Popularity vs. High Quality

Maybe it’s because I’m taking this course and therefore extra vigilant about hearing his name, but another TV show I watch had a Dickens reference!

This is the conversation that took place in Season 2, Episode 5 of FXX’s You’re the Worst:

(JIMMY is watching NCIS: LA, as GRETCHEN enters the room.)
GRETCHEN: Ooh, I love dumb procedurals. Wash over me, garbage. Numb my brain. Make me feel nothing.
JIMMY: Okay, that is elitism, Gretchen. Would you have dismissed Dickens for being popular?
GRETCHEN: David Copperfield…didn’t even do any magic. Ooh, ya burnt, Dickens!

I thought of our class discussion on how we decide which specific pieces of art/entertainment are considered “great” and certain pieces get dismissed or don’t get consideration in that discussion of being great. It’s interesting that Gretchen identifies NCIS: LA as doing the work of entertainment and providing a comfortable reliability for her. I think there is a sense now that something truly great has to be provocative or challenge/disrupt our views. Other types of stories, like romantic comedies or even superhero films, seem to reach a ceiling, in which they can’t be considered as great as other works because we know how the structure will work out. In romantic comedies, the lead couple will end up together. In superhero films, the hero will ultimately prevail and save the day. However, I think this line of thinking is flawed because being able to enjoy something, despite knowing how the story will generally play out, is a powerful indicator of storytelling ability.

Dickens, in context, is an interesting case study. On the one hand, his work was loved by the masses, so there exists some sort of natural desire to want to be more dismissive of his work. However, his attention on social reform and ability to provoke thought seems to mean that more people consider his work great than would otherwise. It seems interesting to me that the overlap between something being popular and something being of high quality seems to be perceived as being so small. We could also think about things that aren’t popular to the masses; a number of them are of high quality, and a number of them are not. I’m not sure how we even should judge what’s great. Personally, I know there are a few works that are absolutely powerful for me, but often times I take just as much pleasure in watching something that is comfortable and than I do watching something that Rotten Tomatoes says is 89% “fresh.” Maybe we should be more generous about embracing works that are popular; they don’t all have to be “guilty pleasures.”

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