Marya Mannes, Rod Serling, David Susskind

Television Criticism, A Critique

VTR Date: October 20, 1957


Sunday October 20, 1957

MODERATOR: Richard D.Heffner
GUESTS: David Susskind, Marya Mannes and Rod Serling

Announcer: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, Television Criticism, a Critique. Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D.Heffner, Author and Historian.

Mr. Heffner: I think it probably would be well today to begin our program by just saying a few words not in excuse but in explanation. In a sense we have spent quite a bit of time here on The Open Mind over the past half year talking about subjects that pertain to this medium itself, to television., We have talked about television censorship., Not so long ago television and young children, privacy, controversy on television, et cetera.
I think probably the reason we are coming back to television criticism today is twofold. On the one hand as someone once said about war being too important to leave to the generals, I think that most of us would admit that television is unique as a medium, has a tremendous impact upon millions and millions of people.
As a matter of fact, sometime ago just this past summer in an article on television criticism, Jack Gould of the New York Times said that television is not a static or passive force. It can either elevate or lower national tastes and standards. It can not operate and leave them entirely untouched.
Maybe for that reason, maybe because television brings entertainment to so many millions and millions of people each day and each night it is worth coming back to it, coming back to it and examining it.
Today we are going to examine those who professionally examine television. We are going to talk about the television critics themselves. So the medium is exceptionally important. Television is important, and I think it is important to look at those who look at it every day as a profession.
Back in that same series, two articles that Mr. Gould wrote in the Times this past summer, one he wrote where ”TV critics strike out”; and here he quoted a number of criticisms that are frequently made about his profession. The second one he replied, “A Critic’s Reply to the Criticism.”
In the first article he began by saying one of the handicaps under which television labors is the professional television critic’s immunity from criticism. In other words, there aren’t very many people who criticize the critics. One hardly dares not necessarily because of the attitude of the critics themselves, but because of our own attitudes toward our own role, and that is why I think today’s program will prove to be at least in orientation and in purpose extremely important.
Without further ado let me introduce our guests who are first Mr. David Susskind, who is well-known in TV circles as the Executive Producer of T lent Associates; then Miss Marya Mannes, who is a TV Critic of the Reporter Magazine. My third guest is Mr. Rod Serling, who is the award-winning Playwright who has written a good many plays, “Patterns” and many others that have achieved quite good critical acclaim.
I think I would like to begin this program by harking back to something that was written in Variety, which is the guidepost and bible of show business, back in January in the 51st Anniversary Issue. There in an article called “Appraising TV Criticism,” Bob Chandler said, “Most of it is a lot of gossip.” He said, “Today’s television critics in fact aren’t critics at all but are reviewers and/or gossipers.”
I would like to begin today’s program by asking Mr. Susskind not necessarily to comment on this criticism of criticism but to offer very briefly what you would state is your own particular point of view on how we can go about constructively criticizing criticism.

Mr. Susskind: Well, that is a pretty complex question. I feel that there are a lot of schools of thought on TV critics. I dent 1 t subscribe to the school that believes they are the Jukes family of journalism, as Maxwell Anderson once said of theater critics. I think that those too who regard critics as bastions or intelligence, integrity, taste, and good judgment are guilty of criminal optimism. I think that TV critics and TV criticisms runs the gamut of TV itself. I think there is the inept, and unfortunately that’s the big majority, and the brilliant; there is the totally sterile, and the inspired.
I think in program terms critics are very much like the Mike Todd birthday party at the lower level, the abysmal level, and on the other hand they can be as inspired and brilliant as Green Pastures. I think actually it is too flippant, too cursory, too gossipy, not constructive enough, not analytical enough, not important enough to create a body of critical judgment towards one of the most important mediums ever invented.
Mr. Heffner: Well, Mr. Serling, how would you -­

Mr. Sterling: I think I would subscribe to pretty much what David has said. Unfortunately it is a fact I think that principally the bulk of the American viewing public is not exposed to television criticism on its highest level, and this I think is one of the sad situations that confront us, that the body of criticism that we talk about as legitimate criticism I think has its exposure only in the two seaboards, and probably not in the hinterlands at all.

