Since Willa and Todd both kicked off with a nod to our president-elect, let me offer my own TV comparison: Watching the results roll in late on Nov. 8 was like sitting through the season ender of TBS’s Search Party. For nine episodes, Alia Shawkat’s Dory lost herself in a thrilling adventure, running around New York looking for Chantal Witherbottom, a missing college acquaintance, instead of dealing with her real problems, which include an utterly pointless job and a joyless relationship with a sweet, besotted guy. She harnessed her outrage, learned new skills (going through strangers’ trash), and developed new confidence (which she used to orchestrate a blackmail campaign). She focused on finding Chantal with the single-minded devotion that Redditors bring to predicting the twists in a Sunday-night HBO drama—and in the last few minutes of the finale we learned that she got pretty much everything wrong. Oh, yes, and she killed a man—a skeevy man, but one who had nothing to do with Chantal’s disappearance.
Perhaps comparing a marginal TV comedy about a bunch of self-involved millennials to the rise of the least qualified, most unfit president in our nation’s history seems trivializing and trite—but after watching that sad, disturbing finale, I felt roughly the same way I did after his election: as though I, and millions of others, had been so distracted by an endless parade of outrage that we somehow got the important stuff, the fundamentals of the situation, all wrong. I paid attention to the clues—the debates, the news developments, all those revelations—but like Dory, I misinterpreted them.
Willa, you mentioned the TV bubbles that we all live in. We haven’t gotten to our top 10s yet—perhaps next round—but I suspect we’re all hyperaware that like most critics, we spend much of our time watching and writing about little-watched gems rather than ratings blockbusters. I have pretty catholic tastes, but this year, like most years, the TV moments that stuck with me mostly came from critical darlings.
Those great moments often came when characters found themselves in alien locations—or when shows took us to places that will be unfamiliar to many viewers. I’m thinking, for example, of “Elizah,” the opening episode of Transparent’s third season, when Maura wound up in a working-class mall. The Slauson Swap Meet was a stark contrast with the fancy shopping center where the Pfeffermans typically wander the aisles, where Rita committed suicide, and where Maura had a bathroom confrontation in Season 1—the kind of place where pretty much everyone on television shops. (The Middle might mention the Frugal Hoosier, but it’s never taken us there.) Everything fell apart for Maura at that mall. She lost her purse and her pashmina, broke her shoe, and ended up being carted off to a public hospital. Without any proof of her credentials and privilege, she was just another poor person in the Slauson Swap Meet, one the EMTs casually dismissed as mentally unstable.
The next episode, which began with Maura in a public hospital, seemed less successful, perhaps because Maura’s fish-out-of-water status was so obvious there. (And perhaps because, as all Pfeffermans inevitably do, she made herself unlikable by dishonestly claiming she wanted to relocate to Cedars-Sinai because she is Jewish. Indeed she is, but that’s not why she’s so keen for a change of venue.) Both these scenes felt like Jill Soloway explicitly responding to critical feedback about the Pfeffermans’ thus far unexplained financial security—yes, they’re privileged, she seemed to be saying, and they know it. But like many of us, they don’t like to talk about it. The ultimate privilege is choosing not to address your privilege.
Atlanta had several such “give me the thrill of the unknown and help me understand something viscerally by taking me to a place I hope to never visit in real life” moments. The episode where Darius worked his magic as a street investor, turning a used phone worth $150 into a share in a litter of Cane Corso puppies worth thousands, was both a fascinating portrayal of an ingenious underground economy and a spot-on demonstration of why poor people stay poor—Donald Glover’s Earn can’t afford to wait for the puppy investment to pay off. He needs $150 today, not $5,000 a few months down the road. In another episode, Earn sits in lockup, trying to stay alive until he’s bailed out. Everyone understands that keeping his head down and his mouth closed is the best way to do that—even if that means watching a mentally ill man drinking from a toilet and getting beaten by the cops or offering only PC (albeit true) platitudes about sexuality being a spectrum while men yell homophobic and transphobic slurs at a guy who’s flirting with a trans woman. I love how Earn’s experience complicates the narrative of speech policing—as did the Montague interaction Willa highlighted.
Todd and Pilot, you both make a lovely case for the explanatory, bridge-building powers of Last Man Standing—a show I watched (and wrote about) in its first two seasons but drifted away from. Good family shows work because they focus on a really important task: that of figuring out why some siblings, parents, or grandparents hold views that seem completely alien to their siblings, children, or grandchildren. The really good shows then demonstrate how people can carry on loving and supporting one another, despite those differences. TV characters never seem to just give up on other family members—at least the ones who have already been cast and given a series commitment—perhaps that’s because fictional sexist dads are more likely to see the way sexist assumptions weigh on their daughters than real-world sexist dads are. (One of the reasons I gave up on Last Man Standing was that the pattern—Mike rails against Thing X only to have his mind changed by seeing the way X positively affects his wife or one of his three daughters—became too predictable. Also, it didn’t make me laugh.)
Besides, woke messages can be found in places where people might least expect them. NCIS, for example, is one of the most sneakily political shows on television—and that hasn’t stopped it from being insanely popular even in its 14th season. NCIS routinely editorializes against racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia, but it has also taken explicit policy positions. Take, for instance, “Homefront,” the May episode that featured an appearance by Michelle Obama. The story highlighted the ways military deployments disrupt the careers of service members’ spouses, especially those whose careers have state licensing requirements (which is more than you might think). As someone whose bubble doesn’t include many members of the armed services, I was glad to learn about this issue—even if the FLOTUS cameo, intended to connect the problem of career disruptions with her initiative Joining Forces, felt totally tacked-on. The show hasn’t been the same since Cote de Pablo left (I only realized what a great actress she is when watching the Ziva-less shell of a show she left behind), but I am endlessly appreciative of a popular drama that is all about doing the right thing—and whose main character is a taciturn chap who believes talk is cheap and actions are all that matter.
Pilot, you asked what we watch to soothe ourselves. For me, it’s cozy British or Australian procedurals. I worship shows such as Happy Valley, Scott and Bailey, and Line of Duty, but they’re a bit too gritty to calm my delicate nerves—they’re more for riling-up purposes. Instead I will sit through hours of Midsomer Murders, Inspector George Gently, the Inspector Morse trilogy (Morse, Inspector Lewis, and Endeavour), and anything that tackles contemporary social problems by showing how much worse they were a couple of decades ago. This fall I got into Aussie shows—especially the divine Janet King, about a lesbian “crownie” (that is, prosecuting barrister), and The Code (an Aussie version of a Nordic noir that is too gritty for my girlfriend—I handle it by telling myself that nothing truly terrifying could possibly happen in Canberra). My current favorite is The Brokenwood Mysteries—a small-town New Zealand cop show that features genuinely inventive plotting. Even after watching these shows and every episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries multiple times, I still don’t recognize midlevel Antipodean actors, which means that I’m frequently surprised by whodunit.
Remember when television’s greatest villain was Ryan Lochte?