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‘I wanted to scrape it from my eyeballs’: critics on their zero-star savagings
Culture TV and Radio

‘I wanted to scrape it from my eyeballs’: critics on their zero-star savagings

It’s harder to write about something you love than something you hate. But what is often forgotten is that the axiom can loop back on itself. Trying to write about something that leaves you bewildered, wondering how you sat through something with no redeeming features, can mean staring at a blank page for quite some time. It is under such conditions that the zero-star review is born.

The challenge is to stop it becoming a torrent of fury about the waste of your time and the talents of the people involved (or the corruption of civilisation itself, if you are dealing with a reality show, which is frequently the case). It’s best to get that out of the way in a first draft or a WhatsApp screed to a patient friend, family member or spouse. Then you can try to create a piece that is worthwhile – even if its subject is not.

So, here are the shows Guardian critics gave zero stars, reappraised by their writers.

Sex Unzipped

It took me a minute to remember this programme. Clearly, some mental safety mechanism had removed it from the easy-access memory vaults. This was a review written in a – relatively rare – rage. Sex: Unzipped covered important topics in a way that was beyond misconceived. I despised it then and I despise it now – and myself, for not exploiting the phrase “anal douche” while I had it. Lucy Mangan, lead TV critic, the Guardian

What the review said: “I blame myself, really. I have made repeated pleas in these pages that British people be kept away from any shows about sex or anything remotely sex-adjacent, because of our inability to face cameras or genitals without collapsing in mortal embarrassment. In doing so, I implied that Americans were better suited to the job. I apologise unreservedly. For Sex: Unzipped, billed erroneously by Netflix as a comedy special and presented by rapper Saweetie, has been inflicted upon us all to give the lie to my claim. Saweetie is, for someone used to performing, fascinatingly terrible as a presenter. Uncomfortable, self-conscious and with a relentlessly flat delivery – it’s quite agonising. Perhaps she would be better off without the sex-positive puppets? Then again, perhaps we all would.”

Love Island

Faye with Brad in Love Island season sevenView image in fullscreen

With any review, it’s incumbent upon you to act in good faith, but more so when it’s heading for zero stars. You need to be honest. If it works on you despite its lack of any kind of value, or the fact it causes harm to many things you hold dear, you need to say so. It doesn’t mean that it deserves at least one star. It means that you, as a person, deserve none. LM

What the review said: “Should we watch? Are we complicit in untold miseries if we do? By the time they drop Chloe into the mix, they are questions devoid of meaning. I hate myself as much as I love Faye, Kaz and Hugo and love it as much as I hate the rest and the whole retrograde stink of it. I’m as confused as Kaz and Liberty were by the first bottle of champagne. Please, somebody, help.”

Buying London

A man and woman in evening dress walking up a grand staircase past a chandelier in Buying LondonView image in fullscreen

I sent my review of millionaire-property horror show Buying London to my editor with a series of questions. Is it OK, I asked, to say “hate” as often as I say it? And is it even possible to give something no stars? I had never done it before. Now I have, and all it took was Netflix doing a Marie Antoinette on the housing crisis to get me there. The downside of a zero-star review, however, is that everyone I’ve spoken to about Buying London has cheerfully admitted that, if they didn’t before, they are now definitely going to watch it. In the age of hate-views and hot takes, it turns out that zero stars has moved closer in spirit to five stars. You can’t say you weren’t warned. Rebecca Nicholson, TV critic, the Guardian

What the review said: “I hate almost everything about Buying London, the British version of Netflix’s highly successful Selling Sunset, in which grotesquely wealthy people buy property in Los Angeles from glamorous real estate agents whose personalities are plucked from the reality TV presets menu. I hate that it bases all of its dramatic tension on pitting women against each other. I hate that it makes Richard Curtis’s film Notting Hill look like a gritty documentary about the mean streets of London. I hate its England-for-dummies shtick that is clearly pitched at an international market. I hate its reverence for billionaires and bad taste, its celebrity name-dropping without actual celebrities, even the lurching drone footage that seems to have been shot by the Red Arrows.”

