes wonder if there are people who compulsively hate-read my reviews.  I think not; my impression is that most of the people who find my reviews idiotic and/or disagreeable are smart enough to just not read my stuff.  But it's a strangely pleasant thought nonetheless, to imagine that someone does.

Kevin Johnson may not be doing a very good job of reviewing Son of Zorn, in my opinion.  But if he's getting me to engage with the show more than I would have otherwise, then I suppose he's still doing a good thing.

*Why yes, it has occurred to me that Kevin Johnson is a successful professional writer, while I am just a semi-anonymous shlub who reviews My Little Pony fanfiction in his free time, and that perhaps there's an expression about stones and glass houses which should apply here.  But forget that; if he wants to come tell me everything I'm doing wrong with my reviews, I would relish the advice!  The easiest mistakes to see are someone else's, after all.


  1. You should tweet at him or something and call him out. Zorn vs. MLP, review-off, GO! >:V

    1. Yes, THAT is clearly what the world is crying out for :P

  2. People who are wrong on the internet can be an endless source of fun. Just gotta avoid getting carried away.

  3. In reading ponyfic reviews, I'm more often just as exasperated by the opposite: instead of wondering how so many people can miss the awesomeness of a story I love, it's more wondering what so many people see in a story that has glaring flaws to me. Even that doesn't happen very often, but it does happen much more than the former. There have been 3 RCL features where I couldn't figure out how 4 or 5 people collectively failed to see very fundamental problems. But maybe I've just gone Zorn (that should be a thing).

    I did watch the pilot of Zorn. Didn't grab me enough to to watch any more of it.

    1. I'm forever wondering how people love the stories that they love. There are LOTS of stories with thousands of upvotes that I can't find much merit in, even after making allowances for taste. It's confusing.

    2. "'s more wondering what so many people see in a story that has glaring flaws to me."

      For me, the worst offender's probably The Games We Play by AbsoluteAnonymous. Everyone talks about how it's a great example of shipping, but I found it too rapey. Reading it actually made me physically sick. I dreaded starting each chapter, but forced myself to read enough that I'd felt I'd given it a fair shot. I've never had such a visceral reaction to a story before, fanfiction or otherwise. I have no clue how nobody else seemed bothered by that, especially Chris

      RCL's generally pretty good (though I've fallen quite a bit behind, so I'm not sure about more recent features), but I still don't get how The Colour You Bleed got on there. The underlying story might be good, but it needed editing so badly that I couldn't finish it

    3. I liked The Games We Play, but not really because it's a standard shipping story. It's been awhile, but I remember that story as pretty dark and psychologically driven. The feeling of dread, like everything was headed towards this awful collapse, I think it's largely intentional. I dunno that you were necessarily seeing something different from people who liked it, as a result.

    4. Fun fact: "Zorn" in the Watership Down universe means "destroyed, subject to a terrible catastrophe" – it's the Lapine word the rabbits use when a burrow is destroyed by gassing to make way for a housing development.

    5. The RCL occasionally puts up stories that I couldn't figure out the merits of, either, and I'm one of 'em! But that's part of the appeal of the group; instead of just being "Chris's favorite fics," it highlights a more diverse array of stories that have something to recommend them.

      @Logan: I really, REALLY hope that was intentional, because it's too perfect.

    6. Seeing as how it's also the German word for "wrath", this might be both works drawing from a real-life inspiration.

  4. I've given up on intentionally reading things I know will make me angry; I get enough of that from the news.

    Frankly, reading about someone being stupid, and then reading more of them being stupid, just frustrates me.

    Which probably explains why I hate reading the news so much these days.