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July 17, 2014 4:02 AM   Subscribe

I killed At The Movies. The dueling critics format outlived Siskel, the more natural on-air presence of the two. So why didn’t it outlive Ebert?
posted by Sticherbeast (38 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was an interesting read, but I suspect he dramatically overstates the effect his lack of skill had on the show's success. The PBS audience is either 7 or 70, both demographics with very little interest in a movie review show. In the 2010s, anybody who wants this kind of information is getting it from the internet--the show was targeting an audience that just doesn't exist anymore.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:19 AM on July 17 [5 favorites]


The secret to hooking an online reader is to make them think that they’re being left out of some larger phenomenon, and the only way to rectify this is to click right here, right now.

Ugh. Die in a fire. Or, and I'm just spitballing here, maybe write something good?
posted by disconnect at 5:22 AM on July 17


This is a neat account of why that particular show failed but it doesn't seem to me that it explains why no one else has picked up the format.

The jaded part of me says it's because America's taste in television has moved beyond reasoned, urbane disagreement. To make it work in the current environment would require constant violent disagreement between the two leads; in particular their having the same opinion of a movie would have to be saved for special occasions.

In any case this was an interesting article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:24 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]


The jaded part of me says it's because America's taste in television has moved beyond reasoned, urbane disagreement. To make it work in the current environment would require constant violent disagreement between the two leads; in particular their having the same opinion of a movie would have to be saved for special occasions.

"Hulk gives Gone Girl two thumbs up! Ultimate Warrior gives it two thumbs down! Now he's got Hogan in a submission hold! Hulk is struggling! Will he tap out? What's this? The Undertaker has jumped into the ring and pounded Ultimate Warrior with a folding chair saying 'Affleck deserves the Oscar!' Ladies and gentlemen, never have I seen ANYTHING like this in the history of sports entertainment!"
posted by infinitewindow at 5:39 AM on July 17 [13 favorites]


Doesn't the format live on in podcasts like Pop Culture Happy Hour and Sound Opinions? The latter is very consciously modeled on Siskel & Ebert.
posted by Xalf at 5:41 AM on July 17 [10 favorites]


Any kind of media criticism on television is extremely rare and Siskel & Ebert was the exception. I can really only think of two and they're more journalism focused (CNN's Reliable Sources and Fox News Channel's Media Buzz). I mean, can you think of any television host who ever did serious criticism about television itself? It seems like it would be a no-brainer, but no one has ever been successful (assuming anyone has ever really tried it).

The Onion's AV Club would be amazing for a TV show. TV Without Pity on TV would have been amazing (and honestly, it's a wonder NBC Universal bought it for Bravo without that as an idea).
posted by inturnaround at 5:41 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


I enjoy Half in the Bag's movie reviews - they seem to actually care about the quality of movies in the theatre, are not 110% awash in snark, and present themselves as folks having a good time, talkin about film.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:42 AM on July 17 [7 favorites]


This article left out the part where Jay Sherman was considered for a cohost.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:45 AM on July 17 [7 favorites]


Xalf: "Doesn't the format live on in podcasts like Pop Culture Happy Hour and Sound Opinions? The latter is very consciously modeled on Siskel & Ebert."

Filmspotting is pretty clearly modeled on Siskel & Ebert.
posted by octothorpe at 5:53 AM on July 17 [4 favorites]


I mean, can you think of any television host who ever did serious criticism about television itself? It seems like it would be a no-brainer, but no one has ever been successful (assuming anyone has ever really tried it).

Charlie Brooker?
posted by Bromius at 5:55 AM on July 17 [6 favorites]


Or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, for that matter? They may filter their criticism through humor, but it's unmistakably media criticism.
posted by thecaddy at 6:05 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


This is a neat account of why that particular show failed but it doesn't seem to me that it explains why no one else has picked up the format.

If online things count (which they should, at this point), I'm a pretty big fan of Red Letter Media's Half in the Bag series, which is a derivation of the format. Hilariously (although YMMV) and intentionally shoddy framing devices aside, it's mostly just two guys talking about movies they've seen. They have occasional disagreements on matters of taste, but violent contention isn't really integral to the show. It's considerably snarkier about the movies and industry in general than your traditional review show, but mostly just in an amusingly resigned manner. Although there are exceptions.

