The Tyranny of Taste

I recently started watching the TV show The L.A. Complex.  I wasn't actually expecting it to be good, but I was running low on DVR'd shows that my wife didn't want to watch, things I could bust out while folding laundry or paying bills, and it had an actor in it from Firefly, and I liked Firefly, so I set the DVR to start picking it up.And the weirdest thing happened:I totally enjoyed it.It's a total Melrose Place upgrade, with added points for realism because all the apartment complex residents are bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment-industry wannabes who are struggling to pay the rent, and because there are always people in the central swimming pool; and subtracted points for realism because it's cast with Canadian actors and mostly shot in Canada, to such a degree that it's really really obvious when they make a trip south to L.A. for location shooting.I actually found myself looking forward to the next episode.  What's going to happen to the self-loathing closeted gay rapper?  I hope the haplessly sexy Abby gets cast on that thinly veiled Seventh Heaven show run by that spiritual despot played by Alan Thicke -- such delightful complications may well ensue!Yeah, there were missteps -- it's an evening soap, after all; it chews through a lot of story, not everything's going to be a bullseye.  The self-loathing closeted gay rapper got a lot less interesting when he started spending more time thinking more about his estranged father and less time on his self-loathing.  And that Seventh Heaven storyline got way awesome -- the actors playing the squeaky-clean onscreen brother and sister are secret offscreen lovers!  And they invited Abby to join them in a threesome!  Which she did, but for terrible terrible reasons! -- just before it fizzled out in a spectacular anticlimax.  But I'm okay with that.  A show's gonna stumble.  It's not like it's a grotesque crime against narrative like Hell On Wheels.  I still kept coming back for the characters and the sense of humor and the knowing tweaks of measured outrageousness.  Plus, the guy playing the rapper is a terrific actor.  And so is Jewel Staite, the actor I followed here from Firefly; she's fantastic and subtle and funny and kind of heartbreaking.But still, I doubted myself.  No one else I knew was paying any attention to this show.  So it's probably not that great.  I'm just aesthetically confused.  It's hit some kind of a soft spot in my brain.  I'm probably just partial to it because I'm interested in this representation of the entertainment industry, especially the trajectory of the would-be comedy writer (who is, as cast and played, the least likely successful comedy writer ever, insofar as there's no evidence that he's ever done or said or written anything funny).  I think this show is good, but I am probably wrong.  (I've been wrong before.  I walked out of Good Will Hunting convinced it was a terrific picture; I only later realized it was an intermittently entertaining trifle made loathsome by its lazy reliance on tear-soaked epiphanies about buried psychodramas.  Also, when I was younger, there was about a month and a half when I thought Mermaids was really good.  Yeah, with Cher and Winona Ryder.  They dance in the kitchen to the frigging radio.  I'M NOT PROUD OF IT.)Then I started coming across (okay, fine -- seeking out) kudos for the show from credible mainstream critical outlets: the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, the A.V. Club.  It's not like the show was being posthumously endorsed by Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs, but still: the very fact that there were other humans out there with eyes and brains validating this show managed, in turn, to validate my opinion of it.  My nagging aesthetic self-doubt vanished.  (Just in time, probably, for the show to get cancelled.)This was in some ways the opposite of my response to the tremendous movie Beasts of the Southern Wild.  By the time it was over I was convinced I'd seen something extraordinary; I didn't require any outside ratification.  Indeed, I found myself, after the fact, deliberately avoiding positive reviews of the movie -- at best, I thought, such reviews would be boring; at worst, they'd be irritating, liking the movie for all the wrong reasons.  Instead, in this case I found myself seeking out bad reviews of the film -- that was the outlook I wanted to engage with.  They're in the minority, but they are out there, and they're impassioned, and they mostly make the same point: Beasts of the Southern Wild romanticizes poverty and engages in fallacious noble-savage mythmaking.  It was comforting to me to encounter these opinions, recognize why people held them, and also to recognize that they were, pretty clearly, completely wrong.(In short: there's nothing about the chaos, peril and squalor of life in the Bathtub that is depicted as remotely attractive, nor are the adults of the community presented as even minimally functional, nor is Wink's unreliable parenting style validated.  Civilization is depicted as clueless and sterile and bureaucratic, true, but the protagonists' aversion to the amenities civilization has to offer is pretty clearly shortsighted and superstitious.  The closest the film comes to risking succumbing to the noble-savage criticism is when the community encouraged Hushpuppy to eat her shellfish with messy brutality, chanting "Beast it!  Beast it!"  But overall, it's a fantasy-world narrative about a cadre of young girls who take the torch from their hapless elders to lead the community into what is probably going to be a very different future; it's not award-baiting poverty porn along the lines of Winter's Bone.)Anyway.I frequently have the experience -- often with plays and also with movies -- of seeing something that everyone else loves and being convinced that it's just not very good.  Opinions differ, of course; that's how they work.  But a matter of personal taste is something you're so close to -- it's so inseparable from your selfhood -- that to you it takes on the solidity of certitude.  It's the beam in your eye.  It might as well be empirical fact.  Which is why it's so flabbergasting every time respectable people endorse a work of art that is so clearly subpar.  That's my typical reaction: what is wrong with them?That's how it usually works with me, and taste, anyway.  Which is maybe why these experiences were so striking: unironically enjoying The L.A. Complex and being convinced I must be getting it wrong; adoring Beasts of the Southern Wild and seeking out the scattered voices who didn't, the better to shore up my own enthusiasm.Or maybe it's just that I don't like things that often anymore, and it's a disorienting sensation when I do.Or maybe I'm just skittish, afraid of getting burned by another Mermaids.