Sunday, March 13, 2022

Après View

A couple of days ago I mentioned in passing that the New Musical Express used to be my bible in my teens and early twenties. It wasn't just the NME I followed with quasi-religious fervor, it was the music press in general, something that lasted through my college years. 

By the time I'd left full-time education my obsession with other people's opinions had swelled to include those I found in fanzines, magazines and books about everything from comics to movies to gaming and even travel. If someone was willing to review something, I was willing to read about it. 

It would be disengenuous to say I never used any of those reviews point me in the direction of something worth buying but it was certainly rare. I generally know what I want to buy without anyone having to tell me.

I mostly read the reviews for the pure pleasure of reading them. My first, often only, requirement of a review was that it should be well-written. I had favorite reviewers and they were writers first, performers second, reporters a distant third, if at all. I came to reviews as a reader not a consumer. I wasn't looking for advice, I was looking for entertainment.

Belghast and Everwake both touched on the topic of reviewing as it affects games recently. I commented but I had to edit myself heavily. I have to restrain mysef almost physically when the topic comes up on blogs. Partly it's because I have such very strong views on it I find myself ranting like a street preacher but mostly it's because the focus is always specifically game reviews and I really don't feel remotely as strongly about those, nor know very much about their history and culture.

Reading game reviews in order to decide whether or not to play does seem like an odd thing to do in the third decade of the twenty-first century, anyway. It made sense in the eighties and nineties, when all games were sold in boxes at high-street stores, a product you bought, took home and played on your own. That made them more or less like records or books.  

Nowadays, though, when gaming happens online and millions of people stream their gameplay live while talking about it, the printed review seems like a peculiar place to go for consumer advice. As has been pointed out, games take a long time to play. A film reviewer can go to a dozen screenings in half the time than it takes a game reviewer to rush through a first playthrough. It's just not a good fit.

Ironically, what long-form published game reviews would be a good fit for is the kind of reviewing I prefer. I like to go to reviews not to get ideas on what I ought to be playing or reading or watching or hearing but to read another person's considered take on things I alread have played, read, watched or heard.

After entertainment, my second reason for reading reviews is confirmation. I like to compare my understanding of what I've experienced with someone else's so I can triangulate my reactions. I like to read someone else describing things I know for that delicious thrill of recognition but also to find out if there were things I missed or misunderstood.

Reading reviews after the fact feels far more appropriate to me than reading them in advance. I don't like spoilers and what's a review other than that?

It's not just plots that can be spoiled, either. You can't plot-spoil an album but I never read music reviews ahead of time anyway. If I'm getting a new album I don't want to come to the music with any more thoughts about it than my own.

After I've heard it, though, the opposite applies. I go online and search for reviews. I'll read half a dozen in a row if I can find them. I do the same with movies and TV shows, which is how I came to write this post.

Last night I finished watching the first season of Raising Dion. It's a show about which I knew no more than Netflix' one-line description: "Dion's a smart, sensitive boy with mind-blowing superpowers - and a fiercely protective mom who'll shield him at all costs." I'd added it to my watchlist a while ago, purely because it was a superhero show but it wasn't until Nimgimli mentioned in passing that he was watching it that I decided to give it a go.

I'm not going to review the show although I am going to tell you what I thought of it. I enjoyed it a lot.

I preferred the earlier, very slow episodes to the later much faster ones but the whole season was solid with some strong performances and several very likeable characters. I'm going to go straight to the second season tonight, which certainly suggests I had a good time with the first.

What I am going to review are the reviews. I read a bunch of them immediately after the credits rolled on the season finale. I often go straight to the reviews as soon as I finish a show, partly because reading about what I've just watched makes for a gentle withdrawal from the intensity of the faux-breakup feeling that always comes with leaving a bunch of imaginary friends and partly because I watch all this stuff on my Kindle Fire so it's incredibly easy to click through and find what other people thought about it.

The reviews for Raising Dion are not great but they're not bad, either. They're in the "Good of its kind" or "If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you'll like" area that usually suggests to me the reviewers considers themselves a bit above the job they've been assigned.

Most of the reviews tended to agree on certain things: the early episodes are slow, even dull but it gets better towards the end; the special efects are patchy, at best; the child actors are not great. The IGN review collects all three of those in a neat summary: "bad CGI, poor pacing, and shaky child acting."

The reviews I read tended to group fairly predictably. The comic-book culture sites were comparatively harsh, the mainstream press relatively forgiving. Neither side really took against the show, though, which would be hard to do given the ages of some of the main players. 

Dion is seven when the season starts, eight when it ends. There are three other significant child roles as well as several minor characters among his friends and classmates. All of them are around the same age.

Rolling Stone, whose Alan Sepinwall liked the show more than most, tried to be generous to Ja’Siah Young, the actor playing the eponymous Dion, describing him as "energetic and endearing, but also limited in what he can do as an actor at this very early stage of his life." Lucy Mangan in The Guardian, in what feels like a much more positive review than the 3/5 stars it gives, calls Sammy Haney, the actor playing the wheelchair-using Esperanza "revelatory".

