This is a free edition of Humans Being, a newsletter that unearths deeper meanings in pop culture.
This time last year, Humans Being was finding its stride. I had found a format that I loved: one part memoir and one part media recommendation. At the end of each newsletter, I invited readers to email me in response to a personal question—hopefully one that would make them think a little, or share a story from their lives. If you’ve been here a while, you know the rhythm of my essays.
When people sent me emails in response to my recommendations, they would often refer to my “review” of a movie or TV show and say whether they agreed or disagreed with my analysis. And each time someone called it a “review,” I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I saw the designation as a small failure; I wanted to differentiate my media coverage by making it personal and finding a scene, theme, or conversation that resonated with me on a human level. On the other hand, what else would someone call it but a “review”? Writing memoirish stories through the lens of popular entertainment isn’t a common enough format to earn itself a household name. Eventually, I accepted why the word made my teeth itch.
I hate movie reviews.
I hate TV reviews.
I hate reviews.
It was a struggle to accept that I feel this way. Many of my friends and peers are reviewers. The idea of hating an entire corner of the industry in which I participate is discomfiting.
I have also written countless reviews over the years, covering everything from television to movies to comic books. For a long time, I lied to myself about how I felt doing it. I reasoned that these reviews were contributing to the cultural conversation and helping people process and understand art, but they mostly felt like vehicles for my own catharsis. It felt good to blast a movie that I hated or praise ones that I loved, and to have the power and platform to sway opinions.
But the more I reviewed, the more I tended to dislike the art I consumed. I couldn’t watch a TV show or movie for fun anymore. I had to use my critic’s brain.
Watching a movie or reading a book with your critic’s brain is different from critical thinking. It means watching a movie or TV show, reading a book, or even playing a video game specifically to find something to say about it. What you say about it should be new and insightful. It should not be obvious. It should make an argument and consider rebuttals, typically before knowing what others think. It should be a useful opinion that helps others process their thoughts and feelings about art. Then it must fit into a category of good or bad, “rotten” or “fresh.” And then, above all else, it should be something people want to click.
You aren’t fully working while you’re consuming culture with your critic’s brain—watching movies is still fun—but you are never fully enjoying it, either. You are halfway watching the movie and halfway anticipating the thoughts and needs of others.
The lie I told myself—that reviews were advancing the cultural conversation and helping people think about art—started to wear thin when I noticed that I had actually stopped reading reviews myself, only checking to see a Rotten Tomatoes score or Goodreads rating and skim the summarized blurbs underneath. In 2020, my experience with Wonder Woman 1984 broke what was left of my facade.
I had been invited to be in the first group of reviewers to watch Wonder Woman 1984. On top of that, we would be granted a group interview with the director Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman herself, the actor Gal Gadot. It was still early in the pandemic, so digital screeners were sent to reviewers and the interviews would be done on Zoom.
I know I’m improperly using the word objectively when I say this but, to my critic’s brain, Wonder Woman 1984 is a specific kind of objectively-bad movie.
Let me explain. When I took my nephews to see Black Adam recently—a similar kind of messy superhero movie—they absolutely hated it, but I had warned them in advance: Don’t overthink it. Some movies require that you turn off your brain and enjoy the ride. But a critic has to process, analyze, and explain what’s going on; it can be hard to enjoy movies that seem to be cynically thrown together for a studio to make a bunch of easy money. Back at the Wonder Woman 1984 virtual screening, I expected that our group would struggle with covering the film in any meaningful way.
Wonder Woman 1984 had gotten a 97 percent “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes during initial reviews. We had been sent a large box of swag that included everything from books to clothes to a $20 Visa gift card. Marketers pressured us to put on Wonder Woman tiaras for the Zoom call and make big smiles, and called out those who weren’t wearing their tiaras or smiling big enough. We had been encouraged to post tweets with positive reactions at a specific time.
When reviews were published, I spent the day scrolling through Twitter to see what critics were saying about the movie, and I was disgusted. Their commentary included the kinds of too-glowing reviews that, to me, read like the enthusiasm of a sociopath who could look you in the eyes and lie to your face. And in my own review for Black Nerd Problems, I gave as tempered a negative review as I could, with the nagging awareness that I wanted Warner Bros. to invite me back for future movie screenings and press events.
I felt vindicated when the movie was made available to a wider viewership and its critics’ score fell to “rotten.” And then I felt gross for caring about the score at all. I don’t think art should have review scores. But what’s more, I don’t think art should have reviews at all.
The most resonant movies, TV shows, books, and video games in my life are important based on what they mean to me—the time in my life during which I experienced them, what I was going through, and what I needed at that moment. Some of my favorite movies are widely loved, like The Shawshank Redemption. Many are embarrassing, like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Some of them can be found on lists of the worst movies of all time; one fits the questionable-sounding description “Adam Sandler’s 9/11 movie” (Reign Over Me).
I don’t believe in the separation of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art, and I couldn’t care less if a movie is “good” or “bad.” Loving or hating art is based on our individual, emotional reactions and is often informed by deep, personal experiences. But critic-brain reviews are typically devoid of those personal experiences and have a feigned objectivity. The writer’s vulnerable connection with the art is invisible, when I want it to be half of the equation.
Eventually, I came to understand why I disliked my own reviews: They felt written from a place of cowardice, while art is about emotional connection, vulnerability, and bravery. I’ve come to believe that the growing preponderance of culture reviews—mine included—is the worst thing to happen to conversations about art.
I started Humans Being to write the kind of “reviews” I would want to read: personal, often painful stories that share something about the writer and why a piece of art resonated with them. As Humans Being comes to a close, here are 10 of my highest recommendations. I hope you enjoy them, not only because I think these movies, TV shows, and video games are great, but because of what they meant to me as a person. Writing these stories made me feel less lonely, knowing that other people might connect with something I love for the same reasons I do. I hope reading them makes you feel less lonely, too.
For Euphoria, I wrote “Euphoria Is My Favorite Depression,” which is really about my sense of shame for abandoning a family member with a drug addiction.
For Station Eleven, I wrote “I Remember Damage Too,” which is really about me coping with trauma and existential dread.
For Everything Everywhere All at Once, I wrote “Everything Everywhere All at Once Is a Masterpiece,” which is really about me searching for a purpose in life after losing my faith in God. (See also: “Christian Doublespeak Is Worse Than Profanity.”)
For Better Things, I wrote “My Favorite Family on TV,” which is really about the shame I feel due to my strained relationship with my mother.
For Hacks, I wrote “On Hacks, Work Is an Addiction,” which is really about how my awareness of overworking hasn’t been enough to stop me from doing it.
For The Bear, I wrote “No Show Has Captured a Toxic Workplace Better Than The Bear,” which is really about my struggle working for companies and people I find abusive or immoral.
For WeCrashed, I wrote “I Was at the Real WeWork. It Was Even Weirder Than WeCrashed,” which is … also really about my struggle working for companies and people I find abusive or immoral.
For Entergalactic, I wrote “Entergalactic Has Me Believing In Love Again,” which is really about me falling in love with a woman and having her ghost me.
For God of War Ragnarök, I wrote “Make Me a Zaddy Like Kratos,” which is really about me discovering that I want kids when it feels too late.
And for The White Lotus, I wrote “The White Lotus, Daphne, and the Luxury of Delusion,” which is really about how I felt navigating the world when I was secretly poor. (See also: “The One Thing TV Characters Don’t Talk About.”)
That’s all for Humans Being. It’s been a hell of a ride. If you want to read more, my memoir came out this year, too: Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture. I’d love it if you read it. See you on Twitter or Instagram—I’m @JordanMCalhoun.