Television

The TV Club, 2018

Entry 1: The year of fine TV.

Julia Roberts in Homecoming.
Homecoming.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon Studios.

I am so excited to talk with you about this year in television—even though it was a year that was … not that great for television! I am being careful not to call it a bad year for television, not because one couldn’t—one could!— but because it seems improperly descriptive. Looking over the past year, I don’t see so much awful TV as I do a vast amount of good-enough television—you know, decent, not awful, justifies a Netflix subscription, sure-I-guess-I’ll-keep-watching, professionally made television. It might even have a good performance or a good storyline or a good episode or a good scene or great camerawork or is working over some interesting idea, but that isn’t anything more than its various parts. You know, fine. Tons of fine TV this year! Shout it from the mountaintops.

Why is this? I think there are a bunch of things going on. The first is that TV platforms right now have the same goal as tech companies (many TV companies are tech companies, after all), and that is: engagement. Keep people on and using the platform for as many minutes a day as they possibly can. One of the craziest things about the past few years—at least as far as TV goes—is Silicon Valley’s realization that TV is the killer app, the best way to maintain, if not increase, interaction with and loyalty to their product. This is an unexpected outcome that has become so omnipresent it doesn’t even feel remarkable at this point—but TV as the way to connect with customers? That was not a widespread strategy even five years ago, when Netflix started making original programming, which did not, at the time, seem like a slam-dunk thing to do. But one by one the huge tech companies have gotten into the TV business, starting with Netflix, and followed by Amazon (and sort of Hulu, though it has another business model), and Facebook, and soon Apple, all of which has completely upended (and is still upending) the way TV is made and viewed.

The TV industry (in general) has always wanted people to watch the shows more than it’s cared about the quality of the shows. But as television has moved from a commercial model to a subscription one, and a streaming subscription one at that, the industry cares less about when we watch than how much. You can see the knock-on effect of this all over TV: shows clocking in at 63 minutes when 30 would do; shows at 10 episodes a season when six would do; shows at Season 3, when one would do. (I’m looking directly at you, Handmaid’s Tale.) Did any of you thrill, as I did, at the cancellations of Dietland and American Vandal, not because they “deserved” it, but because this preserved them as gleaming one- and two-season series? This is surely a sicko TV-critic sentiment, but I just thought, concision! What a gift!

Even though these systematic forces have put a premium on TV you will keep watching rather than TV that is actually good, there’s also something simply flukey about this year, an off-vintage that wouldn’t have seemed so bad if one or two or three of its more ambitious offerings hadn’t been such flops. The year’s pre-eminent dud was Matt Weiner’s The Romanoffs, his anthology series about descendants of the Russian royal family, that was less an exploration of than an exercise in hubris. But there were other promising-sounding shows that were, in fact, so mediocre it’s now impossible to believe they aired this year at all: shows like Here and Now, HBO’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink family drama starring Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins, and Rise, the egregiously earnest high school musical follow-up from the creator of Parenthood.

But the fact that I think this year would have felt different with just a smattering of the very good says something else about how TV works now. I would guess that the consensus best shows of this year (not that this will be accurately reflected in the bit of showmanship called my Top 10 list) will all be returning series: Atlanta, The Good Place, and BoJack Horseman. These shows are very good. And despite all being incisive and sincere comedies about the difficulty and awfulness of being human, they are very different. One’s an actual laugh-out-loud show with a lot of heart that’s a philosopher-ethicist’s dream of the perfect network sitcom. One is a pitch-dark, but also visually cute, animated series that has perfected, by not deifying or lauding, the antihero, who this season was even more explicitly shown to be a #MeToo creep. And one is a dreamy, stoned, high-art show about racism, weirdness, and the vile weirdness of racism that this year brought us the indelible, inexplicable “Teddy Perkins.” If these shows are all on TV, that’s gotta be a good year for TV, right?

Wrong. We metabolize everything so quickly now that the new stuff, for better or worse, sets the tone, the tenor for the year, particularly for critics. The way that we watch and the way that regular people watch has never diverged more, and is only going to continue diverging. For us, when something premieres still really matters: It’s a way to keep track of and to prioritize what we should be watching when, which we need more help with than ever, given the sheer volume of stuff. (This is where I confess that I’ve only seen parts of The Good Place and BoJack this year, dreadful oversights that, at least, help make my point.) But regular viewers have never been less tied to premiere dates. I say this was a meh year for TV, but someone else had an amazing year of watching TV, because this was the year they finally got to The Leftovers and Freaks and Geeks, rewatched Friends and binged 30 for 30 documentaries.

