At the Movies, the TV show that brought Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel and their thumbs to the masses, is being canceled. The series will finish its run in August. It’s a sad moment, at least if you’re a critic, or simply someone whose love for the movies was inspired by Siskel and Ebert and their passions for the medium. As much heat as the show took for reducing criticism to thumbs up and down, it was also an intelligent weekly half-hour discussion of how movies worked (and why they didn’t).
I’ll admit that I never much watched the current iteration, with A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, even though Scott is one of my favorite critics and I read him faithfully in the New York Times. I am part of the problem. But it’s no fun blaming myself—who or what else can we blame for At the Movies’ demise?
Part of the issue, I suppose, is that the chemistry between Siskel and Ebert were so key to the show, and their sparring rapport was what made the show a mainstream phenomenon. Not to take anything away from the new hosts or their predecessors, but once Siskel died of cancer, something irreplaceable was lost.
I’ve heard the theory that the show was killed by the Internet, or rather, that there are so many opinions and critics out there that it was superfluous. I’m not sure about that. I’m willing enough to believe that Internet reviewing is killing print criticism (said the print critic), but I don’t think Rotten Tomatoes competes in the same mindspace and leisure space as At the Movies did. Written reviews online—however many and however easily reduced to numbers—don’t necessarily replace the desire to sit back and watch someone on TV.
But it’s possible that other TV cut into At the Movies’ appeal. No, there hasn’t been an explosion of movie-review TV shows. But there is, thanks to reality TV, an explosion of criticism, or at least of judging. It may be hard to remember now, but part of the appeal and novelty of Siskel and Ebert was the brash novelty of it—two smart guys willing to cut to the chase and tell people their movies sucked on TV.That was part of what made it special.
That’s not so special anymore. Sometimes it seems that TV is nothing but people saying that something sucks. (Or, on the effusive flip side, that “this is the strongest group of competitors that NAME OF SHOW HERE has ever had!”) American Idol, Project Runway, Hell’s Kitchen—judgement, judgement, judgement, attitude, attitude, attitude. TV is running a criticism surplus, and even if most of it has nothing to do with the movies, it may have made At the Movies seem like just another voice in the judge-o-sphere.
Ah, well. Movie review shows die, but criticism lives on—and we have the Internet to thank, not blame, for that. Roger Ebert—still prolific despite cancer that has taken away his voice—tweeted a goodbye to At the Movies. Somehow that seems utterly appropriate.