As much as I’m tempted to spend this entire time trying to unpack Todd’s reveal that he bought Party of Five books (what possible mysteries were afoot that the show needed accompanying literature?!), I suppose I can instead talk about some dramas. Like most people, The X-Files and Lost were my original gateway drugs into the world of overanalyzing television shows, of endless mysteries, internet theorizing, and enthusiastic message boards. Going down the rabbit hole made these shows extra fun to watch, and turned watercooler conversation into online conversation. (And we all know I prefer online to everything.)
All that said, I couldn’t get away from the theories fast enough for Westworld! So yes, I was in the minority of viewers who enjoyed each episode for the hour it was on (or really, the next morning since if we’re being totally honest, I kept falling asleep halfway through each episode) and then actively avoided all the internet chatter and theorizing surrounding it. I can’t really explain why! I certainly enjoyed Westworld a lot—we are in the early stages where I am still hesitant to use the L word—but I didn’t think about it much outside of actual watching. I cared about the characters (well, mostly just Maeve) and I believe there is a lot to discuss in terms of storytelling, rebellion, trauma narratives, and taking back your own storyline, and yet, I still didn’t have a vested interest in solving any of its mysteries. I just wanted it to exist, and to entertain, and to have some good ol’ fashioned robot rebellion, and it succeeded at just that. And I think staying distant from the theories helped me like it even more, or at least I certainly enjoyed the finale a lot more than other people did.
I should admit that I’m drawing a blank when trying to recall non–true crime dramas that really stuck out to me in 2016. Westworld is there simply by default of being the last one the internet joined hands to talk about. I’ve yet to watch Game of Thrones (forgivable) or Halt and Catch Fire (apparently unforgiveable; I’ll get to it in the new year). With the exception of “San Junipero” (of course!), even Black Mirror failed to really get under my skin this season. Maybe it’s because the horrors of upvotes and social media seem a little tame in comparison to the horrors of, well, everything else. The twisty soaps that I delighted in watching in 2015—Empire, How to Get Away With Murder, Quantico—have all slowly filled up my DVR, waiting to be binged on some winter sick day because they all seemed less important.
But I will agree that The Magicians was strange and kind of wonderful television this year, a series that I went from being overly excited for when it was announced, to incredibly wary of during the first few episodes, to completely back on board by the end. The Magicians worked with the book in an interesting way; I compared it to a Brakebills student just slightly moving his hand the wrong way, resulting in a spell that’s a bit off. Some major differences irked me, while others I found delightful (Taylor Swift dance party!). The show really brought Quentin’s depression to the forefront in a way that the books mostly danced around (it did similar things with addiction), and it played interestingly with the misconceived notion that there’s some (literal) magic cure for depression. Think of Quentin being told he no longer needs antidepressants in Brakebills or how Julia’s spiral into desperation is depicted—she finally found one thing that might make her happy and complete; then it’s yanked away from her and she’s desperate to find that “cure” again. Magic helps in small doses but doesn’t save these characters. At any given time, they are still stuck: in their heads, in Fillory, in the outside world—and desperate to find a way to feel better, to get better.
When I think about The Magicians, it’s this theme of desperation that still sticks with me the most, and it’s a desperation that I think is abundant in most compelling television dramas. There is certainly going to be another influx of dystopian shows barreling down on us during the next four years, and Netflix’s 3% arrived just in time—about two weeks after the election—and literally kept me up all night because I couldn’t stop watching. It’s a Brazilian science-fiction thriller where a group of headstrong twentysomethings have to go through “the Process”—mental, physical, emotional tests—in order to live on this magical utopia called “The Offshore.” The kids are so desperate to get away from their terrible, poverty-stricken lives on the Inland that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to win and become part of the lucky 3 percent. I watched it the same week I watched the first few episodes of Syfy’s Incorporated, another depiction of dystopian future (brought on by climate change, naturally) with a concrete separation between the haves and have-nots. (This time, it’s the simplistic Green Zone and Red Zone.) Our protagonist is desperate to rise in the ranks of the Green Zone while others are fighting for their lives outside. Incorporated is certainly the lesser of the two shows, but they pair well together, and I’m sold by both shows’ depictions of yes, desperation, but also of broken systems and the widening divide between two groups of people—a divide that is only going to increase over time and lead to violence. In 3%, one of the candidates is secretly part of a rebellion, motivated by the death of her brother at the hands of this system; in Incorporated, our leading dude’s main goal is to free a friend who got sold into sex slavery while trying to escape the system.
So hey, speaking of class divides and violence, let’s talk Orange is the New Black! I am half with you, Todd: I loved so much of Season 4 and thought it attempted to provide a thesis for 2016, but I just can’t quite get on board with the end result. Last year, I wrote a piece analyzing television’s numerous depictions of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement and how many more shows fail than succeed. If I were to rewrite it now, I’d put Black-ish’s “Hope” (in my top five episodes of the year) at the top for smart, balanced commentary, and the “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” episode of OITNB very close to the bottom. I personally felt like that it was frustratingly emotionally manipulative, trying way too hard via flashbacks to hammer home the fact that Poussey was a good, promising person just so we would all grieve more for her death (as if her death itself wasn’t enough for us to grieve!), and really harping on the fact that her killer was just a confused, overwhelmed, apologetic kid. (And never mind using Suzanne as his distraction, as if trying to shift some of the blame onto her.) OITNB became so focused on trying to make itself ultrapolitical and representative of how its creators felt the conversation surrounding police brutality was going that they failed to take into account the actual emotional complexities surrounding black death for black people. (But that is also getting into a whole other problem involving the writers room.) And it was especially frustrating because OITNB had done great work in terms of diversity, black/POC/LGBTQ characters with actual names and engaging narratives, and then it aimed too high for a statement. I know those last two episodes were very divisive among critics and viewers, so I’d love to know how others feel.
With violent delights or whatever,