June, I am inspired by your straight talk about Sunday nights and lesbian homicides by writers’ rooms. As we head into the last round of this here TV Club, let’s please get real about whatever elements from the year in TV we have thus far overlooked. Despite our valiant efforts to be comprehensive, our oversights are numerous. Looking back over 2016, one of the craziest things to me is how many ambitious, shiny, expensive, reasonably well-constructed shows made no impression at all—like boulders hurled at car fenders that somehow bounced off without leaving dents.
Did AMC’s Preacher, a show I thought had a lot of swagger and even some of the elements of a breakout series (mostly beloved source material and cosmic violence), even come out this year? Maybe co-lead Ruth Negga’s Oscar run for her performance in Loving will make it a bigger deal next season. We’ve mentioned The Get Down in passing, but that fabulous, messy, jagged, extremely expensive story of the South Bronx was the kind of show that I think, in a less busy era, might have made a splash. Fascinatingly broken, capable of great highs and outlandish lows, a musical: sounds like a perfect hate-watch. Instead, it may ultimately be known as only the second series Netflix cancels. (The streaming giant just made its first official cancellation, of Marco Polo, which makes me feel a little better about our ability as critics to judge what is a “hit” on Netflix and what is not. Despite the company’s rigorous secrecy on that front, Marco Polo always seemed like a stink bomb. June, I think you can rest easy that Orange Is the New Black will be on for the next century.)
Hulu kept trying and trying and to get itself a good ol’ buzz monster, but it never quite succeeded. The Path, about members of a seemingly do-gooder cult with similarities to Scientology, fits right in with some of the themes we’ve been discussing: people living within a menacing system that looks functional but is in fact broken beyond repair. It featured some good performances from its fancy leads—Hugh Dancy, Aaron Paul, and Michelle Monaghan, and even more so from the teenager Kyle Allen, a real mix of Jordan Catalano and Brian Krakow who should end up in a movie adaptation of a YA series soon but got stuck in Peak TV gridlock, idling at “pretty good.”
More recently, Hulu aired Chance starring Hugh Laurie as another dysfunctional doctor, this one without a sense of humor, and Shut Eye, about a fraudulent fortuneteller who starts to actually see the future, starring Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan and featuring, in its first episode, the most abruptly gratuitous lesbian sex scene I ever seen. Both of these shows, like Amazon’s Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a brilliant, screwed-up lawyer, were reasonably well-made. (Goliath was even pretty swingy and fun.) But I just wonder if people are really looking for starchy potato content—you know: filling, sticks to the ribs, not that exciting—from their streaming services. Hulu’s adaptation of Stephen King’s JFK alt-history 11.22.63, starring James Franco, seemed like a flashier and splashier project, but was in fact flat and dull, featuring another one of Franco’s “I am an alien playing a human” performances. And at eight episodes, it was way too long.
For a long time TV critics were the only group of people with a vested interest in series being shorter. (Or maybe that was just me.) I think we have quality on our side—brevity is the soul of wit; imagine if Homeland had been one season; the Brits do it; yadda yadda—but most people just want to hang out with their faves indefinitely. Or at least they used to. For the last few years, audiences have also shown themselves to be fickle about—and overburdened by—television. Real hits like Scandal and Empire started hemorrhaging viewers, while buzz hits like UnReal and Masters of Sex just blipped off the radar altogether.
It’s always been hard to attract an audience. Now shows can’t even keep them. Thus the continued reboot craze. Reboot, generally speaking, is a dirty word. It makes me roll my eyes, anyway. The knock on reboots is that they are a crass play for audiences, uncreative attempts to recapture former ratings glory. The correct response to them is sneering, ‘They’re rebooting that?’ (Unless it’s cheering, “They’re rebooting that!!!!!!”) But “reboot” is being used now to describe an incredibly wide range of content. This year, among others, there was Fuller House, Gilmore Girls, The X-Files, Lethal Weapon, and The Girlfriend Experience, a set of shows that were, in order, a needless, slavishly devoted, yet oddly charming copy of the original; a good ol’ buzz monster; a disgrace to the original’s memory, except for that one perfect episode; a moderately successful network procedural with a surprisingly charismatic pilot; and a show that is so tangentially related to its relatively little-known source material that the packaging of it as a spinoff, sequel, reboot, or what have you amounts to a sly, ironic (yet still lucrative) joke from Steven Soderbergh. In other words: Don’t judge a reboot by its moniker.
Before turning to you guys, I want to take a last-minute veer toward the positive and end this dispatch by telling you about two things I absolutely loved this year. The first is the performance of The Americans’ Ruthie Ann Miles as Young-Hee, a Korean immigrant who becomes Elizabeth Jennings’ first friend. So often on television, Asian, South Asian, and Latino characters are given accents in order to make fun of them or to create some distance, to establish them as the goofy or dangerous foreigner. (Aziz Ansari’s Master of None had a whole episode about how often South Asian actors with no accents are expected to put one on to land a part.) Miles, who does not have an accent in real life, relearned one for this role. But Young-Hee was so vivacious, so warm, and so deeply, fundamentally, aspirationally American, it clarified that it’s not the accents that are the problem—it’s the writing. We all sound funny to someone. Miles’ performance was fantastic back in March when it first aired: It’s even better since the election of Donald Trump.
Another thing I loved: Judith Light’s cabaret rendition of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In Pocket” in the final scene of Transparent. I often find myself eye-rolling when critics say they watched some scene with tears streaming down their face: streaming, really? But I don’t know what to say: I watched this scene with tears streaming down my face. And not the usual kind of tears, not sad tears, but moved, happy tears mixed with guffaws of— oh God, how this sounds!—wonder. How was she doing that? Then, a couple of hours later, I rewatched the scene and it happened again. Pass the Kleenex.
Acting is hard to write about. It’s so mysterious and fundamentally unintellectual it’s hard to dissect, hard to opine about at length, and much harder to natter on about week in and week out than dialogue or character or shot composition. But this scene is just actorly magic. Judith Light casts a spell. She makes the lyrics “I’m wrong and I’m sorry baby” resonate like profound emotional truth, not lines you wouldn’t fret about botching at karaoke. It bowled me over. It knocked me out. It makes me want to serenade Judith Light, Transparent, and TV with another Alanis Morissette song: You know the one.
OK, your turn. Let’s pick up the pieces. What did you love? What did you hate? What shows have we neglected? Someone tackle Vice Principals: not very good but possibly the most relevant show of the year. Or Samantha Bee, Underground, Pitch, or Billions—we forgot all about Billions, another big swing and not quite a miss, but a … foul tip? What performances need to be praised? What wonderfully random observations need to be observed?
I know that we definitely haven’t talked enough about John Turturro’s feet,