Criticism versus Nitpicking and Grounded Conflict


What separates a legitimate criticism of a show from nitpicking? Can one complaint be more “valid” than another, if they’re both things the show is actually lacking or doesn’t explain or whatnot? And is there a scale for this stuff – do fifty tiny complaints add up to one big one, or does it require some single significant failing to constitute a legitimate criticism?


I think the most common way criticism turns to nitpicking is when it begins to focus on things that are not actually critical to the goals of a show. Which is obviously a pretty convenient statement to make, since measuring a show’s goals is itself an act of evaluation prone to interpretation and personal bias, but I still think it’s the situation that most results in misguided criticism or “nitpicking.”

This can take many forms, from wishing the show had explained something it didn’t explain (when that explanation would not have actually furthered the narrative point or character arcs of the show), to wishing it’d focused on some elements of a hypothetical situation that it didn’t cover (when those elements were actually just incidental to setting up the show’s actual theme or purpose), etc. This can also extend to many of the things commonly described as “plot holes” – my own favorite film critic explains this in great detail, but the thrust of it is that storytelling is inherently a fabrication, if your complaint is answered by “because then we wouldn’t have a movie” then you’re probably asking the wrong question, no story is obligated to explain any element of its universe that isn’t goal-critical, and that storytelling is often designed to work based on emotional or thematic logic, with plotting often working in service of these ideas.

If I were to dig a little deeper, I think the primary reason these arguments come up is because most people do not approach art from the perspective of “how well is this object succeeding in its own goals” – they approach from the perspective of “how well is this object articulating my media preferences.” Which is not to say people are wrong to do this – everyone likes different stuff, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I do think that when you apply that perspective to criticism (which is generally intended to evaluate according to some agreed-upon metrics of artistic quality, and probably shouldn’t be based wholly on your own subjective enjoyment) is when criticism can become misguided. I’ve talked about the problems of squaring diverse goals with critical evaluation before, but what I think this mainly comes down to is that things like “strongly developed characters,” “a well-articulated thematic throughline,” “a fully realized world,” and “a propulsive central narrative” are all valid goals, and most good shows devote their screen-time resources to only a few of those goals in order to maintain cohesion and tell a tight and fully-realized story, and nitpicking often comes about when a show focused on theme with a side of character runs into a critic focused on worldbuilding with a side of central narrative, or any other hypothetical mismatch.

As far as the many small issues/one big issue thing goes – extending from my previous argument, I apply that by saying “does this issue prevent the show from succeeding in what it’s trying to do?” If a show has flaws in pacing or writing or something, then those will diminish a show for me almost regardless of its goals, because those are basically the building blocks of virtually all storytelling goals. Aesthetics generally work in service of deeper goals, but a great deal of aesthetic craft is universal.

Management: Vague Star Trek: Into Darkness spoils ahead.


That “because then we wouldn’t have a movie” explanation seems incredibly broad – where does that leave the audience’s suspension of disbelief? To pick a recent example, Star Trek: Into Darkness featured a forty-minute battle just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, against an army that apparently somehow been amassed behind a moon of Jupiter, basically in full view of a planet that had just recently almost been mined out by a Romulan mining vessel, with absolutely no interference. Along with scenes of Khan throwing around fifty dudes, people surviving spaceship crashes… how is an audience supposed to feel anything about any of this? You can’t just wave away plot holes – if an audience doesn’t have a sense of how the variables of a story work or why characters do what they do, they won’t invest in the story.


The audience needs to understand why they do it

Agreed completely. I think this is mainly how fiction works – specific events are unique, but base human motivations are universal. Events don’t have weight unless given personal context through a character whose emotions are understandable.

Star Trek

I actually never saw it. I will say that the original context of that quote was a question of why the mafia in Looper didn’t choose a different method of execution than the entire conceit of the movie, which I think is somewhat different from the Star Trek situation. I think you have to accept the rules of a story’s world as originally presented, and suspension of disbelief, or just dramatic tension altogether, is easily lost when a story disobeys the rules it already set for itself.

This is also why so many action movies just fail as drama – they don’t set any rules for themselves, and so no events that take place have any weight, because we don’t know why anything is either heroic or terrifying in the context of that story’s universe (like your Khan beating up fifty men example – sure, that’s great, but it doesn’t actually mean anything in a weightless universe). Granted, most action movies also fail to introduce satisfying characters to ground the events in specific human needs anyway, so there’s generally a whole lot of dramatic failing to go around.

Anyway, I don’t actually know what Star Trek 2 was trying to do, but as you present it, your example seems to be one where the stakes of the conflict are load-bearing for what the movie wants you to care about. In which case creating a conflict that doesn’t make any sense in the context of that story’s established rules will certainly screw everything up. But generally I actually am willing to forgive a whole lot of “that would never happen” as long as a show/movie isn’t contradicting itself, or killing your investment in conflicts you’re supposed to care about through stuff like egregious plot armor. If conflicts ignore established variables or resolve themselves through entirely fabricated ones, it’s pretty hard to make them dramatically satisfying.