Fame Academy Live at Wembley Arena/Martin Creed at the ICA

It’s the strangest thing: you would expect a gig I hated so much that I gave it no stars at all to be burned on my memory even 20 years on, but no. I have no recollection whatsoever of seeing either Fame Academy Live or Martin Creed’s performance at the ICA. That said, I still know why I did it. Pop music really matters to me, which is probably just as well, given that I’ve spent my entire adult life writing about it. If there’s one thing I can’t bear, it’s people treating it with contempt – or, rather, people who involve themselves with pop music treating it with contempt – which is what both gigs amounted to.

The first was an openly cynical exercise in parting people from their cash that couldn’t be bothered to pretend to be anything else. The second was effectively a visual artist sneering smugly at what he evidently thought was a vastly inferior art form to his regular gig – and he couldn’t be bothered to do it wittily. I couldn’t even give them marks for effort – they had put none in, thus deserved nothing back. I suspect I would do exactly the same thing today. Alexis Petridis, lead music critic, the Guardian

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What the Fame Academy Live review said: “This concert could be no more efficient in parting parents from their cash if the Fame Academy students leapt from the stage and started snatching wallets at knifepoint. The audience are cajoled into a mobile phone vote for the song they want to hear. Your every step is dogged by someone trying to flog you something: programmes, T-shirts, Fame Academy opera glasses, glowsticks, popcorn, candy floss. It is like being trapped in a vast souk, except you’re not allowed to haggle.”

What the Martin Creed at the ICA review said: “This show is provocative only in that it seems less like a gig than an experiment to see how charmless and pleased with himself a man can appear before the audience storm the stage and physically attack him. In fact, the audience stay put, guffawing along and applauding to prove they are not the butt of Creed’s lazy, witless jokes. It’s a depressing evening that serves only to throw Creed’s visual art into stark relief. Compared with this, watching lights go on and off for hours on end sounds like the night of your life.”

The Greasy Strangler

A close up of a man with a greasy-looking face and white fluffy hair with shades on in The Greasy StranglerView image in fullscreen

It wasn’t the smirking misanthropy of the moronic horror comedy The Greasy Strangler that prompted me to roll out a zero-star rating. Nor was it the film’s insistence on rubbing its diseased, filth-encrusted genitals in our faces, or the shot-through-a-bucket-of-sick aesthetic. It wasn’t even the fact that the film is so repulsively unsavoury that you want to scrape it out of your eyeballs with teaspoons after watching it. I probably could have tolerated all this – all the artless, attention-seeking gross-out antics and the barely veiled contempt for the characters and the audience – if the film wasn’t also so thuddingly tedious.

Of course, I’m not blind to the irony inherent in the zero-star review. For a film like The Greasy Strangler, which sets out to be as disgusting as possible, zero stars means mission accomplished. So congratulations to the film-makers, I guess, on a shoddy schlock-fest that left me with the rare double whammy of boredom and fury. Wendy Ide, lead film critic, the Observer

What the review said: “Like an early John Waters movie but without the sophistication, this aggressively inane horror comedy manages to cram in every disgusting, deviant activity you couldn’t begin to imagine. And yet, it’s still rather boring. All jarring discords, freakish genitals and a desperate need to shock, this is a singularly tiresome viewing experience. The plot, such as it is, focuses on the romantic rivalry between a father and son who both fall for the same woman on a disco walking tour of downtown LA. A film with literally no redeeming features.”

The X Factor Live

When I awarded zero stars to The X Factor Live in 2005, I was a 24-year-old music writer more concerned with making jokes than critically appraising the zeitgeist. Was I punching down by likening the noise made by two long forgotten contestants to an un-oiled door? Was it mean to suggest another looked more like a newly qualified primary school teacher than a pop star? Probably. But I can never forgive the operatic man band G4 for their heinous cover of Radiohead’s Creep. We must be tough on such crimes and tough on the causes of such crimes: in this case, Simon Cowell. I stand by every word. Helen Pidd, Today in Focus presenter, the Guardian

What the review said: “There are few experiences in cultural life that can shake one’s faith in the basic good of humanity, but sitting among 10,000 free-willed citizens who have paid £23.50 to watch blood-draining, pulse-stopping karaoke just about does it.”

Source: theguardian.com