“There were some changes in how certain shows are classified this year. For example, Orange is the New Black is now technically a drama, while Louie is now technically jazz.”
– Andy Samberg, 2015 Emmys Opening Monologue
The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism. It’s hard to say why, though I have some theories: a lack of historical literacy, particularly with younger critics; an increase in critics, especially reviewers and recappers, using broad language and easy shorthand due to the punishing deadlines demanded by a hectic 24/7 online publishing environment; a growing tendency towards a mindset of critic-as-advocate in a crowded pop culture marketplace, which encourages critics to overstate the virtues of works of art they want to support in the hopes it will persuade more of their audience to give them a shot. Probably there are other reasons, but I like my theories because of all the first-hand evidence I have. I’ve called movies and TV shows innovative out of ignorance, expedience and a desperate want to convince other people to like the things I like so I have someone to talk about them with. Sometimes the truth – that something is “merely” fresh, interesting or novel – can seem a bit lacklustre. But “innovative” is a word with some heft behind it: not just new, but so new it represents a major break with the old way of doing things.
But artistic innovation is rare, and only gets rarer the longer a medium is around. Every medium has its limits, and while its early days will be a flurry of invention as artists create the basic vocabulary of material, structure, form, etc. eventually most things an artist can possibly do with paint on canvas or light on film will have already been done. Irmin Roberts, an uncredited second-unit cameraman (or cinematographer, sources vary), invented the dolly-zoom in 1957 during the making of Vertigo, and that was the first and last time a dolly-zoom was innovative. People have used them in new and interesting ways since then – the reverse dolly-zoom from Goodfellas melts my face off to this day – but it was innovative once. It opened up the medium to new possibilities once.
Maybe this seems pedantic, and it would be if “innovative” was a perfect synonym for “fresh” and “new” and “original”, but the concept of innovation is an extremely loaded one. It’s no surprise the term has grown in use over the last few decades given the valorisation of “innovation” spread by Silicon Valley and its pantheon of “visionary geniuses”, each as mythical as the last. But it’s exactly in that source we should see the danger in throwing it around so loosely. Technological innovations are constantly credited in the public imagination to people who did not create them, treated as the breakthroughs of singularly brilliant minds whose sole role, very often, was owning the companies where the workers who actually created the innovations were working at the time. Even to credit those workers is usually too simplistic, because their breakthroughs are frequently just the final step in a years- or even decades-long process of inquiry, research, design, testing, etc. that likely involved dozens if not hundreds of people who deserve recognition for their contributions. But they don’t get it. Even the one who makes that final jump doesn’t get it. Irmin Roberts invented the dolly-zoom and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism, and it wigs me out. It’s such a bold claim to make: not just something you’ve never seen before, but something no one has ever seen before. And even when you’ve correctly identified something as innovative, if you’re not careful, you can credit it in such a way as to bury the contributions of people without whom it would not exist. It’s not a word to be used lightly, not when criticism is often where the history of an art form – or at least the dominant narrative of that history – is written.
Let’s talk about Louie.