TV Club

Some of 2015’s best TV used identity and diversity to riff on and spiff up familiar genres.

Some of the year’s best shows used identity and diversity to riff on and spiff up familiar genres.

Black-ish, Empire, Jane the Virgin.
Black-ish, Empire, and Jane the Virgin.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy ABC, Fox, The CW.

Couch potatoes,

Oh God, Margaret, I love the idea of secret TV show crushes, though I feel like it would be very hard to name a show you do not watch. Hindsight, VH1’s now-canceled drama about a woman in her late 30s who travels back to her 20s and the 1990s, might count, but I know you loved that too. (Plotwise, think Sliding Doors, but with time travel.) Hindsight has a kind of small-scale, DIY flavor about it, a callback to a time when TV was less polished, but I really dug it, all of its ’90s references, and the way it interrogated true love stories while giving us lots and lots of smooching.

As for shows I like that you guys might flat-out dislike: At this point, does Homeland count? Hi, my name is Willa, and I have a Homeland problem. Just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in. This season started kind of tiresomely (Carrie goes crazy again, this time … on purpose!) but has settled into a very well-plotted, chilling, and all too timely terrorism thriller. (If you take a subway to work every day and are prone to anxiety, best to skip.) Homeland is good at delivering intelligent John Le Carré jolts in a contemporary context, and I’m not going to overthink my enjoyment of it (until the next time I overthink my enjoyment of it).

If I can’t think of other shows I really like that you guys might hate (New Girl?) I can think of a show I basically dislike at this point, that I know one of you still harbors affection for: Downton Abbey. June, how are you still hanging in with the Granthams?

That said, I will admit to having watched and rewatched and rewatched the Downton Abbey Season 2 Christmas special more times than I can count.  (That’s the one where Lady Mary and Matthew finally get together for realsie: Obviously, I dislike Downton with the passion of someone who once loved it.) Alan and June, you have both mentioned that rewatching is not what it used to be, and I couldn’t agree more, but it bums me out a little. I think the pleasures of rewatching are at the very heart of the pleasures of television and that this is true even as the average viewer is doing less and less rewatching, if only because there are fewer and fewer reruns available to watch.

That said, I think there’s an element of the rewatch in all television viewing. June, you say you don’t rewatch much anymore, but I think watching procedurals is a kind of rewatching. Little kids watch the same things over and over and over again: This is why so many parents know the lyrics to Frozen. As we get older and more sophisticated, our tastes broaden. We don’t want to watch the same entertainment hundreds of times in a row. Sometimes we want to watch slightly different variations on that entertainment hundreds of times in a row. (Not to knock adults completely; sometimes we want to watch wild and fresh and challenging stuff too.)

Slightly different variations on the same stuff: That is the procedural, which is a kind of endlessly replicating sequel, with the same characters doing very similar things in very similar ways, week after week after week, whether it’s catching bad guys or trying cases or saving patients, with just enough variation to keep things lively. And it’s not just procedurals that can be relied on to give you a familiar shot of pleasure. However original a TV show is, after a couple of episodes, you have some idea what you are in for, even if part of what you are in for, as with Mr. Robot, is a twist or, as with Game of Thrones, is something awful happening to a character you care about. Every episode of every show has familiar characters, a familiar tone, and familiar themes (this season of The Leftovers notwithstanding).

I want to be clear: I am not dissing this phenomenon. Gussied up, it’s called genre pleasure, and there’s no art or entertainment-consuming adult in the world who doesn’t have his or her predilections. Not every rom-com (or costume drama or detective noir or superhero story) is the same, but there is satisfaction and comfort to be had in what they share and, in the best cases, thrills and provocations to be found in what they don’t.

I think some of the best shows of this year have brilliantly manipulated comfort and provocation, wedding existing genres with underrepresented perspectives and characters in ways that feel both inevitable and invigorated. Empire is an over-the-top, prime-time melodrama with clear predecessors in shows like Dynasty and Dallas, a recognizable setup that only makes the show’s focus on a rich, powerful black family feel that much more ballsy and overdue. Blackish is a family sitcom through and through, which makes its take on subjects that have not been treated by the family sitcom before—from the N-word to guns—all the more striking. And you could say something similar about Jane the Virgin, Master of None, Fresh Off the Boat, and Jessica Jones, to name some of the shows this year that used identity and diversity to riff on and spiff up familiar forms.

And that’s the highfalutin take. Sometimes, it’s just really nice to watch something fun and reliably competent. As a critic, I try to remember that TV critics have a weird relationship to television. For one thing, we watch so, so much of it. For another, we don’t do much watching as a means of relaxation and release. (That, Alan, is what is so great about the idea of you cueing up old episodes of The Sopranos or Justified: Your love for TV has not been dimmed by it becoming work.) But relaxation is why most people watch TV. And what is so great about the TV ecosystem, as you put it, Margaret, at this moment is that the predictably pleasing and unpredictably pleasing are both in abundance, available in great amounts whenever you need them. I was on maternity leave for part of this year, and I had some big TV-watching ambitions. Instead, in the middle of the night, I watched the first three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy—again. And I was so happy it was there for me, my old friend, to be rewatched when I needed it.

Guys, I have strayed from embarrassing TV loves, but I liked that game! Play if you feel so inspired. This reminds me of another thing I didn’t like that I think other people did. (Why can’t I play this game the right way?) The season finale of You’re the Worst. I thought the depression storyline this year was great, but that the finale gave it a cheap and rushed coda. People don’t just get out of serious depression one morning. The drugs or therapy should have come first, not after.

We’re more than halfway through, and there are still lot of shows we haven’t touched upon: Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, Silicon Valley, Veep, Game of Thrones, Getting On, Scandal, Nathan for You, Project Greenlight, not to mention the shakeups in late night and sketch comedies like Inside Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, and The Kroll Show. Toward that end: Are there scenes and moments and tooth-pullings from this year that are still burned into your brains? I would love to hear about them.

Oh, and while we’re playing games: Let’s rank the Pfefferman siblings, following Season 2, in order from least to most abhorrent. My order is Josh, Sarah, Ali. I suspect my placement of Sarah will be controversial, but at least she only destroyed super-annoying Tammy with her selfishness, and not the lovely Syd.

Still, poor Tammy.


To get each new entry in the 2015 Slate TV Club in your inbox, enter your email address below: