Hey, TV Club bubs:
I like that term “peak TV escape velocity,” Willa, because it suggests both that the five shows you singled out managed to launch of their own accord, but also that they had plenty of fuel to burn as they headed out into deep space. I’m not sure that the upcoming seasons of any of these shows can replicate the feat of 2016, save perpetual favorite Game of Thrones. (May it give us TV critics many clicks even when the night is dark and full of terrors, amen.) Just see Mr. Robot for a cautionary tale of how quickly the rocket can tilt toward Earth when a once-buzzy show delivers a less buzzy second season. (Brief, sad tilt of the head toward UnReal.) And that’s because of how hard it will be to find more fuel to burn.
The reason those five shows took off is because they all, in one way or another, fed the great online entertainment content beast in various different ways. You could try to solve Making a Murderer’s case on your own. You could go back and check out what “really” happened in the O.J. Simpson trial. You could argue about George R.R. Martin’s true intentions. You could run a complete list of every ’80s reference in the Upside Down. And, finally, as I’ve written about here, you could try to parse out the timeline of Westworld.
What do you call the pieces that unfurl these fan theories, or fill in pieces of backstory from real life? They’re not precisely criticism, not precisely reported pieces, and not precisely commentary—but they’re also not not any of those things. They’re supplemental material, the additional texts you need to read to truly be a fan of the show.
I’m reminded of my TV coming of age in the ’90s, when I was deeply into The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Party of Five. I would buy the official companion tomes at the local Waldenbooks, then read them obsessively, trying not just to know all the facts about my favorite show, but to understand it on some deep level, to break it apart into its constituent parts and absorb it. I didn’t want to just watch my favorite shows—I wanted to solve them.
This was the cornerstone of my career as a critic. I learned far more about how scripts are structured and how TV is produced from gleaning every detail I could while reading between the lines of some official X-Files companion than I did from just watching the stuff. Becoming an obsessive superfan has always been something TV tries to commodify.
The difference now is that sites like A.V. Club and Vulture and this one and the one I write for and on and on have now turned being a superfan into something that’s compulsory to feel like you really “get” a show. Sure, if you read comments sections for Westworld reviews, you’ll see people saying, “I didn’t go online to read fan theories! I just took the show as it came!” But c’mon. That had to be the minority experience of watching that program.
Westworld is interesting in another sense in that I agree with you, Willa, that it’s the worst of the five shows you listed, but it’s also the one I’ve been able to stop thinking about the least. Making a Murderer and O.J. are pretty finite. I know what Game of Thrones is, and Stranger Things already seems to have a good thing going that it probably won’t mess with too much. But what the hell is Westworld Season 2 going to look like? (Beyond the robot uprising, of course, which I am here for.)
Watching Westworld, for me, was a weird, tripartite experience where some part of me was exasperated with the show’s storytelling, more or less fine with its presentation, and deeply ravenous about its themes. It’s the only show I’ve ever watched almost entirely because it seemed like at any given moment an advanced lecture on brain chemistry might break out, and because it would be delivered by Anthony Hopkins, I’d probably be into it. The Westworld that’s about the mystery of our own minds and the ways we keep ourselves locked away from ourselves, is a show I deeply love. The Westworld that’s about solving puzzles where all you have to do is look at the front of the box to see what the puzzle depicts is a show that annoys the hell out of me.
That said, I think Westworld and other sci-fi, fantasy, and horror dramas ended up being some of the most political shows out there, in very sneaky ways. It’s nothing new to say, of course, that these three genres traffic in allegory, but there was a strange persistence to the allegory in 2016: The characters in these dramas found themselves trapped in systems that seemed bent toward their destruction, even as they were unable to escape those systems. (Sound familiar?) How do you live in a system that’s broken? The TV genre shows of 2016 would really like to know.
To be clear, some of these stories were really, really stupid. Whatever Negan is up to on The Walking Dead doesn’t constitute a corrupt and broken political system so much as it does a schoolyard bully swaggering around and waving his phallic symbol. But even when Westworld’s storytelling faltered, I found myself becoming impressed with how it forced the viewer to think like a host, to mix up past and present, to realize that you had been imprisoned by some malevolent force you couldn’t understand the scope of because you could never see clearly. The darkest moment, for me, came in the finale when we realized the Hosts’ desire to attain consciousness was part of a preprogrammed narrative in the park—freedom is another illusion when you’re trapped in Westworld (or maybe on planet Earth).
Once I did a cursory scan of some of my favorite genre shows from 2016, this theme was everywhere. The kids in The Magicians are revealed to be part of an endless game played between creatures with such power that they might as well be gods. They’re not directing the story so much as being forced to play parts in a drama they didn’t even realize they were in. (Millennials, am I right?) Fellow Syfy drama The Expanse is about how poorly these systems react to even the mildest of changes, how quickly they snap back to bite you in the face. Even Fox’s TV version of The Exorcist more or less suggested every major world institution has been bent to the will of the Devil. (All three of these shows are worth watching, by the way, which could not have surprised me more when it comes to The Exorcist.)
And I haven’t even mentioned Black Mirror, which, the achingly lovely “San Junipero” aside, was a long string of episodes terrified of what our broken systems hath wrought upon the Earth, but even more terrified of the thought of what might happen if those systems ever went away.
There’s no conservative or progressive bent to any of these ideas, either. These series aren’t apolitical, but they encourage viewers to think bigger—to try to see the extent of the systems that entrap them and imagine what it would look like to take those systems down. Only Westworld really encourages, like, armed rebellion. But the common elements remain: broken systems and the idea that the only people who can fix them are those trapped within those systems. In the year of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, in the year of free-floating discontent from all political sides with how the world has been run, is it a wonder that idea resonated?
Of course, there’s another show that deals in these issues, and it’s my No. 2 show of the year, Orange Is the New Black, which concluded with an episode of television that offered a succinct explanation for how the broken systems we live with perpetuate themselves out of grim, bitter self-interest, no matter how good their intentions. I found it tremendously infuriating and tremendously moving. But that finale also raised troubling questions of who gets to tell which stories on TV, ones the series wasn’t always prepared to answer. In that sense, it might be the single episode of TV where everything we talked about in 2016 met for 90 minutes.
I should stop now, but I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on Orange Season 4 (which I seem to be alone in loving as much as I do). I’ve also noticed that most of us have listed Halt and Catch Fire somewhere in our top three, yet managed not to talk about it at all. Someone sing its praises immediately!
Yours until the robots arrive,