Dear June, Pilot, Todd,
If the election had gone differently, we would be having a different conversation. This was a wild year for television. Peak TV continues apace, and the sheer volume of content made for lots of original, interesting, and very good TV—though, to my mind, not so much great TV. We will, I hope, discuss most of it, the comedies, the dramas and the O.J. of it all, the best performances and the perfect episodes, the Upside Down, Judith Light’s rendition of “Hand in Pocket,” and the now prescient-seeming position of comedies to be really, really sad. But first we have to talk about the major event of the year, that cratering meteor blocking out the sun.
The presidential election and all its attendant theater dominated the year. 2016 was 10-plus months in the can when Trump won in November, but his surprise victory made a haze of what came before and dramatically reframed what lies ahead. This election nonsense was supposed to be over. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and intolerance were going to lose. Sanity, facts, civility, and tolerance were going to win. On Nov. 9, we were all going to be able to dive back into television, to luxuriate in entertainment with the wanton gluttony of people who felt they deserved a break. Instead we find ourselves in the in-between, at a moment of unprecedented uncertainty that seems to demand unparalleled vigilance. TV has never felt like more of an afterthought. (For those readers hoping this TV Club would be a welcome diversion from the glum world: Just start reading at dispatch five.)
And yet Donald Trump would not be possible without television. TV made him. Trump’s stint on The Apprentice enabled all of this, establishing him in the national, as opposed to New York consciousness, as a great businessman, a no-nonsense showman, a truth-teller with the gravitas and know-how to made executive decisions. And it’s reality TV that guides Trumps still, that has him interviewing Cabinet picks like he’s on prime time, that instructs his instinct that there’s only an upside to picking a fight, to making a scene, to being the loudest and most, that there is no politics that is not showboating. As the debates demonstrated, Trump can sometimes be bad on television while still making for good television, so that even when it came to his failures, cable news talking heads couldn’t stop feasting on him like frenzied rats with unlimited access to sugar water. His triumph is the ultimate victory for the unlikeable protagonist, who has now become so widespread and popular that he has been elected president.
Trump’s win re-contextualized certain TV trends for me. It reconfigured the long farce of network haplessness as a tragedy. If the story of the election is the story of two Americas, and never our bubbles shall meet, the almost-total disappearance of blockbuster network shows—and then the rapid evaporation of even those shows that did break out, ahem, Empire—is more than a clueless tale of feckless, uncreative bureaucracy. It is a civic loss. So much of what happened in this election can be traced back to a vanished shared mass media, such that Americans can no longer agree on the veracity of verifiable facts. That we don’t even share our stories anymore, that we don’t share Lucy or Mary, Sanford or Seinfeld (which made Steve Bannon rich!) is an accentuating note to a devastating aria. Netflix may be well on its way to creating enough content to replace the networks, but its 45 million subscribers are still less than half of the number of households who pay for regular television.
The proliferation and niche-fication of TV has been good for the quality of TV, but has it turned TV into another bubble? Has TV become just like our Facebook feed, only showing us what we want to see? Liberals and millennials watch increasingly diverse, woke TV while others cuddle up with Duck Dynasty and the CBS lineup, finding solace in willfully red-state Netflix sitcom The Ranch (which, like Todd, I really admire and can’t wait to talk about more)? I am surely overstating it: We share The Voice and Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones and shows about house-hunting, after all, but it is nonetheless starker than ever how certain perspectives and lifestyles are completely ignored by TV and the TV “conversation” more largely.
TV has underserved working-class people of all backgrounds for years, which is why I’m all for ABC’s faddish recent announcement that it would be making more shows about “everyday” Americans (i.e. not rich people), even though I’m skeptical such a gambit will work. (At the very least may it mean no more shows about unbearable, sad-sack, affluent Los Angelinos: I’m looking at you Flaked, Casual, Togetherness, and Love.) In addition to already being the most diverse network, ABC, as June pointed out not in this forum, is already home to The Middle and American Crime, shows that are remarkably good on class—and that don’t have great ratings. I’m not sure any efforts will reach the “other” bubble—here’s where I trot out the ratings failure of “shoulda been a red state contender” Friday Night Lights—but if all class-sensitive television does is make our bubble more aware, I’m for it.
