TV Club

Politics permeated TV in 2017, but it didn’t preclude fun.

Politics permeated TV, but it didn’t preclude fun.

Kathryn Hahn in I Love Dick
Kathryn Hahn in I Love Dick.

Amazon Studios

Dear Todd, June, Tara,

This morning I woke up and did what I usually do: scroll through Twitter, catch up on Slack, read the front page of the New York Times. The news was bad, as it has been for all of 2017. I swear I had been planning to start this conversation off with something fun, like an ode to how fly Kevin Bacon looks in the criminally underrated I Love Dick, but there was a story that kept popping up that seemed pertinent to our conversation about Fox News’ ongoing efforts to convince the easily influenced president that he ought to fire the special counsel ASAP. (Such is the pace of the news cycle that by the time this is published, in a week, this may already have come to pass.) I would not insult all of television by equating it with Fox News—TV is a friend of mine, after all—but this story is a pretty blunt metaphor for the year, in which so much TV has been in conversation with the president, even if most of it is not, you know, directly instructing him to dismantle our democracy.

Going into 2017, I imagined that entertainment television—i.e. all of the stuff that’s not the news—was going to be more of a distraction from the events of the world. Instead, TV has only sporadically been an escape, and even then it’s hard to forget what you’re fleeing from (or maybe that’s just what happens when you watch TV with your phone in your hand). I’m not just talking about the late-night shows, Saturday Night Live, or the most recent seasons of American Horror Story: Cult and Mr. Robot, which have all been straightforward broadsides on the president. I’m talking about all the shows that have been obliquely about the president, even if they were created before his far-fetched election.

It’s exhausting seeing the president in everything—it’s also a little ridiculous. The movie critic at the Ringer recently wrote a piece about how often the phrase this is the movie we need right now has popped up in headlines this year. Television criticism has succumbed to this syntax too: NBC’s cryfest This Is Us is what we need right now, like it’s hard to find things to cry about; When We Rise is the show of the moment, instead of a stiff and forgettable do-gooder miniseries; Riverdale isn’t a show we need right now, but making a connection to Trump is still an effective way to sell it. As strained as this can sometimes feel, it is also true that Donald Trump is a Gollum of entertainment, a creature made from its very muck. His connection to what’s on TV isn’t just a matter of forced connections and clickable headlines. Trump—created by TV, obsessed with TV—was propelled to office by a backlash to the yearslong progressive trend in television, and American culture more generally, toward greater diversity. The shows trying to make some headway on matters of representation—i.e. most of the interesting ones—ran smack into our reactionary, dog-whistling new president, which made their themes starker and more urgent. The Deuce, Alias Grace, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale, to name just a few dramas, are some of the shows that would have been about structural misogyny under a Hillary Clinton presidency but that became preposterously relevant with a pussy-grabbing creep in the White House.

And then came the sexual assault revelations roiling the country, a storm that broke with the hideous facts about Harvey Weinstein but that are also a sublimated story about our president, the Access Hollywood tapes hovering over everything like a prod and a historical what if? The unfolding scandal has caught TV personalities like Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, and the head of Amazon’s original content, and implicated Jeffrey Tambor and Matthew Weiner among others. But before questions of consent and power became front-page news, before House of Cards was rebooted with Robin Wright in the lead, TV was noodling on these questions, and not only because Tina Fey and Seth MacFarlane were making jokes about “open secrets” on their various shows. Girls and Master of None each had episodes about harassment that became prescient in hindsight. Top of the Lake: China Girl was all about the intersection of women, abuse, and class. She’s Gotta Have It begins with a #MeToo moment. A very funny set piece in Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which was produced by C.K., in which Pamela keeps a man from kissing her with hundreds of “no”s was eerily, hysterically pertinent, while Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, also produced by C.K., went furthest of all, with an episode featuring a masturbating C.K. stand-in. And then there’s Louie itself, now a twisted and twisty document of male subterfuge and self-justification, instead of the wise, enlightened urtext of white male middle age.