Mr. Heffner: Before I ask Miss Mannes what she would have to say in criticism of criticism, and it could be either good or bad, let me ask you gentlemen what you think should be the hallmarks or what are the hallmarks of good television criticism. What do you look for in criticism? Are you looking for a review? Are you looking for a recounting of what happened last night? Or what do you demand of your good TV critic?

Mr. Susskind: Well, I am peculiarly sensitive to television criticism. I am involved in television, I care deeply about it, I hunger much for the endorsement of my fellow professionals and that includes the critics. I feel that the fact that television is a one-time thing that happens and is gone forever does not give “The Critic” the license to dismiss it, to do a cursory job, to review only the facts of the show. I feel that for the endless tomorrows of TV programming which must go on incessantly in the hands of its creators and the doers that they look to TV criticism or should look to it for constructive analysis. It seems to me there is a twin task of effective worthwhile criticism. That is reportage of what happened last night, who was on the show, and what its components were.
The second thing equally important if not more so because of the fact that the television program will die that night, is to detail a constructive analysis of what was wrong with it or what was right with it to guide the people who do television for the tomorrows of television. That is too seldom done and that is why criticism is on too cursory a level and is not genuine criticism.

Mr. Heffner: Mr.Serling?

Mr. Serling: I would go along with much of that. It seems to me almost symptomatic of television criticism in the past couple of years anyway that too often an all-enveloping word is suggested to cover almost all the sins of a particular show. I can recall in the last couple of weeks where dramatic shows have been dismissed with perhaps a paragraph or two. On one of my own shows, for example, it was dismissed by Jack Shanley as being uncommonly dull. I do not think it is possible, if this is legitimate criticism, to use an all-encompassing phrase to dismiss it with two or three lines because that suggests that the program was not important enough or valuable enough to warrant any criticism in the beginning.
I would agree with David that if we are to be criticized let us be analyzed. Let us not just be told this is bad or this is good; let us be told why. I think this is not only the function but the responsibility of the critic.

Mr. Heffner: Now Miss Mannes suppose I put you on the spot.

Miss Mannes: I felt like a patsy, and for the first time I will be non-controversial. I must be, and say I agree wholeheartedly with both these distinguished gentlemen in television. This of course means that I as a critic must think that I belong in the better school of criticism. I hope I do, and I too think there is a terrific confusion in the public mind between people who write gossip columns about television personalities, and people who really try to set a standard or a series of standards against which the industry can measure itself.
I think also that it is very important and here again I agree with Mr. Serling and Mr. Susskind that the critic take in account just as much intention as performance, that it is essential — and hope I recognize it when I see it — to know what the playwright, what the author rather, and what the producer were trying to get at as well as what they ultimately achieved, and where the gap between intention and performance, how it happened, if it did happen.

Mr. Heffner: But suppose the burden is put upon the critic to consider intention more than the critic who is going to criticize or pass judgment upon or review several plays, documentaries, of an evening or of a day, suppose, let me put it this way, don’t you suppose that is asking a very great deal of the critic that he has to go behind the scenes each time?

Miss Mannes: No, I am sorry. Not each time certainly, that would be impossible. But I do think the critic must recognize the enormous complexity of the medium, the enormous difficulty of getting through a single impression, let’s say through hundreds of people all of them having part in this. I now sound more charitable than I frequently am because I do not always recognize these difficulties. I recognize failure. But I do also recognize success and am only too happy to see it. And there I do think there is a great constructive function of critics, and that is to give heart to the good people in television who are very often let down by ratings.

Mr. Heffner: Just one last point then I will let you gentlemen go after Miss Mannes. Doesn’t this seem to mean that the critic’s job is to protect the industry and those who work within it, and it seems to have less to do with the relationship between the critic and the viewer. Isn’t the critic talking to, writing to the viewer, and not to the Vice-president in charge of programming?

Miss Mannes: I don’t think so. The good critics I am sure speak as directly to the Vice-president in charge of programming as they do to the reader.