Mangan also compares the show, somewhat unexpectedly, to the CW's long-running superhero soap opera Smallville, a show that begins in high school and ends in after the key players graduate college. That stumped me a little. About the only similarities I could see was the quotidian setting and the sometimes shoddy special effects. 

While I agreed with most of Lucy Mangan's observations other than the Smallville connection, I found Robert Lloyd in the L.A. Times a lot more on the money concerning Raising Dion's claims to originality: "Emerging powers are more often assigned to teenagers — it’s a killer puberty metaphor — who will typically be recruited into some underground Breakfast Club of similarly gifted individuals to fight an epic battle between light and dark, good and evil, topsy and turvy. It’s rare, though, that the new mutant is an actual child...

Yes it bloody well is. Nice that someone noticed. A young child with superpowers is almost unheard of in live action superheroics and hardly commonplace even in the comics. The whole USP of Raising Dion is that its a show about a superhero who's seven years old. That is insanely young. Of course he can't be a superhero. It would be ridiculous if he even tried. And the show would be ridiculous if it tried to make him, which it doesn't

If Dion doesn't present as a superhero, his friends come across consistently like children, not child actors. Esperanza is indeed the stand-out among them, both as a character and in the way she's played, but even she doesn't stage-act her way through her scenes. None of the children really feel natural on screen in that irreal way child actors often do. They act like children acting as well as you imagine seven and eight year olds could act. It's about as convincing as the special effects, which is convincing enough.

As Robert Lloyd also says, astutely, "you could cut out the supernatural material and still have a decent little drama about an overwhelmed widow, her rambunctious son, her friends, her family." You could indeed and based on the first three or four episodes it would be a better show, too. Unfortunately, without the superpowers that show would never get made.

Not to mention that, if it did , I would never watch it. I only noticed the show at all because it came up in a "Because you watched" along with all the other superhero shows I've seen. I watched Raising Dion very specifically because of the kind of show it is; an adult, live-action superhero show.

Or that's what I thought it was. Having read all those reviews, I realise now that it's actually aimed at a specific audience, "a decent choice for families with older kids": The Review Geek

A couple of the reviews I read seemed confused that a show for kids would have so much contemporary dance in it, not to mention so many scenes of adults just talking to each other about adult problems. I was just confused by their confusion. Just because a show has families in it doesn't make it a show only families will watch.

What almost none of the reviews I read seemed to care about, or even mention, are the gigantic holes in the plot. There are many, they are huge and they gape. I'm usually very bad at noticing these things and even I couldn't stop spotting them. I didn't care much, though. None of them affected my enjoyment so I just suspended my disbelief a little higher and carried on watching. So, it seems, did everyone else.

Reading the reviews helped me get a better perspective on why I'd enjoyed the show. It also gave me better understanding of where the show stood in relation to other shows I've watched. Things I learned from some of the reviews will factor in to the way I place other shows, culturally, in future. If I'd read the reviews before I saw the show itself, those same valuable insights would have become awkward obstacles, which is why I try never to do that.

Reviews are best taken as a digestif, not an appetiser.


  1. I do the exact same thing with Star Trek when I rewatch it. I watch an episode, stew on it, head to the Star Trek Rewatch webiste to see what other peaple thought. Sometimes I add on to the conversation, but mainly I am looking to either agree or disagree whith what other people think so that I can crystallize my own opinions.

    On the show, I really enjoyed it on the balance. The child actors were in a bit over their heads with some of the material, which occasionally pulled me out of the show. However, like you I thought they did about as well as could be expected from 7 and 8 year olds. Overall an interesting spin on the genre, with likable characters I was happy to spend time with. The twist near the end was very unexpected to me. Need to finish out season 2 at some point.

    1. I watched the first episode of Season 2 after finishing the post and the difference in the child actors now they're two years older is immense. They all have so much more nuance and control. It's only one episode so I shoulsn't draw too many conclusions yet, but although they are all more fluent and skilled in the process of acting now, it was striking how differently they'd matured.

      Esperanza, who was always the most convincing, seems the same but more so. Dion, who was always a little wooden, despite being the lead character, still feels a little artificial at times but by now I tend to see that as part of the character rather than a flaw in the acting. He's inside his head a lot so it makes sense. The really big change, though, is Jonathan. He was always okay but now he just seems completely natural. His timing is excellent and his line readings just sound right, somehow. As for the plot... I have no idea where that's going now!

  2. I'm the same with reviews, I love devouring them after I've just watched or played through something, partially for that confirmation of "it's not just me" (who liked/disliked that thing) but also to gain a better understanding of the material and my feelings about it. Opposing viewpoints are fine too though - I always find it quite fascinating why someone might have loved something I hated or vice versa.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one! It's fascinating reading other people's takes on things.


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