Television

The TV Club, 2018

Entry 2: The weird radicalism of TV shows acting like TV shows.

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hulu.

Hello, my beloved TV Club pals:

Somewhere in May or thereabouts, I realized something. When I got to the end of the day, I was spending less time watching TV to have fun with my wife, or to catch up on stuff I’d missed, or just to have the thing on, spewing its noise. I was going to more movies, reading more books. I was cooking more, writing more. Oh, and I was watching a lot more YouTube: cooking videos and video essays and weirdo comedy sketches and everything ContraPoints made.

Then I realized something even more unusual: For the first time in nearly 10 years, I was thinking about having an end of the day.

And yet I was watching just as much TV as ever. Gobs of it. Too much of it. I won’t flatter myself by thinking that what I do is back-breaking work or anything. (I am, after all, essentially a professional thought haver.) But for the first time in the decade I’ve been doing this job, and the many years I was an amateur TV watcher before that, the whole thing started to feel like work pretty much all of the time.

I’d get to the end of one binge of screeners to write a review, and regardless of whether I liked it, there would be another binge hanging over my head in a couple of days. (Hello from Season 2, Episode 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) Five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have blinked at spending the first however many hours of my vacation watching a disastrous final House of Cards season. I would have seen it as a necessary part of my job. But in 2018, as the show wound its way to a series finale baffling in its obliviousness, I found myself deeply resenting it for keeping me from going hiking. And it was pouring outside.

There are external factors to this, of course. For one thing, my job has increasingly become about writing about all culture and not just television, and for another, I’ve been sharing more and more of my TV watching duties with others. I’m also getting older, wanting to spend my time on things I value. And for as much as I consider criticism my vocation (and an important one!), seeing it as just one part of my life is a perhaps inevitable outgrowth of aging.

But, also, it’s Netflix’s fault.

The peril of having way more content than any one human can consume and being expected to have reasonable opinions on that content is not a new one. Literary critics have been dealing with it for nearly as long as the field has existed, and music critics would laugh at us from beneath their pile of promotional CDs. That TV criticism is making this shift was, perhaps, inevitable, and if this massive bubble of programming doesn’t deflate or pop eventually, we’ll have to become more adept at it with every year.

But in talking to people involved in the television industry, more and more I’m getting the sense that shows are being crafted less to make sure you want to keep watching than to make sure you don’t dare stop, lest you fall too far behind. These don’t feel all that different on the surface, but the degree of urgency will make sense to anybody who’s just gotten stuck in a binge of something just good enough not to switch it off. For a few years there, it seemed like few shows were thinking about their long-term goals beyond Season 1; increasingly, it feels like few shows are even interested in thinking about how to be TV shows any more.

I kept looking for another show that would give me the same feeling of, “OK, I’ve gotta watch those screeners!” that I got from the final season of The Americans, and I never really found it. Granted, it’s unfair to hold new shows up to the standards of a six-year series with characters I’m already attached to. But when I think back on the year, I really only maybe had that experience two other times, with AMC’s brutal, beautiful The Terror and BBC America’s Killing Eve. The former was intentionally constructed to run one season, and I’m already writing the “After a hugely disappointing second season, the third season of Killing Eve marks a cautious return to form” lede of my 2020 review of the latter.

This is why, perhaps perversely, my Top 10 has been so defined by series that seem dedicated to the weirdly radical idea of just being TV shows. They’re sitcoms (though not The Good Place or BoJack Horseman, both of which I still love but am feeling ever so slightly disconnected from) and genre dramas and the occasional prestige show. They maybe weren’t “the best,” whatever that means anymore, but I loved watching them. A shocking amount of them—and even more of my runners-up—were on FX, the one network that still seems intent on just making good TV shows, not on trying to lure in the biggest stars possible.

I even include among their number The Handmaid’s Tale, a show that I think actually got better at being a TV show in its second season (for reasons I outlined in that piece), perhaps at the cost of what made it so immediately gripping in Season 1. There was something kind of weird and transgressive about the coverage of that show’s first season, like it was fun for some of us (maybe even me) to say, “Oh, hey, we live in a dystopia!” But as Season 2 actually grappled with what it means to live in a dystopia, with how it gets its hooks in each and every one of us and makes us party to evil things we never asked to be part of, a lot of its more superficially “fun” elements (those pop music cues, for instance) leached out of the show, until what we were left with was this soul-deadening march toward death. Which really spoke to me, but if it wasn’t for you, I get it. (The finale, I must admit, was disastrously misconceived, and the show’s turn to the idea of revolution, while probably good for its long-term prospects with audiences, is almost certainly going to kill what worked about it for me, which is apparently unrelenting misery. I need to see my therapist.)

I could put alongside my Top 10 an endless ocean of flawed but interesting shows that I gobbled hungrily over the course of the year (and which I hope we talk about, even as I felt like I might have been the only person watching them), even as I understood that more conventionally “good” shows were better made. They were also risking less, in terror of turning off binge viewers, until something like Netflix’s Maniac was reasonably entertaining but also hugely programmatic in its attempts to garner your attention, like a teenage boy who’s fashioned his persona as being “random.”

And then I think, for a moment, about the huge grain of salt I have to apply to all of the above, about the fact that the single show I’ve had the most conversations about with my Midwestern relatives over the course of this year has been not Game of Thrones or The Handmaid’s Tale or whatever but friggin’ Jack Ryan, a show with disastrous politics that at least blows things up really nicely. (Has this happened to any of you? The Jack Ryan thing? Am I not only watching different shows from everybody else but my friends and relatives are too?)

TV is still TV. You just have to go looking for it. That’s why my Top 10 shows of the year are (and seriously, I am literally just typing this for the first time, and God knows what I will forget):

1.) Atlanta (FX)
2.) The Terror (AMC)
3.) The Americans (FX)
4.) My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
5.) The Magicians (Syfy)
6.) One Day at a Time (Netflix)
7.) Superstore (NBC)
8.)  Succession (HBO)
9.)  Lodge 49 (AMC)
10.) The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

I’m already sad I had to leave Pose off that list. Did y’all see Pose? What a good show!

Back to Maisel for me. And, really, it’s time someone said something about Daniel Palladino!

Yours,
Todd

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