Hey, Fellow People Who Know What Halt and Catch Fire is:
The Americans entered 2017 in a weird place for a low-rated show: with highly fevered anticipation. Not only had the show’s fourth season been its best, the one that finally saw the series break through at the Emmys, but the news cycle had done the hard job of giving an ’80s period piece modern relevancy. If any show was going to have something to say about this moment in American-Russian relations, well, it was going to be this one, right? Where everything from Homeland to House of Cards got caught, through no fault of its own, in the quicksand that was trying to tell politically relevant stories in the Trump era, The Americans would have just enough distance to tell a great Russia story that would comment on the times we live in only obliquely.
In retrospect, it was a bit weird for this conversation to spring up around The Americans, which has never met an external conflict it couldn’t deeply internalize, but I suspect if what had hit the screen was a fairly straightforward continuation of Season 4, all would have been well. Instead, the show did something sort of bold that, nevertheless, is more fun to think about than it actually is to watch. (I will say I caught up with great swathes of it in binge mode, and it was much more satisfying that way.)
The show has always eschewed obvious action beats in favor of complicated psychological and emotional maneuvering, rightly recognizing that a lot of spycraft is boring and mundane, even if it takes a toll on the soul. Season 5, in retrospect, seemed designed to show that a lot of people leave the spy game because it eventually just wears on them too much. When Philip and Elizabeth are pulled back in for one last score, we, as TV viewers, can see it laying the seeds of whatever darkness they will face in the sixth and final season. But in the vast majority of cases, Philip and Elizabeth really would have just left the spy game, moved back to Moscow, and watched their society crumble around them. (Henry, I imagine, grows up to run a Russian disinformation network.) Because The Americans is a TV show, it essentially requires a climax more satisfying than “I quit.” Because it’s committed to its own verisimilitude, it had to toy around with that idea for a while. We’re all Philip Jennings, really.
In 2017, a lot of our better dramas were obsessed with this idea of consequences, of what happens when the genie leaves the bottle and you didn’t have a plan to get it back in. The most obvious example of this is the suddenly resurgent Mr. Robot (bubbling just outside of my top 10), which, Trump jokes aside, feels like it found a second wind in the chaos of 2017. Its long-take episode, much derided by some as a gimmick, felt to me like it captured a little of the wheels-within-wheels aspect of life right now. But you can point to essentially any other show on my list, from The Magicians (in which a bunch of dumb kids accidentally break the system that runs their world) to Fargo (which is somewhere in my top 30 and was surprisingly incisive about the ruins of capitalism) to the poignant, early internet-era Halt and Catch Fire (in which all of the characters looked at the bottle, then asked if they should let the genie out of it, then realized it was already too late). And in shows I longed to catch up with but just never had the time—Claws being near the top of that list—it was often endemic to the premise. This thing has happened. Now what?
Consequence, of course, is at the root of a lot of storytelling, so me pulling this particular theme out could just be me trying to read the times I live in into the TV I watch. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) But the weight of all of these “what have we done?” stories piling on top of one another made me think that TV drama, which has felt a little listless and done in by the huge glut of streaming shows that lack definition, is finally turning a corner. If the antihero era was all about pretending you couldn’t see consequences (even when they stared you in the face and told you that you were a terrible person), then whatever’s going on now is about belatedly realizing that for some people consequences are all there is.
This is where The Good Doctor is instructive (and I told you I would get there). The show is, all told, not that great, but it has a kind of trashy simplicity that is compulsively watchable and a fondness for big medical stunts—performing surgery on a freeway!—that harkens back to late-period ER, which was never my favorite period ER but could be a lot of fun. I suspect its smash success has a lot to do with the third word in the title. It’s been a while since we’ve had a big, new medical drama, and ABC, which airs Grey’s Anatomy, was always well-positioned to air the next big doctor show.
But I also suspect that just as much of its success has to do with that second word. The operative question in The Good Doctor isn’t how to save somebody’s life; it’s how to be a good person, period. All of the flashbacks are about moments of moral instruction, and the characters frequently get hung up on points of moral order as much as points of medical order. The titular character is deeply problematic, in that the show’s depiction of people on the autism spectrum is straight out of an early ’90s TV movie, but its interest in how somebody with an incredibly rigid moral code (as its hero has) would interact with modern society gives it something other medical dramas don’t have—to say nothing of other dramas, period.
The Good Doctor, then, is a show about an unabashed hero, about somebody who traverses a complicated, morally ambiguous landscape, and somehow almost always makes the right choice, thus inspiring others around him to try to do better too. My network procedural of choice at the moment is CBS’s Bull, a gleefully amoral series about what amounts to legal jury tampering, but I think it’s telling that this show hasn’t broken out in the way CBS might have hoped. Mass-market dramas, increasingly, are about people who confront moral complications with quiet certitude and good values. That sounds like we’re being inundated with shows designed by the folks at Focus on the Family, but I would include This Is Us and Stranger Things—neither particularly conservative in socio-political values—among their ranks. We’re just in a fiction era where we want to see people who try to do the right thing and care deeply about one another.
We’ve been here before, of course, and it’s not like we stopped telling stories about heroic figures in the midst of the antihero movement (or that those shows stopped being popular). But it is interesting to me that a lot of the hottest shows of the moment, whether in terms of viewership or critical interest, are shows about people who might have been written off as uncomplicated and even a little square 10 years ago. It’s still early days of whatever this is, and maybe it will fizzle out. (It’s competing, I would say, with a similar movement to create dramas about communities, represented best by shows like Orange Is the New Black.) But for as much as I don’t really cotton to The Good Doctor, I’m excited to see what those who are inspired by the show create from its basic DNA.
I just wanted to point out we’ve barely talked about TV comedy.
Yours in the Peak TV struggle,