Mr. Susskind: Miss Mannes, it is embarrassing to find myself in conflict with you because you are an excellent critic and a very attractive one. I would like to say, however, that I find myself in rare agreement with the distinguished journalist of the New York Times because in this same article on criticism he said the only test really is what was done, and how well it was done, and that the hazards and the difficulties of the craft are not the concern of the critic. Now since he is essentially in my opinion a journalist and not a critic I still however find him quite right, I think the test is how well the job was done, and I am interested in why it was done well, or why it was not done well, and I think I may have oversimplified when I said that the major fault of criticism seems to be cursory dismissal. That is one of the sins. Other sins all too frequent and horrendous are venom, vitriol, sarcasm, puerile wit, at the expense of the production of the effort. I think the important thing to be gained from a program that seizes upon its birth is the why of that program, the why of the good and the why of the bad so that future efforts by the same creators can benefit from the reviews, and this is too seldom true in TV criticism.

Miss Mannes: This may be a slight digression but you speak about the one shot aspect of television, and I agree that it is kind of kicking a dead horse, if it is dead, to describe a play that no one will ever see again, and I hope the industry will realize that this is a very wasteful process and that good things should be repeated at intervals. I think they are beginning to do that now, so that criticism then will have a real function. It will say, “Look, next time this thing comes on you ought to see it.”
Which would be a real help to the public.

Mr. Heffner: You say this will give criticism a real function.

Miss Mannes: I didn’t say real function; I said a practical function in educating — that is a horrible word — but in bringing the public to want the good things.

Mr. Heffner: Well now again is the critic’s job to elevate public taste, as you maintain, and I think as Gilbert Seldes says so frequently, or is it to make the impression upon the Vice-president in charge of programming?

Miss Mannes: Well, I think it is both. It must be both.

Mr. Heffner: Can you put that burden upon a critic?

Mr. Susskind: Of course.

Mr. Heffner: It is quite a burden.

Mr. Susskind: I know but that is what he is paid for that’s what his job is; frequently unqualified for that job, but it occurs to me that the critic stands in loco parentis to his readers, and his viewers, and the viewers of the television program. He is there by proxy. He represents them, but he must have a critical standard, he must have intelligence and a taste and a judgment and these are absolute musts. Too frequently they are observed in the breach.

Mr. Serling: Well, I guess I must be completely out of the vale here because I don’t agree with either of my distinguished colleagues. This sounds like a McCarthy hearing I think, doesn’t
it? I don’t see how you can dismiss intention as one of the bases on which you judge a dramatic show, particularly in a medium like ours. Certainly I think in the whole body of criticism in the 19th century, which was criticism what was criticism, an art form in itself, I think the intent of a given dramatic piece was taken into consideration, and when you’re criticizing a medium which is so hamstrung so often by dogma, by imposed dictum, by other people’s ideas which do literally hamstring you and which you try to compensate for as best you can.
For example, to pose a sort of rhetorical question, what if the show had to do with racial prejudice and we had to skirt the sticky issue of the said issue, would the television critic then not be prone to discuss what was attempted at least within the limited framework of the show, or would he just indicate that which had gone on?

Mr. Susskind: I feel, Rod, somehow as if this – forgive the word, but it is the only one that comes to mind — as if there is a whine implicit in that. I really don’t want the critic to love me for intent. That is really not his business and that is not the thing for which I want to be indorsed or hailed or criticized. My result is what’s important. I kind of agree with the New York Times. On the other hand, you bring up another issue which is probably properly not ‘the business of this panel, but that is we are hamstrung. We are compromised. We are tied hand and foot in treatment of material. I would not subscribe to that either. I feel that the critic1 s job is to measure the result and I think that what we should concern ourselves with essentially is how well do they measure the results? How much integrity do they bring to that assignment, how much knowledge, how much taste, how much judgment, and how much analytical ability?
Now if we want to concern ourselves with do they love us enough for our intent, of course they don’t but I think they would go beyond the call of duty if they did.

Mr. Serling: We let me relate this to a specific one, David. In one of the rather negative reviews of one of your recent shows, Finocchio, I think it is in the Sunday Times this morning-­

Mr. Susskind: Indeed it is…

Mr. Sterling: Specific reference is made to the fact that one of the basic errors of the show was the introduction of the commercials the fact that the fox looked up at the clock and said, “Oh oh, we have got to give a commercial,” and this was considered I think by Gould to be in miserable taste, and yet I think what you were attempting there was to take—

Mr. Susskind: A sting.
Mr. Sterling: –a known evil, a sting, culture it, and soften it as best you could to make it palatable. This is intent and I would like to see some mention made of this.

