One of the things that has been nagging at me over the last few months as I write up reviews for comics and TV shows and the like, is that I rarely seem to give a bad review to anything. I like to think I've got a fairly good sense of critical analysis, and I can be head-over-heals with something (say, The Avengers) and still be open to its weaknesses, whilst watching some generally regarded as poor and enjoy it for what it is without feeling I'm soft-balling it. But I've been in a couple of debates recently regarding films I don't dislike as much as some - Green Lantern springs to mind, but its not the only one - and found myself saying "well, for what it is..." or "not all TV shows can be The Wire".
Which is a problem, because then you are subconsciously grading things on their aspiration, not their final product. Or, as my mind is starting to call it, The Transformers Problem.
So, Transformers 2 holds the dubious honour of being the only film I have paid money to see that I didn't stay to end of. In the 40-odd minutes I watched it, I found it lazy, incoherent, offensive in both content and it's assessment of its audience, and generally some sort of Hate-Crime against the History of Cinema. But part of my annoyance with it is that it's aspiration is so painfully low. It doesn't want to say anything, show anything. It doesn't want to dazzle, or inspire, or educate. It doesn't want to make you feel. It just wants to take your money, and turn off any brain function, and gawp. With all that money, all that time, and all that energy, the utter lack of craft on display is actually quite impressive. But the key thing is that all it wants to do it bludgeon you into submission for two hours. And pretty much succeeds.
So how do you judge that? It pretty much does what it set out to do - it made a Truck-load (or is a Robot-in-Disguise-load) of cash, and if all they wanted was a movie that was loud and popular then they pretty much succeeded. Is it even fair to compare it to labour of love films like Inception, which clearly wants to be a film that makes you think and feel and be engaged. I feel comfortable judging Inception by the standards it sets for itself, which would be different to the standards that say, The Artist sets for itself or The Muppets sets for itself. But in all three cases you can happily say "this is what the film is trying to do, and this is how well it succeeds".
And judging things by their own standard has a lot of advantages. Castle does not aspire to be The Wire, but it's still a good show even though by the latters standard it's superficial nonsense. Castle wants to be a fun procedural; it is a fun procedural, and I'm happy to judge and enjoy it by that standard; in fact its when it wants to be a little more serious that Castle usually staggers a little bit. I'm not going to judge The Dresden Files against the same yardstick I'd judge Stephen King or Atomic Robo the same as The Walking Dead. In the end the only sensible thing to do is to do is compare them to what they are trying to achieve, and then we are right back at Micheal Bay's festering cacophony of awfulness.
Not all TV shows can be, nor should they try to be, The Wire. Entertainment with low aspirations can still be hugely entertaining - I'm currently playing a lot of Diablo 3, for example, which is a chronically unambitious game in many ways, but still pretty good fun. But ambition and aspiration are a quality in itself; there is always something to be said for those messy failures that result from over-reach, and I've often gone to the mat to defend things that aren't actually very good but did at least try.
All this is leading to the common enough conclusion that objective ratings systems are stupid, but also that there is a good reason that discussion of TV shows and books and movies are one of the lifeblood topics of the Internet. Broadly I think you do have to assess anything by what it tries to be, not what you want it to be, or what the last similar product you experienced was, but there is a trap here of giving a free pass to lazy work simply because it has met its own low standards.