The tyranny of reviews
The other night, I started a new TV show (huge deal, I know). I really liked the pilot—so much so, I found myself thinking about it multiple times the next day. I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode.
But then I made the mistake of going online and reading the reviews. The consensus was . . . not great. I immediately lost all interest in continuing the series, thoroughly swayed by the low-60’s score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The incident left me wondering why this happens to me so easily.
I like to believe that I have agency and free will; that I can discern for myself what I like and dislike without being unduly influenced by random people on the Internet.
But maybe I’m completely wrong about all that.
Increasingly it feels like I’m surrendering my personal judgment to the external evaluations of a disinterested, faceless crowd.
Perhaps because choosing is getting too damn hard.
In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that the dramatic explosion in choice we have in things both mundane and profound is paradoxically making us less happy:
“Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”
Last year a record 599 original scripted drama, comedy, and limited TV shows aired across the myriad streaming services. That’s too many! Once you summon the Herculean effort needed to stop scrolling and actually pick something, doubt starts to creep in. “Is this good? Am I actually enjoying this? There are 598 other options out there after all. . . ”
This isn’t just about TV shows. Products, restaurants, vacations, where to work, what hobbies to take up—any form of entertainment or experience is subject to this overwhelming sense of choice and, therefore, an over-reliance on external validation.
I'm not suggesting that all reviews are useless. They can save us time and disappointment. But I do wonder if we’ve been too eager to relinquish our critical faculties, submitting instead to a form of mental outsourcing.
One’s enjoyment of art—or a workplace, a hobby, or a meal—is an intensely personal thing, subject to countless idiosyncratic factors. It feels undignified to give something called (checks notes), the Tomatometer the power to validate or invalidate these personal tastes. It’s as if I’m letting it say to me: "You liked that? Well, you're wrong. It only scored 61% Don't you know how to tell if something's good or not? What’s wrong with you?!"
No one should know better than I do what I like or dislike; what resonates and what falls flat. That’s why I’m trying to tune out external noise and concentrate more on how I actually feel about things.
Later this week I’m going to see Oppenheimer.
Please don’t tell me if it’s any good.