It’s an old rule of show business: if you’re bad, prepare to be pelted with fruit and vegetables. Victorian thespians were at least able to scrub themselves clean. Today, chucked tomatoes largely take the form of online disparagement – death by a thousand downvotes. What do we do, though, when cabbages are catapulted in bad faith? That’s exactly what happened this week to True Detective: Night Country.
In its first season, True Detective followed two jaded male investigators, played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Night Country, the fourth iteration of the HBO crime drama, follows instead two female detectives, played by Jodie Foster and Kali Reis. This week, Issa López, Night Country’s showrunner, complained on Twitter that “bros and hardcore fanboys” of season one had “made it a mission to drag the rating down” on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, imploring her own followers to leave positive counter-reviews there. (She subsequently deleted the post and qualified her comments in a follow-up, writing that “many a (lovely) bro and hardcore fan of S1 have been friggin’ lovely and willing to try something new.”)
If there’s something slightly humbling about seeing a creator forced to solicit endorsement from social media followers – could you imagine Norman Lear asking people to “hit the subscribe button”? – it’s nonetheless understandable. Rotten Tomatoes is one of the most popular online resources around when it comes to film – behind IMDB and Wikipedia, ahead of the growing social media site Letterboxd – and a film’s success or failure on the site has real-world ramifications. Positive (or “Fresh”) reviews are now actively used in films’ marketing campaigns; there have been apparent instances of distributors being swayed to purchase the rights to films on the basis of Rotten Tomatoes’ verdict. In the world of TV, a Rotten Tomatoes rating can be even more desirable, and can impact whether a series is cancelled or renewed. (Though there are certainly instances of high-scoring series getting canned regardless, and shows that are rotten as year-old milk getting renewed with alacrity). In the crowded marketplace of contemporary TV, even a big-budget, starry drama like True Detective is susceptible to the pressures of promotion. But the problems run deeper than just a few toxic men.
Night Country’s supposed targeting on review aggregation websites by “bros” and Matthew McConaughey diehards – a practice commonly referred to as “review bombing” – exposes the flaws with Rotten Tomatoes as a system. The format of review aggregation, of (dis)approval by committee, offers a pretty shabby indication as to a film’s actual merits. Rotten Tomatoes is particularly bad, of course, with its binary positive/negative (“Fresh”/“Rotten”) judgement metric punishing any risk-taking or polarising cinema. The blandly likeable is given priority over the daringly great.
Each film and TV show is given both a critics and audience score, with the audience scores generally skewing more towards accessible material, and critics scores more embracing of challenging or arthouse fare. But neither score is reliably trustworthy; even the critics scores suffer from a diluted pool of “approved” critics that reward even the most tedious commercial clunkers with fawning and automatic praise. Look at last year’s Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, a turgid and widely disliked blockbuster that many heralded as a sign of the end for Marvel Studios’ box office dominance. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a critics’ score of 46 per cent, indicating that nearly half of all critics offered positive write-ups. Among traditional mainstream outlets, however – ie, the sort of critics that cinemagoers have been relying on for advice for a century – these positive reviews are few and far between.
It’s not just Rotten Tomatoes of course, with other platforms such as IMDB and Letterboxd also perpetuating this ideology of review-by-consensus. To some extent, it is simply an offshoot of a greater problem that plagues our age: the disappearance of nuance in the digital era. Reducing media to a numerical score is arbitrary, reductive – and vulnerable to manipulation. True Detective: Night Country has discovered this all too keenly. Even the effort by supporters to “correct” its review-bombed score doesn’t necessarily equate to the airing of sincere opinions. The whole tug-of-war just descends into meaningless factionalism.
So next time you’re flipping through a streaming catalogue, wondering if some new drama is worth a watch, don’t bother with the Tomatometer. If you can find critics whose taste you share, that’s always a plus: a few trustworthy writers can be a far more dependable resource than a thousand-strong horde of anybodies. And then again, there’s always the last resort – just watch it and see for yourself.
‘True Detective: Night Country’ is streaming now on Sky and NOW