Mr. Susskind: If I go into the Pinocchio case history I would be accused of even greater subjectivity than that to which I confess. I am a Vesuvius of subjectivity this morning, but it does lead me to something, and that is this: I think we should bring a bill of’ particulars about TV criticism. How often do you and I get an opportunity to answer criticism? I don’t want to do that in specifics on shows and programs, but would like to do it generally, and I hope constructively.
Now the distinguished journalist in the New York Times, mark you journalist and not critic, he in his article on criticism, Rod and Miss Mannes, he said nobody comes forth in the TV industry with a bill of particulars about TV criticism, therefore I as a result of talking to unnamed people will tell you what is wrong with TV criticism, and then I will proceed to answer it.
He has set up some very interesting straw men, and in his answer he handled it quite effectively. But those are not the issues of TV criticism that interest me.

Mr. Heffner: What do you see as the issues?

Mr. Susskind: Well, I see as the first issue the fact that it is time to stop cursing and railing and flailing at the fact that we have a commercial television structure, and cursing the ground rules of television. We do have commercial television, we do have sponsors, advertising agencies, and networks, and they are not the horrendous monsters and ogres that they are frequently almost always painted. There is not miserable censorship. There is not stultifying limitation of creative effort. I feel that just as there is no Emmett Till story in television or Little Rock story in television, so too I have yet to see that on the motion picture screen which is fifty years older, or in the theater, as a matter of fact. I feel that television is not a Valhalla of creative effort. It is not a Garden of Eden of self-expression. There are rules and these rules have still permitted great amount of wonderful production great talents; actors, writers, and directors to emerge, and I am proud of it, and I am tired of that incessant hammering at the commercial aspects of TV.

Miss Mannes: Well, you have to be tired of it. You are in it. You are the man inside, and I think you are suffering from some of the troubles of the man inside, which is really an adjustment, a gradual chipping down of original intent because of the circumstances, and here again I would like to say that I think the function, one of the functions of a good critic is to constantly inject courage into the industry as a whole and into the sponsors. Say, “Look, you cannot do a good thing if you are perpetually hamstringing your writers, your directors, your actors. You cannot do it if you are interrupting with commercials, and in the end you will suffer, you sponsors, you directors, you producers are going to suffer if you allow this chipping away to go on,” and I really think it does, Mr. Susskind, because with all due respect the amount of good things, really good things on television to the enormous spate of lousy things is too great. It is disproportionate.

Mr. Susskind: Miss Mannes, the amount of good things in the theater to the spate or mediocrity and amount of good things in motion pictures to the avalanche of sterility I think does credit to television, We can have “Twelve Angry Men.” “Patterns.” “Requiem For A Heavyweight.” “Man On The Fountain Top” “Mary,” “Peter Pan,” we’ve had a spate of worthwhile achievement and I am proud of it.

Mr. Heffner: Mr. Serling.

Mr. Serling: I think perhaps we’re sort of skirting the edge now, and moving off on a tangent.
Let me ask this in te1s of criticism –and I direct this to Miss Mannes — isn’t it a fact that the majority of critics that review a given television play generally represent rather polarized thinking, that they either hate or dislike but that very often you’ll find several schools of thought with relation to a specific show, as opposed I think to the legitimate play critic who more often I think skirts more of a single line and gets more of the same reaction. Why is it that television critics-­again we have to revert back to Pinocchio where John Crosby loved it, thought it was charming and delightful, and Jack Gould dismissed it.

Miss Mannes: I think I have the answer to that Mr. Serling. I think that it being a comparatively new form, whether it’s art or otherwise –and it can be in art form — the whole background of standards has not had time, it hasn’t been built up yet. There are no really even tacit standards for television as there are for theater, for good theater. A body of opinion has not been built up over a long enough time. So this allows for personal prejudice — well, that creeps into theater, heaven knows– but I think it allows for wider range in television than I think it does in other forms.

Mr. Serling: I don’t understand that because I would think the same standards by which you judge a dramatic play in the theater should be extremely similar to those you judge a television play by.

Mr. Heffner: Suppose we reverse the question and put it this way, why the nervousness, the intense nervousness on the part of the industry and just about everyone in it to what the critics or even a critic has to say? I know that we have discussed Pinocchio; I know that two weeks ago when something I did received a lousy review in the New York Times I practically couldn’t live with myself for a few days. OK, why? Why do we react so violently to what the critics say?

