Dear June, Willa, and James,
Since we all seem to be flummoxed by what to call this new age we’re in, I’d like to throw out a few suggestion: The Mescaline Age? The Dislocation Age? The What-the-Hell-Was-That Age?
I kid, but do I? As a couple of you were kind enough to point out, I’ve had some fun in trying to come up with terms that grapple with this kind of loony, wonderful, expansionist era in TV—there’s the wave of bonkersawesome shows like American Horror Story, Scandal, and Sleepy Hollow—and that trend is tangentially related to the giant wave of cheap and cheerfully subversive B-movie TV shows we’ve been getting from all over the world in last couple of years.
All this confusion over titles and names and eras is, in my view, a symptom of a wonderful state of affairs: I don’t know what I’m doing! In a narrow, specific sense—I hope my employers note that I’m aware of the content of my job description. But one of the things I love most about TV is being completely flummoxed by something new, and TV has been throwing a lot of that at us in the last year or two. June talked of TV’s “dizzying” array of programs, and that’s how I feel too—dizzy, dislocated, delightfully confused. If our job description is to assess quality, this very frisky medium is having a lot of fun coming up with new conceptions of what “quality” even is.
Maybe this is where some of the TV vs. movies polite-fighting has been coming from. Nobody disputes that good movies come out every year, but as a culture, we’ve kind of settled into a rut in which a few dozen really good art-house movies are released every December, and a whole bunch of big-budget tentpole movies are rolled off the assembly line the other 11 months of the year.
I’m not the first person to observe that TV has rushed into that huge middle realm left unserved by the movies, but I will point out that TV has vastly expanded the array of tones, atmospheres, stories, and characters it’s willing to populate that realm with. That vast middle ground between arty-snootsville and populist red-meat territory used to be dominated by tortured dudes—let’s not forget that Vic Mackey, Walter White, and Tony Soprano were bracingly different when they came along, but they were also the centerpieces of commercially successful franchises that grabbed lots of eyeballs.
But TV has expanded well beyond the archetypes that allowed it to make the leap to the center of the culture, because it can. There are niches that support everything now, not just the story of dudes who can’t follow the rules.
And let’s face it, it would be kind of weird if TV hadn’t expanded beyond the array of formats, tones, and themes that it explored during the aughts. There was much fruitful exploration in the array of shows that Alan Sepinwall discussed in his book, The Revolution Was Televised, but as you all pointed out, the likes of Low Winter Sun and Ray Donovan did nothing but point out that that field needed to go fallow for a bit.
How do you solve a problem like TV? Damned if I know, but it isn’t really a problem, it’s a treat. And there’s so much of it that it’s a little easier to hide when you haven’t quite cracked a show’s code. I haven’t written about Scandal much, because it’s the scripted equivalent of a BuzzFeed listicle—it’s designed to be consumed, not analyzed. (Nothing in the proceeding sentence was a slam! Honest!) Let’s face it, the Golden Age trained us to do a certain kind of intellectual chin-stroking, but Scandal gave us a buzzcut, AHS threw a bucket of blood in our face, and then Sleepy Hollow cut off our heads. It’s a wonder we have enough synapses to come up with end-of-year lists.
Speaking of which, here’s my top 10 (and I don’t rank them because I’m a wuss):
- Borgen, Link TV/DVD
- Breaking Bad, AMC
- Broadchurch, BBC America
- Enlightened, HBO
- Game of Thrones, HBO
- Mad Men, AMC
- Masters of Sex, Showtime
- Orphan Black, BBC America
- Orange Is the New Black, Netflix
- Sundance Channel hat trick: Top of the Lake, The Returned, Rectify
As Ryan McGee wrote in a piece about what he calls the Silver Age of TV and as I noted in my “B-movie TV” piece, a lot of the best TV today is about connection and community, not alienation and turf-defending. To McGee, Louie is the avatar of shows that explore these profound questions even as they riff on familiar forms or blow up preconceptions with an attitude of loony affability. “The generosity onscreen pervades our pores until it changes us on an atomic level,” McGee wrote of Louie, a sentiment echoed by you, James, in your dispatch about TV’s turn toward the open-hearted. “It provides the opportunity to hope, even if it never guarantees it.”
That search for connection was everywhere: The Americans, Masters of Sex, Sleepy Hollow, The Bridge, and Defiance were ensemble pieces but had a man and a woman in the foreground—complicated people trying to make connections across tangled divides. Even Hannibal (which I will fight you about, Willa!) was about two disparate people who refused to believe that they were too damaged to attain some kind of communion with each other. Continuum and Banshee were about cops who were not just busting heads but trying to reclaim love. Enlightened brilliantly explored the despair of isolation and the difficulty of altruism. My token comedy mention: Trophy Wife, as I think James pointed out on Twitter, is a sweet, half-hour version of Big Love, with one man and three wives just trying to work it out for the kids.
Another trendlet worth celebrating: Not only were there many, many ladies, they were allowed to have many different kinds of relationships and backstories. Orange Is the New Black and Orphan Black could have been about women who went to war against each other, but they were ultimately about the search for sisterhood and understanding. I love that Allison on Orphan Black was a dark parody of a suburban mom but eventually became a human being worthy of Felix’s friendship. And who would have guessed that I would weep for Suzanne/Crazy Eyes on OITNB?
Before I tire you out, let me pivot to one more notable aspect of the Mescaline Age (I know that will never fly but humor me): the experimentation with pace. Many of the shows mentioned above feature a pell-mell, hang-on-it’s-going-to-be-a-bumpy-ride energy. Character development happens, sort of, but shows pile on developments in the manner that my mother says I dressed when I was 3 years old: Just pile everything on and see what happens. Sometimes you get a tutu on top of snow pants on top of purple tights, and sometimes that is glorious.
Just as glorious? A man staring at a wall of flip-flops in Walmart. It’s easy to gently rib Rectify for that kind of moment—could I have a dollar for every shot of the show’s lead character staring into space? But the truth is, I loved that Rectify, the anti-Scandal, sank into moments and spaces and allowed things to bloom, to grow, to reverberate. Similarly, the classy French zombies of The Returned take the ideas that The Walking Dead tends to crush like an overripe Walker noggin and put them into a slow-cooker filled with regret and yearning.
The best series today resemble professional racecar drivers: They know when to slow down, when to rev up, and when to draft on something that’s up ahead. (2013: The Year of the Variable-Speed Blender?) Or maybe it’s not even about pace, maybe 2013 was the year of saturation: Everything was the most something-or-other. Rectify was the most atmospheric. Top of the Lake was the most sadly beautiful. Breaking Bad was the most exquisitely brutal. Orange Is the New Black was the most giddy with possibility. Orphan Black was the most Maslany. Nothing succeeds like excess, amirite?
Perhaps I’m just saying this because my first salvo has gone on so long. But back me up here: Wasn’t it a good year for critical confusion? Isn’t that a good thing?