TV Club

Best TV shows 2014: Slate’s TV Club discusses outrage.

Entry 12: Sometimes, you need to get outraged about what’s on television.

With certain hot-button shows, like Girls, it becomes incredibly hard to write about the show as an artistic work because the chatter around it becomes overwhelming.

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

I agree with all of you! About everything. Well, almost everything, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

First of all, we’ve often seemed downright giddy when we’ve discussed all the good changes that have occurred lately, especially in the last year. More perspectives! More diversity! More kinds of storytelling! More gazing for ladies! Hooray!

Except we’re losing some things too, like the sense that any show, anywhere, is ever in the right awards category, no matter what award-giving body you’re talking about. Trying to pin down networks, studios, and award-givers regarding what is a comedy, drama, miniseries, or series ends up with various people sounding like they’ve bogarted all of Broad City’s weed. “What is a category, man? Like, open your mind—a comedy can be anything! A miniseries can go on for a hundred years! Why can’t Hannibal be a musical, dude? Stop harshing my mellow!”

Yes, it’s pretty much anarchy as everyone and their publicist scrambles for scraps of recognition from awards. Even folks in the media can’t figure out how to classify these shows. All the old categories are breaking down—comedy, drama, cable, network, streaming, miniseries, docuseries, dramedy, reality, comedy, whatever. It’s anarchy, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!

But beyond the nostalgia for a simpler time is a real concern: Parks and Recreation is going away, but where’s the next Parks coming from? The next Office? As Willa and Jim pointed out, specificity is driving much of what’s great about television right now, but I miss having more mainstream shows we all talked about—not just those of us inside a critic-media-weirdo Twitter bubble. Obviously Parks never was a big mainstream hit, not in the way The Office was, and certainly not in the way that The Big Bang Theory still is, but where is the water-cooler comedy of yore? Do people still even drink water? Or is it all just energy drinks and latte? (Insert an image of an old man yelling at clouds.)

The reason this question is important is because Parks consciously drew on the best of the half-hour comedy traditions. It was sort of the ideal love child of Cheers and The Office, and it was actually about something. Parks and Rec wasn’t just a funny workplace comedy about a bunch of goofballs in Indiana, it had a political point to make about how people of differing backgrounds and beliefs can nonetheless come together to do worthwhile things for their community. Obviously Cheers, Friends, and The Office didn’t have that political subtext, but they were all cheerfully aimed directly at the mainstream and they reinforced worthy ideas about compassion, friendship, loyalty, and growing up. That’s what Parks did too, but given how gun-shy the broadcast networks are about comedy in general, where’s the next one going to come from? From the folks who brought us Mulaney and a bunch of limp rom-coms this season? Unlikely.

When Mad Men leaves the scene, I’ll be sad, but I have no doubt that the exploration and dismantling of masculinity will continue to be a popular topic, even in this new and improved television landscape. What’s less clear is whether the DNA of Cheers and M.A.S.H. and Friends and Frasier will continue to replicate in Hollywood, and that is scary as well as sad, because those shows really do serve many great purposes. They make us laugh, ideally, and they distract us from the hard stuff in life, but they also hone the next generation of writers and performers who, if we’re lucky, will make some good movies down the road and possibly more TV shows that we’ll like.

Watching warm-hearted, mainstream ensemble comedies—whatever kind of camera setup they have—go out of style or get canceled (sob Enlisted sob) is like watching Detroit go from a world-building powerhouse to a struggling, bankrupt shell of its former self. We’re not just seeing a giant fall, we’re seeing a majestic and hard-working tribe get put out to pasture. Mainstream, humanistic comedy simply withering on the vine is like the Elves going into the West, but with better punch lines.

OK, great—now the downfall of network comedy is bringing me down hard. So how about I get fired up with some outrage! Damn it, Jim, how dare you bring up that topic! You’re dead to me! Also, pistols at dawn, sir!

Ha ha, kidding. But I do know what you mean about feeling depleted when it comes to Girls and other shows that provoke strong feelings among the commentariat and beyond. I didn’t write about the third season of Girls at all, partly due to personal circumstances, but partly because I’d written so much about it in its first two seasons that my brain just wanted to sit out that round. And I absolutely agree that with certain hot-button programs, it becomes incredibly hard to write about the show as the show—as an artistic work—because the chatter around the show and the person who makes it becomes overwhelming. By the end of Breaking Bad, were we debating Walter White anymore? Or the concept of toxic, antiheroic masculinity writ large? And does anyone have some extra-strength Excedrin they can spare?

That said, here’s where I’m going to disagree a little bit with some of the chitter-chatter about outrage, or at least try to bring a differing perspective to that discussion.

I totally get how it’s possible to feel overwhelmed by a deluge of #hottakes before you’ve even finished your first cup of coffee in the morning. It’s our own damned fault: We could not look at Twitter, but has there ever been a better, more crack-tastic tool for writers who cannot resist procrastinating (i.e., all writers throughout history)?

Because many of us can’t resist going online and because ways to connect online are proliferating, we have more ways to know what many more people are thinking about any number of things. It can all fry our delicate critical circuits pretty good and quickly lead to mental exhaustion.

But overall, I’m very, very glad that all these methods of expressing strong opinions are out there. Do you think the whole Cosby thing would have gone down the way it did had the dissemination of reported information and informed commentary—much of which had been out there for years—not gotten sped up and turbo-charged by the Internet? Did you learn things from #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter? I sure did. Did #YesAllWomen make a difference? I really, really hope so.

Anger, extreme reactions, and outrage are absolutely tools that any writer has to be careful about using. Overuse leads people to tuning you out and underuse means people can easily discount your pallid takes. And I definitely prefer being ecstatic about things, but this year, some of the pieces I’m proudest of were absolutely driven by the very strong conviction that TV can do much, much better (and please forgive the self-linkage that follows). Whether I was reporting on the lack of diversity among HBO’s creators, lamenting the weaponized misogyny of Gamergate or simply fuming about Bruce from Mixology charged agendas were not hard to find in my work. I hope that, like the writers I admire, I was able to channel those feelings into work that engaged people or at least paid the conversation forward.

So count me among those who do not feel that the level of outrage is getting too outrageous. Yes, a lot of people are shouting into the wind, trying to get noticed, and trying to get their points across. Some of these people are self-promoting jerkweeds. Many of them are not. Sure, I have to take the occasional social-media break to get away from the clanging cacophony, but on balance, I’m really glad so many people care about so many things.

After all, that’s what I respond to in the shows I love—conviction, curiosity, and a need to connect. I can’t love the extreme needs and intense emotions on display in Hannibal and Transparent and Happy Valley and then get all sniffy about those things when surfing the Internet.

I get that no one says “surfing the Internet” anymore, by the way. Though they might say it in the upcoming multicam comedy CSI: Cyber, which is absolutely a real thing (OK, so it’s a drama, not a comedy).

Outrageously yours,