TV is being consumed more atemporally than ever before, but, counterintuitively, the window around when a show first appears is still really important—and that’s not just true for critics. Viewers need more help finding things than they did before, so while the TV is all there for the watching, when a show starts, that’s the time it can really make a concerted play for attention in our overstimulated, entertainment-saturated culturescape. All to say, good luck to the show that gets better in its first season these days. Good luck to the show that stays good its second and third and fourth seasons, because unless it’s Game of Thrones, it’s likely going to fall off in ratings and fall out of the “cultural conversation.” Everyone has a short attention span now.

In some ways, this year was a reminder that whether something is good or bad can often be the least interesting thing about it—which is different than saying it’s an irrelevant thing about it. Roseanne, and the deserved but surprising canceling of Roseanne, and then the revival of Roseanne as Roseanne Barr–less sitcom The Conners, was one of the biggest stories of the year. The quality of the Roseanne revival seems much less important than its politics, than the way its message and Barr’s beliefs were horribly entangled. But its quality, that it was a pretty good revival of a beloved show, is one of the things that was so twisted and twisty and complicating about it. On the entire other end of the political spectrum from Roseanne was Ryan Murphy’s Pose, a period drama devoted to telling the story of trans and gay people in the 1980s ball culture scene. It’s an admirable, well-meaning show, one that broke so much new ground for trans representation that it felt very mean to point out how saccharine it was. Its refusal to make its characters anything less than saintly made it much less good than it could have been—both as a TV show and as a political project.

I suspect you will have different feelings about these series—and all the rest of them too! The bright side to the general meh-ness of the year in TV is that it should give us lots to argue about: Critics tend to agree on the truly excellent and the truly abhorrent, but all bets are off when all the shows are in between. A perfect example is Amazon’s Homecoming, a conspiracy thriller based on a podcast, directed by Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts. Some people loved this show. I … liked it? I thought it looked very, very great (maybe somewhere in this TV club I will go off on my impassioned, slightly idiotic, but deeply felt rant about how what a TV show looks like doesn’t matter) and was nicely controlled but really not very propulsive for a thriller starring Julia Roberts. It felt like ordering baked Alaska and getting a dessert lit by a very small, elegant flame. In other words: fine TV!

There were many more shows about which thoughtful people can disagree. I fully expect to see some of the shows I liked but didn’t love—The Assassination of Gianni Versace, My Brilliant Friend, Barry, Dietland, Maniac—and some of the shows I thought were interesting but bad—Sharp Objects, Forever, Queer Eye—on your top 10 lists. (One show I don’t expect to see but was actually pretty OK: FX’s Getty family drama Trust.) What are some other solid shows that just got lost in the pile??

Here is my Top 10 list.

1. Succession
2. GLOW
3. Killing Eve
4. Atlanta
5. Howards End
6. Babylon Berlin
7. Ugly Delicious
8. Little Drummer Girl
9. High Maintenance
10. Nanette

I always try to make this a list of the shows that I liked the most, but to be totally honest, after the fifth spot, even this list comes with a lot of qualifications. I thought Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s original German series set in the Weimar era, fell off horribly, but it contained my favorite five minutes of television from this whole year, plus an amazing elevator. I had a lot of intellectual disagreements with Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, but I spent so much more time arguing with it than I did thinking about other series, it jumped some things I liked more. I can’t escape the feeling that any of the last five shows on this list could have been bounced if only I had watched enough of everything I meant to, especially the stuff I think I would really like, including BoJack, The Good Place, The Good Fight, America to Me, Sorry for Your Loss, and The Deuce, a show whose first season I liked so much, it was on my top 10 list last year, but that I dropped like a greased eel: I’m sorry, The Deuce, I don’t know why I did that. As for my top five shows: I will sing their praises in the coming days.

Am I all wrong about this year in TV? Was it better than I am giving it credit for? Worse? Tell me what you loved, what you hated, or what I have incorrectly labeled as just fine, when it is, in fact, far better or worse.

We’ve only just begun—looking forward to all of it,

Willa

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