Making the grade

Senior Television Writer
06.22.11 73 Comments

You may have noticed a new addition to the blog – to all of HitFix, in fact – in the past couple of weeks: letter grades. I’ve received so many questions about them in the comments of various blog posts, in emails and on Twitter, that I think the easiest thing to do is a short post explaining why we’re doing this, how it’s going to work, etc.

First, I will say that I go back and forth on the idea of grades, star systems, etc. On the one hand, I always resisted it when my editors at The Star-Ledger (which had a star system for the movie critics, but not for TV) suggested it. It always felt to me like the review itself should be able to tell you how good the show is, where it sits on a continuum with other similar things, whether it’s to your taste, etc., and grades or other scores diminish the actual writing, and often lead people to focus on the score and not the content. (I once had a bad experience seeing “Punch-Drunk Love” in a theater in front of four elderly women who were clearly not its target audience, hated it, and kept loudly complaining about how it got 4 stars in the paper, which is the only reason they came to see it.)

But on the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pay attention to these kinds of scores. There are times when I’m in a hurry, or where I feel the writer hasn’t fully made the argument, or whatever, and I just want to know whether I should make the effort to buy the album, see the movie, etc. I’ve been burned by that, too, but at the same time, if there’s a critic whose tastes I find generally matches my own, and they write about something that doesn’t sound like my kind of thing but give it a high grade, I’ll likely sample it – and more often than not, I’m rewarded for that choice.

So there are a lot of pluses and minuses. Once I start assigning my own grades, I don’t have to worry about the incredibly random scores Metacritic seems to interpret from my reviews, for instance. On the other hand, I know at other sites like The AV Club, readers can sometimes get hung up on the grades, and on a specific critic’s alleged inconsistencies on that front. (How could you give ‘Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies’ a B- when you gave ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ a C+?!?!?!) Ebert deals with this all the time, and has said often that he wouldn’t give star ratings if his bosses at the Sun-Times didn’t want to. (On the other hand, even the binary thumbs up/down from “At the Movies” was never entirely accurate, as there were times where Roger and/or Gene seemed conflicted about what to do with a two and a half star-type movie.)

But we’re going to give it a try, with a few caveats in place. In the TV section, we’re not going to be grading individual episodes. That seems a bridge too far, even though AV Club does it. So the grades will only be used for advance reviews of new shows, or premieres of returning shows (like yesterday’s “Louie” review).

Also, I’m not going to stress a whole lot on the grades, on consistency between the mark I’d assign a very good but unambitious genre piece versus something that aims high but doesn’t quite get there, etc. I’m going to do it by feel. I went back and forth for a while on whether to give “Falling Skies” a B or a B+, for instance, and would have ultimately been fine with either grade. I thought about giving “Louie” an A rather than an A-, but decided I wanted to save the A’s for very rare occasions (and A+’s for incredibly rare things like “The Wire” or “Freaks and Geeks”). But I’m going to figure it out as I go, and I imagine there will be times where I’ll wish I’d gone a bit higher or lower.

That said, if the grades bother you, ignore them. Please. 99.9% of my focus will be on the actual content of the reviews, and hopefully the reviews will read in such a way that the grades will be redundant. It’s a thing we’re trying. Some people love grades, and some people hate them, and I can never decide exactly how I feel, but they’re not going to change the way I write the actual content. And if that’s what you care about, you can just keep reading that. 

The user grades, by the way, seem like they’re better-suited to our film and music reviews, as those will generally be the only pieces written about various movies and albums. So someone will see “Bad Teacher,” then go back to Drew’s review and weigh in that way. Obviously, if you want to assign a grade to something you haven’t seen yet (or, in the case of yesterday’s “Louie” review, to something where you haven’t seen the new season) , that’s your God-given right as web-surfer. But I’d stress on those even less than I would on the grades I’m handing out.

So (to quote a show I’d have given a C or C- minus to, “Line of Fire”) that’s that with that. Resume partying.

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