TV Club

The most fascinating show on TV in 2017 was the news.

The most fascinating show on TV was the news.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by HBO, Fox News and CNN.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by HBO, Fox News and CNN.

Willa, Tara, June:

I write this to you on the morning the Golden Globes have announced their TV nominations, and if there’s anything that can underline the shrugworthiness of 2017, the TV year, it’s a list of Golden Globe nominees that includes the perfectly fine but really? Will & Grace nominated for best comedy series. TV has left behind the consensus in favor of shows that seem designed to appeal to certain viewers on a subatomic level, while leaving others saying, “I get it, but also, I don’t.”

I think a lot about what “The Show” is (and have written about it a fair amount), by which I mean the series that dominates conversation to such a degree that writing an article about it and posting it on your website is like sending up a beacon that draws readers to you. It’s almost impossible to predict what The Show will be, and it’s quite clear that at this moment, The Show is Game of Thrones, about which even the wonky, politics-obsessed Vox audience cannot get enough. But I had been struggling to figure out what the next Show would be until I had the queasy, discomfiting realization that The Show had become the news.

The way we consume the ongoing tale of the Trump White House, with its many supporting players, scandals, and weirdo plot twists, has become incredibly similar to the way we used to dissect what was happening to Don Draper or Walter White. We spend our time trying to find our way inside the protagonists’ heads, hoping we can figure them out, but the stakes are entirely real, not fictional, and the highest ones are for ourselves. Trying to figure out Trump is a race against time, one that only serves to highlight in bold colors the kind of economic privilege that has always been endemic to endless discussion of TV-drama protagonists. If you were wrong about Don Draper, people just made fun of you in the comments section. If you’re wrong about Donald Trump, maybe the world will end. I don’t want to say Trump is our cable drama antihero chickens coming home to roost, because that would be way too reductive. But I also don’t want to not say it, if you get what I mean.

I have spent most of 2017 feeling like I live in fiction, a sensation that has been creeping up on me all my life but has only really grown as potent as it has in the last five years or so. The rise of social media has essentially turned everybody’s life into a self-curated reality show, and that’s only been cranked up to 500 now that the occupant of the White House is a cable news obsessive who rose to a level of prominence sufficient enough to get the job because he seemed impressive on a reality show. I feel like we’ve never done enough to talk about TV’s role in Trump’s rise, but I also feel like we’ve done too much. He feels like a sui generis construction of the American id, but so does television. Maybe they are one and the same.

The result has been that when I just need to veg out in 2017, I’m much more likely to turn my eyes to YouTube—which is full of craziness, to be sure, but also features some spectacularly entertaining small-scale “shows,” like the film essays of Lindsay Ellis (a friend), or the cooking series Binging with Babish, or the wonky video game criticism of Extra Credits, or the videos of a beekeeper I watch with great interest, because I feel like knowing a lot about beekeeping could come in handy someday. (No reason!) Here are the kind of numbing pleasantries I used to be able to find on TV but increasingly can’t because TV is the world, and the world is TV.

That is, except for one TV show: Twin Peaks, which made more sense to me than any other show in 2017.

I’m as surprised as you are. I hate TV revivals in general, and I find the cult that has grown up around Twin Peaks a little insufferable (even as I think the show itself is tremendous). But somewhere in Episode 5, when I realized David Lynch was going to spend almost all of the season with Kyle MacLachlan playing not Agent Dale Cooper but Dale Cooper’s evil twin and an agreeably idiotic naïf named Dougie Jones, I found myself looking forward to each new episode more than anything else I was watching. I could pull out flaws and sequences that ultimately didn’t amount to much, and I get where the people who found it a whole lot of nothing were coming from, but something about the combination of Lynch and Mark Frost’s dedication to utter sincerity and outright trolling just spoke to me.

The deeper I got into the season, though, the more it made sense that Twin Peaks, well, made sense to me. The series tapped deeply into the zeitgeist by glancing off that zeitgeist at an oblique angle. It was a show about longing for a past you can’t return to and how getting lost in that sensation can become poisonous. It was a series about a broken world that everybody longs desperately to heal. And it was a show about how hoping you might change the past opens up an unfillable darkness inside of yourself. The world we have is the world we have; we have to live in it, but maybe we can find a way to make it better.

For all of the shows that felt like they could have approached some of those themes (like two of my longtime favorites, The Americans and Orange Is the New Black, which both sit this year off my top 10 list), only Twin Peaks and The Leftovers got there, by deliberately filtering their stories through genre material and having mostly been made before Donald Trump’s presidency came to dominate every conversation you have. Part of living in The Show is that watching TV that deliberately tries to comment on The Show ends up having an ouroboros feeling to it. The best shows about Trump—like The Handmaid’s Tale—were only accidentally about him anyway and would have still been good for qualities of their filmmaking in some other reality where Hillary Clinton had won. Trying to catch the dragon only results in disaster for everybody (as that Game of Thrones finale can attest).

And yet why did we want to talk about Handmaid’s Tale? For its “timeliness,” not for the boldness of its filmmaking or its character journeys or anything we might have in that alternate world. We live in fiction so much that it becomes easier to understand fiction if it seems like it might be commenting on us. I don’t know where this ends, but I hope it’s good. I hope.

I was going to transition here to a whole thing about how we’re at long last leaving the antihero era, and The Good Doctor is proof of that, but I’ve already written a wall of text and want to hear from all of you. My top 10 this year is actually an 18-way tie for first place because I’m obnoxious, but gun to my head, these were my top 10 shows of 2017:

  1. The Leftovers
  2. Better Things
  3. Halt and Catch Fire
  4. The Good Place
  5. Twin Peaks
  6. BoJack Horseman
  7. The Handmaid’s Tale
  8. Search Party
  9. The Magicians
  10. One Day at a Time

Can’t wait to hear what you all have to say. And at some point we have to talk about The Americans. I am committing us to this course of action.

Yours in TV to the end,