Last year, I noted that four shows had broken through the gravitational field of Peak TV and achieved escape velocity. These shows made themselves heard through the cacophonous clanging of 400 other series. This year, shows had to make themselves heard above so much other TV and the three-ring nuclear circus of our politics. While a few scripted shows briefly shot up into the atmosphere, except for Game of Thrones, none of them stayed there, unless they were rocket-boosted by Trump. In another year would Big Little Lies have been an even bigger deal? Would American Vandal have been Stranger Things? Would the second season of Stranger Things have been Stranger Things? Would The Young Pope and Twin Peaks have been as obsessed about after they premiered as they were before? (13 Reasons Why did, I think, actually achieve orbit, just not for our demographic, by which I mean old people.) Instead, it was the Trump-fare that broke out: Jimmy Kimmel on health care, SNL’s Trump impersonations, The Handmaid’s Tale, and This Is Us, which has widely been interpreted as the liberal weepie we really do need right now, even as it stimulates my tear ducts and schlock alert in equal measure. What Americans shared this year was politics, not television shows, even as we wailed and fought about politics, sometimes via television shows.

As much as politics permeated TV, this permeation did not entirely preclude fun. Which brings me to my Top 10 list, a series of shows that speak to our crazy moment, but mostly in a deeply entertaining, invigorating ways. That, I think, is what I most wanted from TV this year: not an escape, necessarily, but not a drag. Both The Leftovers and The Handmaid’s Tale could be hard to watch, but I found them adventurous, gorgeous, and fascinating—though not the episode I think of, “International Assassin: Part II.” Tara, I recall you dissing this episode as well. If you don’t have anything to nice to say about it, please elaborate.

Here’s my top 10:

  1. The Leftovers
  2. I Love Dick
  3. The Deuce
  4. Better Things
  5. Halt and Catch Fire
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale
  7. Insecure
  8. Big Little Lies
  9. Catastrophe
  10. GLOW

Because there is so much television on, it’s sort of de rigueur for critics to talk about all the wonderful shows that almost made the cut. I don’t feel this way. I liked a lot of TV, but I didn’t love a lot of TV this year. (Dear White People and She’s Gotta Have It easily could have taken that last spot, but that’s about it.) Don’t get me wrong: There was a lot of TV that I enjoyed —The Crown, American Vandal, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Silicon Valley—and even more that I really want to talk about—Will & Grace, whatever Jonathan Groff was up to in Mindhunter, Riverdale, the very dulllllll season of my heretofore beloved The Americans, Law & Order: The Menendez Brothers. But there was even more that made me feel like “This aired in 2017?!”: The Santa Clarita Diet, Sneaky Pete (liked it a lot!), Feud. Only in 2017 could Ryan Murphy make a show starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon and it somehow feels like the 312th footnote to the year in TV.

My list reflects one way of coping with all the abundance: It’s seriously biased against returning shows. Here are series I love but whose new seasons I saw none or only small parts of: Broad City, Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, Better Call Saul, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Place. And then there are the shows I am pretty sure I would have loved, if only I had made time to, you know, see them. I watched enough of Claws, The Good Fight, and One Mississippi to know I should have watched more. If I had gotten around to SMILF, Mary Kills People, Brockmire, Occupied, and all the other Scandinavian dramas that are my true heart song, would my top 10 be radically different? As TV professionals, we are supposed to watch deeply and widely, but we are also constantly doing triage, balancing our interests against what people are actually watching and should be watching. Sometimes good shows get neglected, left to code in a plastic chair in the ER. As much as I liked The Good Fight, how many people have CBS All Access? (This reminds me: How was the new Star Trek? Anyone?)

I am working around to my big shame: Twin Peaks: The Return. I haven’t seen past the first episode. I have an excuse—I was on maternity leave when it aired—but that doesn’t really explain how every time I turned to it, some other show that I knew would be easier was always calling out to me, asking to be watched it its stead. When it comes to the I coulda, shoulda of 2017 I could go on and on, but there’s already enough in the world to feel lousy about: Tell me instead what you loved this year. Am I wrong? Was this year so great for TV all our Top 10 lists should be Top 20s? Did politics change your viewing experiences? Did you find Trump inescapable? Or should we just forget him and talk teevee? Which of the shows I name-dropped deserves a loving and thorough exegesis?

Please, let’s not let the mystery be,