how did this get made?: best. test audience. ever.

The basic ingredients of How Did This Get Made?, a fortnightly podcast on the Earwolf network, are not promising if you’re looking for a nuanced film critique. For each regular episode, three actor-comedians are joined by a guest to ridicule a single bad movie. Ostensibly, the show has no higher purpose than to talk about how awful that film is, which just sounds like a recipe for cheap shots and little-to-no actual insight into what makes a film terrible.

But How Did This Get Made? is probably my single favorite movie podcast. On top of being very funny, HDTGM makes very specific and valid criticisms, and it ends up doing a much better job than many amateur (or even professional) critics in analyzing what has gone wrong. In short, Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas are possibly the best test audience of all time.

I think it means something that Raphael’s most noticeable tic is to ask a question beginning “Are we to assume that …” or “Are we to suppose that …”, followed by a restatement of some absurd premise that might be inferred from the movie but usually isn’t well articulated in that movie. Even though it seems as though there might be faint (or obvious) irony in the question — and even though these inquiries partly function as a lead-in to absurd riffs — the subsequent discussions actually attempt to answer the question and make sense of the story world as it’s been presented. If Raphael is being insincere when she’s asking these questions, it’s only 10% insincere.

Many of the objections stemming from these philosophical free-for-alls are only what a reasonable person might conclude. To put it rhetorically: Why do none of the actor’s ages align with their roles in Green Lantern? In Breaking Dawn — Part 1, how do the werewolves manage to get new clothes when they keep tearing out of them? How is it that Godzilla is able to hide in Manhattan? Why is the small town of Road House so preposterously violent? Why is the master plot of villainy in Superman III centered around controlling the market in … coffee?

For HDTGM, figuring out the physics of Howard the Duck or the characters’ nationalities in Street Fighter is a legitimate enterprise, and in trying to sort it all out, they develop an object lesson in how crappy exposition leads to dissatisfying art. They question poetic license precisely in the details of the art. In many cases, HDTGM‘s method is as simple as focusing on the details that the filmmakers would presumably prefer we the audience forget about. I think of this phenomenon generally as “hand-waving,” where instead of substantiating and explaining clearly what is happening in the world of the film, the filmmaker just uses the expositional equivalent of ascribing everything to magic. Pointed questions about what they mean to say and their means of saying it are the antidote to this kind of hand-waving.

And, what’s more, HDTGM‘s approach sort of shows up the weakness in another medium: The vagueness of bad film criticism. Bad-to-mediocre film reviews often deploy adjectives in strained metaphors that are not easy to unpack. This is partly a function of space — most film reviews are the equivalent of a few minutes of conversation, while HDTGM often lasts more than an hour. But that’s not much of an excuse, and I often find myself almost angry that the criticisms leveled at a film are almost unanswerable for being so vague. The focus on concrete questions in HDTGM implicitly denies that good filmmaking is like alchemy or that directors can show themselves to be “assured” or “forceful” in their moviemaking. In the universe of How Did This Get Made?, movies fail for concrete reasons, which in turn implies that a movie is fixable even by a non-auteur.

Moving on and moreover: Part of the appeal of HDTGM is that their philosophy seems to be that popcorn movies are not bad in principle. I don’t read a lot of mainstream reviews of blockbusters because I find the anti-popcorn critiques repetitive and kind of obvious. HDTGM doesn’t care if a film has no ambition other than to entertain us; the podcast is just about whether the movie succeeds in that endeavor.

True, if you want a take-down of the entertainment-industrial-complex, this is not it. That said, HDTGM is not blind to other issues important to academics and insightful film critics: It’s pretty common for the three co-hosts to declare a movie racist or misogynist, and with good reason. They’re good at sniffing out the more problematic gender and race issues in films, and calling out a film for using the merely pathetic as a prop. Generally, they can recognize how priviledge is used and abused. Admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to tell if HDTGM is itself troubled on this score — Jason Mantzoukas tends to make jokes that use the voice of misogyny without clearly detaching himself from that voice. (Also, I learned about this show through Scheer and Mantzoukas’s appearances in the FX sitcom The League, which is super funny but also obnoxious and regressive if you look at from pretty much any critical perspective.) But generally, their values are in line with the more forward-thinking critiques of culture.

A lot of what I’m trying to say here is a round-about way of pointing out that cultural criticism and movie reviews in particular are often both too serious and too poorly formulated. If HDTGM can be both hilarious and incisive, the bar is pretty high. Am I being vague by not mentioning any examples of what I don’t like? Yup. But that’s a different post for a different day.

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