To the other crewmembers of the TV Club:
At times, being a TV critic in 2018 has felt a little like sensing the distant rumble of some iceberg against the hull, and the more I look at the stuff I just never got to—including essentially all non-food reality television—he more I feel like gathering the band to strike up “Nearer My God to Thee.” If this is a sinking ship, I’m evidently going down with it.
Willa’s prompt to talk about TV that wasn’t scripted made me think of my three favorite Netflix food shows: the dazzling Salt Fat Acid Heat (hosted by the gregarious Samin Nosrat, whose book of the same name is a must-have); the warmly funny Nailed It (hosted by the hilarious Nicole Byer), which my Vox colleague Alissa Wilkinson has dubbed the American Great British Baking Show for its indomitable “you tried!” spirit; and the trying-way-too-hard-but-I-liked-it-anyway The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, which is kind of like if Julia Child were replaced by a would-be witch who’d seen a Ryan Murphy musical adaptation of Psycho. My kind of show!
I’d also love to just briefly single out the little-known Hulu show Puppy Prep, which can be watched in a little over an hour in its entirety and is lurking way off the radar on my favorite streaming service, albeit one which is horrible at letting you know what content it has. Puppy Prep is a very good show about some very good dogs preparing to be very good helpers to humans who need them, a straightforward reality competition show (some of the pups will bomb out!!!), and an elaborate parody of reality show tropes. Because the producers have absolutely no control over which puppies succeed and fail, they take what is essentially documentary footage of puppies romping around and frame it via an all-knowing narrator who gives the puppies reality show personalities (too many of the dogs who fail are just there to make friends). It’s sweet and fun, and it’s appropriate for kids, who will get a jump on their peers in reality-show savviness if they watch this one.
But when it comes to nonfiction TV, I should throw some quotation marks around the “TV,” because by far the most nonfiction stuff I watched this year consisted of short-form videos on YouTube.
YouTube has long seemed like a semi-slumbering giant in the TV world. It produces its own content, to be sure, but it has the unique problem of having to compete with itself, of trying to figure out a way to make one of its original shows seem more appealing than just watching another video of a cat falling off of something. I’ve liked a few of the YouTube screeners I’ve watched well enough, but the site is still struggling to make anything as inherently compelling and filled with drama as “Baby Elephant Goes Swimming.”
YouTube’s centrality to the leisure lives of the next generation—the one just underneath the millennials—has briefly flitted into the national consciousness a couple of times this year, mostly in alarmist terms. There was the moment when, early in the year, we all got very confused about the existence of now-disgraced prankster Logan Paul when he featured a dead body in a video shot in a Japanese forest famous for deaths by suicide. And then there was the much more legitimately alarming phenomenon of YouTube’s algorithm taking viewers in one or two easy steps from “Baby Elephant Goes Swimming” to fascist, white nationalist propaganda; it’s barely been addressed furor over Facebook’s general corporate irresponsibility, but it’s something that hovers over YouTube nonetheless.
Speaking of Facebook: Sorry for Your Loss—great show! It’s the kind of thing the Golden Globes would have eaten up even three years ago, at least with a nomination for Elizabeth Olsen’s haunted lead performance as a very young widow trying to cope both with her husband’s death and her growing understanding of who he really was. Too bad nobody was watching. The ground is shifting underneath these new platforms so quickly that they don’t even know how to corrupt the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to their benefit. I digress!
When I just need to watch people doing stuff, YouTube is where I turn. Sometimes, that takes the form of footage of people just doing their jobs or having cool experiences I will never have. (I’m just never going to ride my bike down a narrow railing alongside an enormous drop-off, but I’m glad someone did with a camera strapped to their helmet!) Sometimes that takes the form of slightly edited videos that chop out the boring bits out of real people’s experiences—like well-produced vacation videos, but for everything. (My favorite in this subgenre: people exploring abandoned buildings they find in their neighborhoods and other parts of this vast, crumbling nation.)
