Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Critic, a Camera, and a Wall

            It began, as so much does in our information age, with a tweet, and snowballed from there. 

            On March 13th, 2018, a Twitter thread was started by Allison Pregler, aka “Obscurus Lupa,” between herself and several other current and former TGWTG/CA producers, where they exchanged horror stories related to working with the Walkers and the CA management, especially CEO Mike Michaud.  This thread started to go viral, and while many of the stories were, apparently, nothing new, in the wake of #MeToo many, many more fans, including, I am ashamed to admit, yours truly, were seeing and hearing them for the first time. 

            The success this initial thread had at getting people’s attention, prompting more and more content creators to come forward with their own stories of ineptitude, mismanagement, and in some cases serious abuse, culminating in a massive, 70-page (and counting!) online Google Doc, gathered under the hashtag #ChangetheChannel.  

            I won’t try to summarize it all here, but I do think the Doc is worth reading in its entirety.  If you only have time for bullet points, Suede has already put together an excellent companion summary.  Needless to say, this is heavy stuff, the kind that simply can’t be ignored.  To my immense disappointment, however, CA and the Walkers in particular have done exactly that.  At first they simply blocked any and everyone who directly wrote them on Twitter about this.  Since the Doc hit, the only official response has been a brief, half-assed, victim-blaming farce of an “apology”, one that even the site’s most ardent supporters have found wanting.  As a result, over the past month numerous producers, including Todd in the Shadows, Film Brain, Rap Critic, Suede, and even Linkara (whose seniority and status on the site rivals that of Brad Jones, Angry Joe, and even Doug himself) have announced their departure from Channel Awesome, and since the “apology” came out on Monday the company’s Youtube page has lost well over 20,000 subscriptions, and that number is still rising. 

            It would be one thing if the stories of mismanagement, bad communication, double standards, lack of company policies and standards, and production chaos could simply be chalked up to the initial inexperience of ambitious, amateur filmmakers in over their heads.  It would be disappointing, but not necessarily deal-breaking, if it turned out that the Walkers were just kinda dickish and frustrating people to work with and/or for.  We’d be having a different conversation if there was any indication that the Walkers had learned from the mistakes of the early years and reformed their business practices.  We’d be having a different conversation if any sort of genuine remorse from the heads in Chicago were forthcoming. 

            But we’re not having any of those conversations.  We’re having this one.  And we’re having it because, when taken collectively, these stories point to a pair of internet celebrities that, despite their remarkable talents, are simply unsuited to being in a position with decision-making power over the lives and careers of others.  People who found themselves in such a situation, partially through sheer luck and circumstance, but who never bothered to try and learn how to use that power responsibly. 

            Yes, the worst abuses clearly come from Mike Michaud and Mark Ellis.  But the Walkers cannot be separated from this (and there are more than enough examples of Rob being directly involved in some problems), because they are the face of the company.  They are Channel Awesome.  It only exists because of the Nostalgia Critic.  The IP ownership of the name aside, if Doug had ever truly dug in his heels and said that things needed to change, it could have happened.  But he didn’t, and so far there are no indications that he will ever do so. 

            And even he, as much as I admire him, has his own direct responsibility in much of this.  My good friend and podcast partner, Justin (aka The CineMaverick), the person responsible for introducing me to Doug Walker in the first place (and whose comments to me on #ChangetheChannel were the inspiration for the title of this piece), told me that the story that's stuck with him the most is how Doug initially wanted a To Boldly Flee scene between Linkara and Lindsay Ellis (then still known as Nostalgia Chick) to essentially be an extended rape joke.  When confronted about the very, VERY obvious problems with this, he did eventually relent *somewhat*, but never seemed to grasp why making light of rape was the height of bad taste, and STILL forced Lindsay to record assault noises for the dub.  

            This particular story, I find, is emblematic of the worst part of all this.  Sadly, there is a clear and persistent pattern to all this; the women.  Almost without exception, the worst stories, and the most damaging treatment and abuse, has been towards the women, producer or otherwise (though this of course in no way discounts the experiences of men who mistreated).  There is a clear and present undercurrent of sexism and misogyny, both explicit and passive, running through much of the working environment these stories flesh out.  And that’s the part I find most depressing.  With all the needed upheaval of #MeToo happening, I’d always thought that the Walkers, at least, knew better.  Clearly, I was wrong.  Yes, this sort of thing is and has been standard in a lot of lines of work.  But it doesn’t excuse it, and it needs to change.  We can’t turn a blind eye to this shit anymore.  