Mr. Susskind: Because we are sensitive people trying to bring some creative effort that we believe in with all our might, because we care deeply and desperately and because we hunger after endorsement and appreciation. Because we are human beings. I think that is the answer.

Mr. Heffner: Do you think that is enough to say because we are human beings? It seems to me you are saying because we are sort of super-sensitive human beings

Mr. Susskind: We are.

Mr. Heffner: Who is to be responsible for that?

Mr. Susskind: Your ego is naked if you are a writer, a producer, a director, an actor. You are out there with your creation, you believed in it, you have spawned it, you’ve brought it to life, and when it is slashed and ripped apart you are bleeding and hurt.

Mr. Heffner: This makes us sound like participants in a Steig cartoon sitting out there saying, “Look how weak we are, don’t damage us.” Don’t you think you are asking a little too much?

Miss Mannes: May I say that a critic is exposed and can also bleed for a variety of reasons?

Mr. Susskind: I would like to say in answer perhaps further to your question, Rod, is that I feel that in current television criticism — and this is another bill of particulars sacrilege is committed in the sense that passionate preconceived prejudice and personal phobia and private cultural wars are brought to the reviews by the critics. We are all familiar with those critics who automatically hate all variety shows, who feel that all television should have the complexion of Sunday afternoon, who feel further that any drama without controversial theme is null and void, and even that kind of critic who feels that the musicalization of a holy fairy tale is sacrilegious save if it is transplanted from the mother medium of the theater.

Mr. Serling: I don’t know of any critics like that David.

Mr. Susskind: I know quite a few.

Mr. Serling: — with the kind of built-in emotion you are talking about, with the kind of standard reaction they wear around their chest like an albatross; I don’t know that kind of critic.

Miss Mannes: I would say they exist.

Mr. Heffner: If you said they exist, would you say your criticism generally is leveled mostly at those who don’t live up quite to the full standards you impose for a critic?

Mr. Susskind: And they are unfortunately in the majority, yes, I would.

Mr. Heffner: Well, maybe we who don’t deserve much more are in the majority in television. I think Miss Mannes is suggesting that, that the majority of television does not deserve much more than what the critics give it.

Mr. Susskind: Why don’t we reach deeper really?

Miss Mannes: Well, I would like to reach deeper because I would like to —

Mr. Heffner: You have got a minute and a half.

Miss Mannes: I won’t take a minute and a half. I hate to use the word function, it sounds so biological, but a critic should treat of television1 s effect as a whole on people because television isn’t only plays and it isn’t only varieties, it is a sixteen-hour a day impact, good and bad, on people, and I think this impact should be very carefully studied and I think it is the function and duty of a critic to study it to see whether it is doing bad things to us or good things to us as a whole.

Mr. Heffner: You mean you have come back to the notion that the critic should be an analyst rather than a reviewer?

Mr. Serling: Conscience.

Miss Mannes: Yes; it’s a pompous term but has something it can do.

Mr. Susskind: May I say there are two other urgent things that could help the whole level of TV criticism. The first thing is better selection of critics. The successful ship news reporter, police blotter specialist, or obituary writer is not necessarily gifted in the art of criticism. It is too important a function. They should be men of taste, experience, education, and talent and have a real appetite for the medium; and the second one is they should be made to take enforced vacations at luxury pay. They are figuratively chained to that tube, their resources run down, their faculties crack up, their patience is frayed, and their tolerance is nil. I urgently recommend long and luxurious vacations.

Miss Mannes: Thank you for that, Mr. Susskind.

Mr. Serling: That sounds like collusion. I am sure -­

Mr. Heffner: I am afraid that’s just about all the time we have today for this examination of the question of criticism, but I think that, that some points did come out and with which we generally agreed or disagreed fairly clearly, and one of them is whether the critic is to take into consideration the intention of the program. I think Mr. Serling felt that this is an obligation of the critic to consider the intention. I think that you feel that the critic should not be burdened by this. This is up to the rest of us, and Miss Mannes, she is the critic; I won’t try and quote her, just read her. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Next week The Open Mind will not be back at this time. We will be back two weeks from today, as a matter of fact, and we will be talking then about the question of Russian scientists. We will be talking about Russian scientists and the American scientists and the training facilities for both. See you then.