But more and more, YouTube is the place I turn for thoughtful reality television. That can take the form of smart cooking shows, like the genial Binging with Babish (and its more fundamentals-focused spinoff Basics with Babish), or other DIY-type entertainments. It takes the form of smart commentary on film, TV, and video games, like the entire output of the very British HBomberguy, who melds his thoughts on games and movies with larger arguments for leftist political and economic positions, and this stream-of-consciousness essay by horror aficionado NyxFears that reads the horror film Hereditary through the lens of the trans experience. (It was one of the best film reviews I “read” all year.)
But the acknowledged queen of left-leaning YouTube in 2018 is ContraPoints, who takes the sorts of alt-right talking points that drive those terrible videos up the recommendation algorithm, finds a point of empathy at their core, and then demolishes the arguments brick by brick. Created by Baltimore resident Natalie Wynn, the channel isn’t just thoughtful and funny. It’s also, frequently, beautiful, with complicated lighting schemes, elaborate costumes, and genuine thought put into aesthetics you don’t get in a lot of television, much less a lot of YouTube.
Wynn releases just one video per month, but it’s always worth it, and her 2018 output included the definitive takedown of Jordan Peterson and a fascinating argument with herself about the role of aesthetic beauty in the lives of trans women. My favorite is Wynn’s attempt to demolish incel philosophy, first by empathizing with some of its core principles as a trans woman also obsessed with her own bone structure, then by explaining how harmful this line of thought is to society and the self. (It is probably no coincidence that two of the YouTubers I’ve singled out here—Wynn and NyxFears’ May Leitz—are trans women. Neither would likely be given this sort of platform on more mainstream platforms, which is why YouTube, horrific algorithm warts and all, is so vital.)
Yes, there are substantial problems with YouTube’s model, which incentivizes “authenticity” in a way that slowly strangles anything actually authentic out of it, as brilliantly outlined by Lindsay Ellis. (Ellis is another of my favorites—check out her multipart dissection of the Hobbit movies—but I should also note she’s a friend.) The more corporate sponsorship floods the platform, the more I have to cope with ads cosplaying as jocular comedic sketches, all allowed by companies that want to seem “cool” in a way that will still get you to spend money on their products.
It still feels a little weird to call YouTube “TV” when it’s less driven by anything like the television model and much more by finding creators whose videos you enjoy watching. Wynn might create a video about the looming threat of climate change and our relationship to the apocalypse one month, then a more stagey art piece the next month. If you’re not there for both of those things, well, you’d better be so fascinated by everything Wynn has to say that it doesn’t matter. This gap between content and creator may be why the site is struggling a bit to enter the scripted programming game, in addition to all those cat videos you’d rather be watching.
And yet, increasingly, I am fascinated by everything my favorite creators have to say. I watched much more YouTube in 2018 than I did in 2017, and I suspect the amount will go up again in 2019. There are some good shows coming up next year (in particular, a not-yet-announced Netflix comedy that I’m finding delightful), and there will be additional seasons of some of my favorites—Season 2 of Counterpart on Starz is airing right now!—but it’s YouTube that gives me a lot of what TV used to give me.
There’s no good way to work this in otherwise, so I’ll just say it: I felt more constrained by how much TV there was this year because I also published a book in 2018! (I don’t know if you’ve heard, but books are a lot of work.) Co-authored with Zack Handlen, it’s a look at the long legacy of The X-Files, and it makes a great holiday gift, particularly for X-Files fans. It makes a good gift for non-fans, too, especially if they like reading books about TV shows they’ve never watched.
That’s it for me. I always treasure this experience, and I hope to join y’all again, whether in these virtual confines or on the deck of some massive ocean liner, on a clear spring night, when there aren’t enough lifejackets to go around. Maybe we can finally talk about how Jane the Virgin took on the hoariest storytelling device around—a cancer plotline?!—and really made it sing, with the cold waters of the north Atlantic nipping at our toes.
It has been a pleasure playing with you tonight,