I should note it's something of a spin-off of the obsessivley detailed and lengthy Star Wars prequel/etc Plinkett reviews, done by a senile, gross, possibly serial-killing hermit, which I assume some people have content problems with, although I was always amused by the self-deprecating implication that that's the only person who would actually make such a review. The alternate version of Plinkett on Half in the Bag is considerably toned-down.
posted by Wandering Idiot at 6:13 AM on July 17 [5 favorites]


Charlie Brooker is closer than what I am really after than Stewart or Colbert. I'm thinking more a television analog to Siskel and Ebert. Someone who tells you what is good on TV and breaks it down...on television.
posted by inturnaround at 6:20 AM on July 17


Yeah, you can still find that sort of thing online, but I'm not sure it's what people want to watch on TV anymore. People want to join in the discussion, and it's easier to do that when it's taking place online.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:21 AM on July 17


I think the main thing is that Siskel & Ebert were Siskel & Ebert. Most of the time, I didn't care one whit about the movies they were seeing (well, I love movies, but I saw everything that came out during that time whenever I could, so they didn't influence my choices), I just loved watching them. When Siskel died, I stopped watching the show for the most part, because that relationship was gone.
posted by xingcat at 6:21 AM on July 17 [5 favorites]


And all this just drives home again what a special person Ebert really was.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:22 AM on July 17 [9 favorites]


The Ebert documentary Life Itself shows a lot about the dynamic between the two of them and how that played into what you saw on the screen. They had such a rivalry going that if they made a movie about it, it would be something like Tin Men or War of the Roses.
posted by octothorpe at 6:47 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


All his too-cool refernces (Tussian, poetry slams) make it sound like he was just a tich too smart and too intense for the format, but he fails to mention that he and his co-host were both lacking in charisma and were dull on camera. There was no reason to watch.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:52 AM on July 17


Good article, but rambling a bit, needed better editing.

And yeah: things have changed in media since the internet, news at 11. (Or not, as the case may be.)
posted by Melismata at 6:59 AM on July 17


Ideefixe: "All his too-cool refernces (Tussian, poetry slams) make it sound like he was just a tich too smart and too intense for the format, but he fails to mention that he and his co-host were both lacking in charisma and were dull on camera. There was no reason to watch."

A. Speaking Russian is in no sense a way to seem "too cool." I studied Russian for nearly four years in university and I was then and I remain now almost the completely antithesis of "cool"!

B. His name is frikkin' Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. I don't think "Russian" is a too-cool reference but rather perhaps one of the languages he grew up with and knows fluently.
posted by barnacles at 7:09 AM on July 17 [7 favorites]


Thirding Half in the Bag, which has a rather Ebertian take on movies.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:16 AM on July 17


If the Oxford English Dictionary had pictures, you could have used Siskel & Ebert as the illustration for the new entry for the word "frenemies."
posted by jonp72 at 7:47 AM on July 17


I don't think "Russian" is a too-cool reference but rather perhaps one of the languages he grew up with and knows fluently.

Yup. He grew up in Moscow.
posted by Shmuel510 at 8:03 AM on July 17


I actually really liked the incarnation of At the Movies that the author was on and was sad when it ended, mostly because of Christy Lemire though. She always had the best taste in movies and I had kind of a girl crush on her.

At any rate, they were way better than freaking Roeper!
posted by Jess the Mess at 8:36 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


The bit at the end, where he describes the limit of the format:
I learned over time what kinds of arguments could and couldn’t be squeezed into an edgewise sentence. I came into the show as a detail-oriented critic, but learned with practice to suppress the urge to make extraneous asides, in order to build a stronger case, pro or con.
reminds me of how my MeFi commenting has changed.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:36 AM on July 17 [5 favorites]


The clickbait on that show was the thumbs up or thumbs down..."right after these commercials."

FB figured this out and is still using the former ubiquitously. I'm surprised Ebert didn't patent it and sue FB.
posted by CrowGoat at 9:06 AM on July 17


I’m not sure whose idea it was to put a middle-school-age “kid critic” on the show

I assumed he was Somebody Important's nephew; but regardless, yes, very few floundering shows are saved by the addition of an annoyingly precocious kid.

Ignatiy is very honest about his own shortcomings -- "my alternately manic and smug presence, the result of nervous over-compensation" was precisely my impression of those first episodes. But I think also those were impossible shoes for anyone to fill; hewing closely to the classic At The Movies format simply invited comparisons that were bound to fall short.

(I wonder also if this was compounded by the show's production staff being packed with long-time Siskel & Ebert hands who were too invested in the format. He mentions Thea Flaum and Don DuPree; he's almost studiously polite about Chaz Ebert.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:17 AM on July 17


"I actually really liked the incarnation of At the Movies that the author was on and was sad when it ended, mostly because of Christy Lemire though. She always had the best taste in movies and I had kind of a girl crush on her."