            None of this needed to happen.  All these stories of mishap, especially surrounding the production of Suburban Knights and To Boldly Flee, have prompted quite a few people to compare the Walkers to Tommy Wiseau and The Room, and in some ways the comparison is not without merit.  But the clear divide between the two is that, while Wiseau is an utter black hole of anti-talent, the Walkers are the exact opposite; they are sharp, funny, and extremely talented comedians.  They never would have had the lasting success and impact on online criticism they’ve had if they weren’t.  But talent is, never was, and can never be an excuse for the mistreatment or exploitation of others.

            I’d be lying if I tried to pretend that this all hasn’t cut me very, very deeply.  I have lauded and been inspired by the Walkers for nearly a decade now.  I have spent countless hours watching my favorite videos of theirs repeatedly, and dragged Lord knows how many friends and family members to my computer to show them this or that review.  The Nostalgia Critic has helped me though so many times when little else would cheer me up or put a smile on my face. 

            So, yes, this hurts me as a fan, as it hurts my friend Justin and many other people I know who feel similarly about Channel Awesome.  But in the end, what we as fans must accept is that any discomfort on our parts is ultimately just not that important.  I have lost an emotional refuge in a turbulent world, and that blows.  But these people who have been directly used and harmed by Michaud and the Walkers have lost jobs.  They’ve lost friendships.  Their physical and/or emotional health has suffered.  In some cases they’ve been subjected to online abuse that followed or continues to follow them long after they left the company.  Focusing on that- shining a light on it, and fighting it- is far, far more important than whatever personal conflict I’m experiencing over this. 

            I can’t tell anyone how to process all this or what to do.  We each need to consider the evidence and decide for ourselves.  But after reading everything and giving it careful thought, my course of action is clear to me, as painful as it is. 

            I have officially unsubscribed from both the Twitter and Youtube sites for Channel Awesome.  I will cease watching any and all new videos on the site, including everything by the Walkers.  Regarding the older NCs, Bum Reviews, Vlogs, and Sibling Rivalries, the reams of comedic craftsmanship that have brought me truly uncountable moments of joy, happiness, and peace, I can’t yet say if I can ever watch them again.  It’s still too soon for me to decide that.  But, at the very least, I am on an indefinite hiatus from watching or recommending any past material of theirs. 

            I am open to revisiting this stance on both old and new materials and to one day supporting them (meaning the Walkers, not Michaud) again.  However, that can only happen under the conditions that A) either Michaud leaves CA, or the Walkers do, and B) they give this a proper response and apology, or if I have some solid reason to believe that they have actively changed their ways.  What form such amends could take isn’t something I can say, but I think a fair standard would be something that at least a majority of the producers currently sharing their stories accept as genuine, so that is what I will look for.  If the Walkers simply up and leave Channel Awesome, which would be quite a remarkable move, then I would certainly keep tabs on what they do next, at least at first.  But I highly doubt they will do this. 

            However, until that day- and as painful as it is for me to admit this, such a day may very well never happen- I can’t, in good conscience, continue to follow and promote than as I have before.  I am also going to commit myself to a project that, in retrospect, I should have made time for long ago.  On no less than four occasions in the past, I have written here to lavish praise on the Walkers.  I will not delete or alter those past posts- I feel it would be dishonest and disingenuous of me to pretend my feelings then were other than what they were- but I feel a responsibility to balance this out as best I can.  Erego, over the course of the next few months, I will write a series of articles covering the many former TGWTG/CA producers who have impacted me every bit as much as the Walkers have, and whose work I've continued to follow after they left the site.   

            Look, there's no other way to say it; this sucks.  Everything about this sucks.  But this clearly needed to happen.  Allison, Kaylyn, Lindsay, and the other producers who have been mistreated deserve better as artists and as people.  We deserve better as fans and consumers. 

            We have lost, perhaps, a refuge.  But I feel this is necessary to rectify the past and allow us, together, to make another one.  One safer and brighter, one based on genuine mutual trust, not lies and exploitation.  It’s time to start over.  It’s time to take the next step in creating a better tomorrow, for all of us.  It’s time to change the channel. 

-Noah Franc

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