I want to talk about the show that perplexed me most this year: Friends From College. Yes, that is right, I was more perplexed by a middling Netflix comedy than I was by what “really” happened in Alias Grace, why there are so many shows about stand-up comics, or why TNT thought it wise to throw down $5 million to $6 million on every episode of Will, a punk-rock take on Shakespeare. Friends From College was pretty bad, but I really wanted to watch it anyway, and trying to grok how this could be wrinkled my forehead real good.
Friends From College, about six middle-aged friends who went to Harvard together, has an excellent cast, a comedic take on its soapy shenanigans, and is about a life stage—people in their 30s, starting to have families, adults but not totally convinced of it yet—that I, uh, identify with. It stars Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Fred Savage, Nat Faxon, Annie Parisse, and Jae Suh Park, the last of whom I would feel bad for almost forgetting except for how completely the show forgets her, one of the things that is bad about it. These people are all in complicated, snarly, often extramarital relationships with one another that don’t make a ton of emotional sense. The whole thing was, like, funny pleasant, but not funny laugh out loud, and was anchored by a performance from Keegan-Michael Key—charming, talented, funny Keegan-Michael Key!—that could generously be called “large.”
My general derision for Friends From College was shared by many other people who watch TV for a living: It was widely reviewed as surprisingly meh. And yet, I watched all of it. I watched all of it really happily! This is such a normal thing: I liked something that was kind of bad. But that is the thing I want to insist on: It was bad! It was not secretly good, though it may have had some good-enough things about it. It was bad. Despite the bedrock human conviction that bad taste is what other people have, bad taste, like death, taxes, and eventually dropping your phone in the toilet, comes for us all. What I have found in trying to think about Friends From College is that, critically speaking, we have a hard time talking about this regular, degular experience without succumbing to language laden with baggage, language like hate watch or guilty pleasure, language that forces us to over- or underpraise a show when what I want to convey—with no snark!— is that Friends From College is like a microwave burrito of television, something that is not good but is nonetheless good enough.
Excuse me as I go very far afield in trying to think about why we are so bad at this thing, praising middling shows the right amount (besides the fact that being medium about something is boring). TV and TV criticism are still trying to overcome the once-reflexive snobbery toward the idiot box. As TV has become better, more respectable, more respected, it imported in the pre-existing hierarchies of the cinema: the best TV was supposed to look and feel like the movies. (The whole “is Twin Peaks a movie or a TV show or an opera or a rocket ship or a microwave burrito” conversation that happened the other week—after Sight & Sound named it the best movie of the year—makes me feel like I’ve munched a sleeping pill, but it is, of course, about this exact issue.) It’s not a coincidence that it was The Sopranos, with its connection to The Godfather, that inaugurated the Golden Age of TV, and not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the brilliant, but campy, cheap-looking, freak-of-the-week tale of a teenage girl that predated it. The past few years of television have been great for annihilating this internal snobbery as all the energy and quality pops up in series that riff on musicals, telenovela, horror, camp, soap, sci-fi, fantasy, that seem to know that the white male antihero is boring, that comedies can be as deep as dramas. Ozark is a retread. The progress, the fun is in Claws, Insecure, She’s Gotta Have It, Dear White People, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, GLOW, Queen Sugar, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and on and on and on.*
But at the same time that critics and audiences are overcoming some long-held snobberies, we’re part of another long trend, one that helped make TV so respectable in the first place, which is the populist annihilation of brows, the idea that art and excellence can spring from the low arts as well as the high, from trash movies, comics, video games, the boob tube. It doesn’t matter what form the thing takes: It can be great. I believe this fervently—I’m a TV critic after all—but I also think that sometimes our like leads us astray. I want to be a populist and a snob, OK? I want us to continue to revolt against the phony, manufactured, snoozy prestige fare respected by people who don’t really watch television, while also saying just ’cause I liked something doesn’t mean it isn’t junk. We all like junk sometimes and that is not because that junk is actually art. I’m not using Friends From College as a way to shade the dragon-size hit of our moment Game of Thrones, but I’m not not doing that either.
Ultimately, as we all know, whether something is good or bad is hardly ever the most interesting thing about it. I just finished Wormwood, the new genre-busting Errol Morris documentary, which I found both unbelievably interesting and a narcoleptic; when it wasn’t putting me to sleep, it was making me think so many fascinating things about the state of documentaries. Errol Morris seems to be simultaneously shading both prestige television (especially Mad Men) and all the true-crime documentaries, like The Jinx, that have lately become so popular. This reminds me: It was another great year for nonfiction and riffs on nonfiction, and we should talk about it. Who did the dicks, indeed.
Before signing off, and turning to Todd who is—please!—going to make meaning out of The Good Doctor, I have a mystery I would like one of you to try to answer: What the hell was Jonathan Groff’s performance in Mindhunter? Brilliant, awful, does it depend on whether next season his FBI agent turns out to be a serial killer? And is the fact that this is even debatable yet another example of TV’s kindness to actor’s choices, where the weird thing they are doing just becomes part of the character? While I’m on this subject: What other performances stood out to you? Or, if that’s too soon, keep telling me about the shows that did.
*Correction, Dec. 19, 2017: This piece originally misidentified Dear White People as Dear Black People. (Return.)