May I recommend What the Flick, which she is a frequent participant on? She is usually joined by Alonso Duralde (The Wrap), Matt Atchity (Editor-in-chief, RottenTomatoes), and Ben Mankiewicz (Turner Classic Movies; also of At the Movies during the less-successful Ben & Ben era). Free, weekly reviews that can devolve into big four-person debates, usually posted Thursday.

I love What the Flick.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:24 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


He also overlooks that Siskel & Ebert were a LOCAL show and a LOCAL phenomenon, that happened to market well to the rest of the country. They were movie critics at competing Chicago daily papers (Tribune & Sun Times), and which paper you took was wrapped up in where you lived (North or South side?), how you voted (Republican or Democrat), which baseball team you cheered for (Cubs or Sox?). They had done two local Chicago movie criticism shows before Siskel & Ebert: At the Movies went national, and the national show was produced in Chicago. When Siskel & Ebert bickered, their bickering carried not just the weight of their own personality and movie taste differences, but of the Chicago newspaper rivalry, and of all these competing identities in Chicago.

In Chicago they were a multiformat thing, where you'd read their reviews in the paper AND see the show on TV, and sometimes they'd snipe at each other in their newspaper columns, and other Chicago media would cover their bigger spats or notable events. My household was a Tribune household, so whenever my parents agreed with Ebert and not Siskel, it was an event worth commenting on, and they hated to admit they agreed with the Sun Times critic and thought "our" guy had it wrong. So it was never "just" movie criticism in Chicago; it was a whole network of identities and media outlets interacting just beautifully in that show, through those two on-screen personas.

I always, always forget that it was a national program because it was SO CHICAGO and it seems sort-of bemusing that people would watch it in cities where they weren't also reading the newspaper columns and all the incessant local chatter in which it was embedded. That seems to make the show so decontextualized! It must have been a very different experience when it was "just" a weekly movie review show and not the televised portion of an ongoing soap opera across many media streams.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:48 AM on July 17 [13 favorites]


You want a film review couple in this format that have ethics and morals, that have an obvious respect for each other, are engaging and entertaining? - I give you David and Margaret. And yeah it is called At the Movies.
posted by unliteral at 9:56 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]


The reason Not-Siskel & Ebert never really worked is that with Siskel and Ebert, there was a ton of chemistry between the two of them. They were relaxed and casual. It was very easy to believe they weren't just professional colleagues doing their jobs, but best friends shooting the shit. (This is something Half in the Bag gets bang-on.)

It was the cold, stiff professionalism of Roeper that ruined everything.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:10 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]


Now I just want to know what happened with Elvis Mitchell.
posted by yerfatma at 10:59 AM on July 17 [4 favorites]


He faked his death and is now living in a trailer park in Osceola. You name your kid Elvis, you gotta expect things like that.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:42 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq: "The reason Not-Siskel & Ebert never really worked is that with Siskel and Ebert, there was a ton of chemistry between the two of them. They were relaxed and casual. It was very easy to believe they weren't just professional colleagues doing their jobs, but best friends shooting the shit. "

They had chemistry, but not necessarily positive chemistry. They grew to have respect for each other, but they started out hating one another. Here's some outtakes where they are pretty contemptuous of each other.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:45 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Yeah, but they fight like brothers. It's weirdly intimate. They're comfortable expressing themselves without filters. Can you even imagine Roeper doing that?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:57 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


When I was growing up, I had movie reviews from 2 newspapers at most, so Siskel and Ebert doubled my review intake. Now, with Rotten Tomatoes, I can see dozens of reviews and find scholarly essays and blog posts. I don't need "At the Movies". I'll bet, however, that a lot of today's bloggers watched the show and drew inspiration from it.
posted by acrasis at 4:23 PM on July 17


Here's some outtakes where they are pretty contemptuous of each other.

No time to check, but if those are the outtakes I've seen before, they just made me like these guys even more. They could get truly nasty with each other, childishly so sometimes, but there was an underlying respect and affection. They were brotherly, in that way that brothers can hate each other SO MUCH for a minute over the silliest shit, and then snap out of it and be pals again. I'm assuming these outtakes include the clip where they devolve into just saying whatever offensive, profane shit they can think of, and they're giggling as they try to top each other. They were best frenemies to the end.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:48 PM on July 17 [1 favorite]


I love that part at the end of the outtake reel where, after lacerating each other, they find someone else to gang up on together. I think a big part of whatever rivalry comes off between them was due to both of them having naturally contentious personalities.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:47 AM on July 18


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