Todd, I am thrilled to take the bait: Let’s talk about the shows that achieved peak TV escape velocity, by which I mean became, however briefly, culturally inescapable. By my count there were five, though depending on how TV-zealous your water cooler was, that may be a conservative estimate. In chronological order, they are: the hangover from the late December release of Netflix’s Making a Murderer, The People v. O.J. Simpson, perennial obsession Game of Thrones, Netflix’s surprise sensation Stranger Things, and HBO’s robot drama Westworld. I have varying feelings about all of these shows (in order: a compelling, impressive boondoggle; the best; compulsory; liked it fine; ugh), but they were extremely fun to talk about. Although strictly speaking they are not all the same genre—they are a mix of true crime, sci-fi, and fantasy—audiences turned them into one type of show: mystery.
True crime series such as Making a Murderer and The People v. O.J. Simpson, to say nothing of the first season of Serial, don’t have to do any contorting to become mysteries. However “solved” they seem, they demand more detective work, often because the original detectives were so inadequate (or so into collecting Nazi paraphernalia). Pilot, you must be thrilled at all the true crime there is to look forward to in 2017. American Crime Story is taking on the ambitious-seeming subject of Hurricane Katrina, and on a less rarefied note, Law & Order impresario Dick Wolf is adapting the Menéndez brothers case for NBC. While there is no reason to expect that this show will be any good, it will surely be watchable, as most true crime is. Wolf and NBC are also apparently hatching plans to turn the female-centric Oxygen network into a true crime channel, which seems like a brilliant idea, the constant rebranding of the network formerly known as Court TV notwithstanding. Not to get too armchair psychologist about why true crime in particular, and mysteries more largely, are having a moment, but the analysis writes itself: Mysteries simultaneously acknowledge the yawning, unpredictable horrors of the world while also suggesting that maybe we can solve them. If genres were stocks, you should be buying true crime, even though its price is already high.
As for the other series, their lodestar is Lost, which pioneered the gambit of turning a show, whatever else it happens to be about, into a treasure hunt. In the years since Lost, some shows have stumbled into this mode. The first season of True Detective wasn’t quite designed to be pored over on Reddit: It’s not that creator Nic Pizzolatto didn’t think it warranted that sort of obsessive scrutiny (is 2016 too late to throw shade on Pizzolatto? Hope not!); it’s that the show ultimately wasn’t in a conversation with its close readers. The conclusion had no bearing on all the detective work the audience had put into it. Not so for Mr. Robot, which had a (alienated, disturbing, nihilistic) fairy tale of a first season, thrilling its devoted audience with maybe predictable but nonetheless powerful twists, only to get caught up, early in its second season, in the loser’s game of trying shock an audience doing everything in its power to be unshockable—while also begging to be shocked. (And Todd, to answer a question you asked a while ago: I thought the second half of Mr. Robot’s second season was eerie, provocative, menacing—great. The first half was up its own behind.)
Meanwhile, Game of Thrones, which has long been treated as a kind of mystery— how will it end? Are Dany and Jon Snow the OTP? How creepy is it that I am kind of into Jon and Sansa, way less rigorously incest-y than the Lannisters?—finally outpaced the books upon which it is based and became the primary source of clues, instead of the secondary one. Stranger Things, the ’80s pastiche about a bunch of Spielbergian suburban kids who find themselves in a supernatural Stephen King story tricked out with horror movie beats as they try to aid a superpowered girl straight out of Star Wars/E.T./the Holocaust, arrived on Netflix all at once, so it didn’t have time to become the mystery that it might have. Because it was binge-watched, audience didn’t have weeks to become familiar with every single theory about the show in advance, to weigh the possibilities about where Will was, to sort through ideas about Eleven or the monster’s origins, to learn how all the ’80s homages lit a path to the answers. Instead, we could only get steeped in the Dungeons and Dragon deep readings and the save Barb movement after the fact, when the show had already worked its magic on us.
If the goal of a series is to surprise and thrill its audience, binge-watching seems like a good end run around the self-defeating frenzy surrounding these kind of puzzle series, wherein we desperately want them to surprise us while making it all but impossible for them to do so. (A thing I’m not looking forward to in 2017: having to watch Twin Peaks along with a clue-crazed internet, which theoretically has the power to spoil even BOB.) Then Westworld premiered, and I realized that making your audience feel smarter than and superior to your show is a perfectly viable strategy too.
As organic as the interest in Stranger Things seemed—an out-of-nowhere show, from not particularly heralded creators, debuting in August on Netflix—interest in Westworld was … not. A show from a Nolan brother, produced by J.J. Abrams, starring Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood, based on Michael Crichton source material about sentient robots, premiering on HBO on Sunday nights: The thing was meant to be a blockbuster. And it was. Westworld is, by a wide margin I think, the weakest of these shows, but it is very savvy. The way to stand out in peak TV is to get your show talked about, and a reliable way to get your show talked about is to turn it into a very specific kind of nerd-bait game. Westworld has some really fascinating themes and some really great performances, but it prioritized twists over them, a fact made all too apparent by its janky structure. The show courted the Reddit base brazenly and expertly, begging its audience to go sleuthing more aggressively than any show before it, even when this came at the expense of the story that it was trying to tell.
At my most cranky, I feel like Westworld was foisted upon us by creators exploiting a loophole in our programming in the internet age. (At my least cranky, I’m all, “A robot revolution was a cool ending.”) The extent to which Westworld felt constructed for people to take it apart, and then the extent to which it was taken apart in exactly this way, just really bums me out. I’m all for curiosity. I just don’t like thinking that curiosity can so easily be manipulated, and in ways that favor a kind of obsessive wonkiness, while undermining the actual thematic content of the series. (Look, I don’t know about you, but when I watch TV, drooling, unable to stop myself from hitting “next episode,” I’m not being manipulated.) And despite doing exactly as we were told, the creators still admonished viewers in the finale for obsessively trying to find answers: Don’t you know, devoted viewers, sometimes a maze is just a dead end?
Westworld’s success makes me think there are a lot more shows like this in our future, a knowing codification of this relatively new genre, puzzle TV. (It occurs to me that Search Party was an attempt for comedies to get into this kind of serialized storytelling mystery. I’m for it. Why should they get left out of the real water-cooler glory?) What do you guys think of all these shows? What do you think of this kind of storytelling? Am I selling Westworld short? What other trends did you see in this year’s crop of serialized shows? Talk dramas to me.
Pretentious Shakespeare quote goes here,