Besides, I have faith that the ABC executive who made those comments—the head of programming, Channing Dungey, the first black woman to run a network and an integral figure in turning ABC into Shondaland—isn’t using “everyday” as a simple code for “alienated white people.” The election is an occasion, or really an iron poker upside the head, to think about how every component of our society is working or not working, TV included, even if its import is way down the list. TV is a great and powerful tool for changing minds. From the Will & Grace effect, to 24’s pre-Obama black president, to Transparent putting a face on transgender issues, to convincing some of us that Donald Trump is a trustworthy authority figure, TV has real pull. Is it using that influence as well as it could be? Are we, as critics? In, for example, getting the homophobic, evangelical Phil Robertson temporarily suspended from Duck Dynasty back in 2013, were we promulgating tolerance or just suppressing that which we found politically distasteful, out of sight, out of mind, until we woke up one morning to a President Trump? How do we continue to create socially responsible content without playing ourselves?
I want television that deals with our gnarly world. Writing about the year in TV, Sonia Saraiya, one of Variety’s TV critics, argued that whiles comedies have been strong and very personal, dramas, which are better suited to taking the broad, culture-at-large view, are hiding out, either as period pieces (American Crime Story, The Americans, Stranger Things, even Better Call Saul is set in the near past) or fantasies (American Horror Story, Westworld, Game of Thrones), where they can get at the culture from the safety of an oblique angle. Obviously there are exceptions (though Mr. Robot really didn’t have the second season it should have), but we live in treacherous times and we need TV bold enough to face them head-on.
One series that really was willing and able to explore the culture, fault lines and all, was Atlanta, Donald Glover’s great new show about a broke Ivy League graduate trying to manage his cousin Paper Boi’s rap career. In the seventh episode of the season, Paper Boi appears on Montague, an overly genteel talk show on the Black American Network, to discuss the hip-hop’s community’s relationship with transgender people. Paper Boi has recently gotten into a Twitter brouhaha about Caitlyn Jenner, and he has been brought on to be chastised by a scholar for all of hip-hop’s intolerance. Paper Boi, who has a hard time taking the whole thing seriously, eventually makes a persuasive argument that he is allowed to think transgender people are “weird,” so long as he is not calling for their rights to be revoked. The scholar on the panel, much to the consternation of the host, agrees: We can legislate behavior, we can’t and shouldn’t legislate comfort.
In Paper Boi, Atlanta gives us a sympathetic character who is neither totally enlightened nor totally bigoted. In the context of the episode this seems reasonable, and in the context of our actual world, it seems downright hopeful—this despite the fact that on many TV shows and in progressive parts of the real world that “weird” would be insurmountably offensive. Atlanta, a show created by a black man about all different kinds of black people, is one of the few series that could make these nuanced points without being chastised as a weak-ass ally. Another reminder of why diversity is so important: It begets more diversity, not always in predictable ways.
Ultimately, TV has made greats strides in being less misogynist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic, while still having far to go. But the election made me feel like me it has far to go in ways I hadn’t previously imagined. What do you all think about all this? How are you feeling about TV in the looming age of Trump? What shows do you think are doing what TV should be doing right now? (In addition to Atlanta, I thought a show that questioned PC norms without being offensive for its own sake was Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, which asked the audience to sit with its residual discomfort about unfettered female sexual agency.) Or is this all wrongheaded, and TV is doing exactly what it should be doing: distracting, soothing, comforting? Is the real problem that Kimmy Schmidt premiered back in March and I haven’t had a good enough laugh since then?
Yours in struggle—and in watching,