Television

The TV Club, 2018

Entry 10: The Terror and Atlanta told familiar stories from changed perspectives.

Ciarán Hinds in The Terror.
Ciarán Hinds in The Terror.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Aidan Monaghan/AMC.

To all my gentle, loving Tuunbaqs:

It’s interesting to consider The Terror in this year of adaptation, because it’s a series that really does change its source material in countless ways. Some of those changes are to account for better knowledge of what, precisely, happened to the HMS Terror and Erebus, knowledge we have now that their wrecks have been found at the bottom of the Arctic but that author Dan Simmons did not have when he published the novel of the same name in 2007. (Briefly: Both book and show are about a very real 1840s British naval expedition to the Arctic led by John Franklin that completely disappeared from the face of the Earth. What little we know of the men’s fates includes that cannibalism was involved.)

But just as many of those changes were made to make the material fit 10 hours of television. The most consistent complaint about the series, for instance—that it starts a little slow—turned out to be a strength, to my mind, because it built out the show as a small-town drama (set on two ships) that started out in horror-movie territory and then spun more out of control with every episode, as the gigantic Tuunbaq (some kind of cross between a polar bear and a god) stalked the men across the ice. Using the first three episodes to establish the underpinnings of a well-known TV genre paid huge dividends in the last few episodes, as showrunners Soo Hugh and David Kajganich (who also wrote the wonderful new version of Suspiria) brutally stripped away those underpinnings.

And, finally, I appreciated how the series removed Simmons’ male perspective and replaced it with something a little more eerie and omniscient. One need only look at the divergent fates of the one significant woman in the book and the series to see how thoroughly Simmons’ book was reimagined as a cautionary tale about the limits of masculine codes, the sins of colonialism, and the dangers of poking the natural world until it pokes back. That’s why something that bugged many other critics, and might normally bug me—the fact that the series was about a bunch of white guys (and one indigenous woman)—ultimately became a strength. The show understood why these codes inspire a sort of fond nostalgia in some, while also ruthlessly picking apart their flaws.

I don’t want to remove Kajganich, who wrote most of the season’s best episodes, from this equation, but in Hugh, the series found someone like a TV Kathryn Bigelow—a writer fascinated by men and masculinity but also able to view it from an outsider’s perspective and dissect the ways these codes sell short those who live under them. And in Jared Harris, Hugh and Kajganich found the exact actor needed to expose the flaws in those ideas and try looking for something new. The actor, always terrific, has never been better, and the final shot of him has hung with me all year, in a way little else has.

The Terror is a show where the ending made me rethink the beginning and made me like the whole even more. This is a risky strategy in television, which I still believe is at its best when it plays to the medium’s episodic strengths, but when it works well, it pays considerable dividends. Shows from Lifetime’s semi-astonishing, semi-trashy You to Homecoming to Sharp Objects to My Brilliant Friend—all, like The Terror, adaptations that altered their source material in interesting, occasionally too subtle, ways—pulled off similar feats. I didn’t quite get Homecoming, for instance, until its final sequence of shots, when everything it had been trying to do snapped into place. Similarly, Sharp Objects’ final revelation was treated by many as a contrived “big twist,” but the “twist” underlined all the themes the series had developed all along about trauma and the way it gets passed down across generations.

You dovetails niftily with The Terror and a few of my other favorites we haven’t discussed so far (notably Starz’s Counterpart, a moody little spy series about parallel universe starring two J.K. Simmonses—what a gift!) as well as basically everything we have discussed so far: They’re all shows about what you do when you realize the world you live in is irretrievably broken, and you’re not sure either how to survive in it or how to build a better one. Even Nanette tackles this idea, in the unlikely form of the stand-up special. Deconstruction was everywhere, but it was happening within the confines of established genres, and it was more about the ways those genres build up their broken worlds and less how the rules of storytelling work.

This is why Atlanta rocketed to the top of my list when it debuted back in March and hasn’t really left that spot—which is also thanks to the haunting image of Teddy Perkins in his crumbling manse, another one that’s stuck with me for the whole year. Every episode of Atlanta is its own, distinctive thing, but it’s also, subtly, playing around with some classic sitcom storytelling device, like an unusual encounter with a kooky guest star or trying to go out for a date with your girlfriend when mishaps keep befalling you, then caps It by unveiling the white privilege inherent in those familiar structures (something I wrote a lot more about here).

Atlanta is a very traditional comedy down in its bones, but it’s also deeply indebted to pulling apart the ways that traditional comedy stories change irreparably when you put a black person in 2018 America at their center. It somehow straddles a best-of-all-possible-worlds scenario, where it’s at once one of TV’s most episodic shows but also telling a deeply serialized story filled with rich character development; it’s at once hugely traditional and completely of the moment. Its status as a comedy speaks to how TV drama seems a little spooked by the present, setting its tales in alternate worlds or the past, where comedy keeps running at the present head on.

In the large collection of things we haven’t talked about, it’s probably worth shouting out late night (where I’m intrigued by Netflix’s Patriot Act but feeling a little burned by how quickly the service churns through promising late-night shows before just ditching them entirely) and kid’s programming (where I know Steven Universe remains a favorite of many and where Adventure Time had a hugely emotional, hugely affecting finale, even if I keep thinking it aired in 2013 or something). There’s so much TV! But in this case, I think, that’s a good thing—the artistic ambitions of programs that are out of the way and off the radar continue to grow, even as TV dramas can feel a little ossified.

I definitely want to talk about the #MeToo ramifications of programming this year, especially when it came to BoJack, which apparently accidentally tackled the topic. But I’ve talked enough, and for once, I’m content to just shut up and listen.

Sadly no longer watching Grey’s Anatomy,
Todd

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.