One of the things about having so much TV these days is that there’s incentive to write shows off—or at least, I feel that way, and I’m paid to watch television. With so much good stuff, the bad is a kind of relief: finally, something I can just forget about. But for all the Bastard Executioners, a stinker so foul even its creator was down to bury it six feet under, there are bad shows that keep tinkering, keep fiddling, keep trying until they really improve and, godammit, you have to remember them again.
And so it was with Halt and Catch Fire, the show I most enjoyed this year. Halt, set at the dawn of the computer age in early-’80s Dallas, started badly. As Alan says, it began with a Don Draper type and Walter White type trying to build a personal computer. It didn’t quite work, until about halfway through its first season when the two female characters who had seemed to be stereotypes and scenery—the socially awkward, hot hacker chick and the put-upon wife—became the stars of the show. By the start of Season 2, the show’s initial dynamics had completely flip-flopped. In a kind of grand allegory for what has been happening in television as a whole, Don Draper and Walter White got shunted to the side, and the hacker and the wife blossomed into full-blown, driven, smart, creative humans building a company of their very own. (I also don’t want to downplay the love story between the hacker, Cameron, and her coder Zach, which was like the sequel to Some Kind of Wonderful you didn’t know you wanted.)
Halt and Catch Fire is not, by any stretch, perfect, but on television nothing is. The sheer length of a TV series and the way that shows are made—by a group of people up against a deadline, every week—precludes that every aspect will always be exactly right: Every show has an off episode; every show has a lesser performance; every show has some not-quite-right plot mechanics. The flaws of TV are part of what I find so loveable about it: They make the medium human and approachable, the stuff of hundreds of thousands of passionate arguments.
But I also think there are structural incentives in the current moment to gloss over TV’s baked-in inconsistencies. One is “peak TV” itself: With so much television, shouting “best show ever!” is far more convincing than demurring, “interesting show that can be very good but occasionally is not!” I think binge-watching steamrolls flaws. It’s like driving down the highway extremely fast. If the scenery is mostly bucolic, the open sewage pit you flew by that one time barely registers. And I think that TV is so new to the Taken Seriously Ball, we TV lovers sometimes overassert the form’s good health, for fear that TV’s ticket will get revoked otherwise. As you point out Margaret, peak TV is not just a compliment; it’s a limit. TV is very good, but, of course, there’s room to improve. (Lest we forget, this was also the year of The Brink, Flesh and Bone, Season 2 of True Detective, and almost all of the networks’ new programming.) Why don’t we sing that from the mountaintop too?
One flawed show that I wish got more attention is Fox’s The Last Man on Earth, which is weird and wild and singular. I found the very beginning to have some icky gender problems, but those have been resolved, mostly by making Will Forte’s protagonist hilariously annoying, unfathomably insecure, and sweetly well-meaning. Forte and his co-star Kristen Schaal play people you would never want to hang out with, even at the end of the world. But they are funny and fascinating, childish and gross, deeply loveable in all their unlikableness. The beginning of Season 2, in which the two were briefly separated, was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen all year. If future episodes— including the grossest cheese-eating you have ever seen—aren’t always as good, they always feel surprising, like something you haven’t seen on TV before.
And while I’m talking about adjusting expectations, let me raise the subject of Netflix’s Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s very lovely and thoughtful comedy, which debuted only last month. Master of None was so broadly admired it currently has 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I, like apparently every TV critic operating in North America, liked it very much. As a romantic comedy, tracing Dev’s (Ansari) relationship with Rachel (a fantastic Noel Wells), it was aces; as a comedy of manners, interrogating some of the weird-ass shit we do because we can text, it was insightful; and as a show out to explore big themes—racism, sexism, parenthood and so on—it was bracingly straightforward. I enjoyed almost all of the time I spent watching it, and yet, when I look at that 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, I feel downright eye-roll-y: Only dictators and death are 100 percent.
And Master of None has some flaws. Namely, none of Dev’s friends are particularly good actors. Evaluating acting is extremely subjective. One man’s “Justin Theroux is the best actor of the year,” is another woman’s “he’s fine, but he’s the least convincing actor on The Leftovers and only a little because his natural-born eyeliner is so distracting.” (To be clear, I am that woman.) I have written before about how television is exceptionally kind to bad actors, because, over long periods of time, their bad acting becomes a part of the character. Still, I would suggest that the conversations between Dev and his friends Brian, Denise, and Arnold are stilted and awkward, not only because they are dense and heady and full of topic sentences, but also because the actors participating in them are stiff, except for weird Arnold, who was dropped in from another sitcom, one with a laugh track and a ton of physical comedy.
Why didn’t I make more of this in my review? The lesser acting of a bunch of supporting characters didn’t tank the show. (Bad acting rarely does: see Seinfeld in Seinfeld and Julie Taylor in Friday Night Lights.) Plus, the diversity of Dev’s friend group speaks to the show’s mission, giving voices to characters who don’t always have voices on TV, a mission it executed brilliantly with Dev. And then there’s the Netflix of it all: Master of None starts very heavy on the friends and ends very heavy on the girlfriend. Wells and Ansari’s rapport is as naturalistic and convincing as Ansari’s rapport with his pals was mannered. By the time I finished, the friends were not just a forgivable flaw, they were a forgettable one.
With every passing year, I become more and more awed, and more and more creeped out, by the streaming giant. The greatest trick Netflix ever pulled is convincing us that binge-watching is a sign that something is very good and not just a sign that something is immediately available. I seriously believe that if Showtime’s The Affair, in which memory is indistinguishable from insanity, were airing on Netflix, people would be talking about it as a great show—or at least a truly delectable bad one.
I invite you all to do some reconsidering: What shows did you change your mind about this year? Has the Mad Men finale aged like a good bottle of wine, or an open can of Coca-Cola? What shows, imperfect though they may be, deserve more attention? Do you guys have any thoughts about the pluses, or minuses, of bingeing? Alan, I know you have lamented the lost art of the episode: I suspect that June, a lover of procedurals, feels you on this point.
Talk to me now,
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