The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily St. James, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.
Fellow Human Beings,
I’m a little emotional heading into this final final installment. Reading and writing with you all reminds me how multifaceted viewing can be, even when we’re all kind of in agreement about how we’re looking at TV (critically) and what we’re looking for (good TV). Thank you for your performances roundup, Emily, and thank you for your exploration of bad TV, Kathryn. Willa, I adore what you wrote about Unbelievable and making the difficult viewing into something that worked—on many levels—for you.
So I’m going to write about I Think You Should Leave, a comedy sketch show on Netflix that is primarily jokes about poop. From comic Tim Robinson, ITYSL is a short, breezy collection of really bonkers sketches that take an awkward social situation and magnify it to a point of mingled humor-and-horror that makes me, an easily embarrassed person, dearly wish the people involved would just leave.
I watched it quickly earlier in the year and found it difficult to parse. Indeed, some sketches, like the one where Robinson and Cecily Strong play a couple whose marriage is threatened by a dumb magic show, are almost too idiotically painful to bear. But my husband loved it—like, face-contorted, tears-streaming-down-your-face, bellyaching laughter. Over the last several months, I’ll walk into the room to discover James is watching ITYSL again—sometimes just a few sketches, like the steering wheel one, sometimes the entire thing. (I still don’t really understand the steering wheel sketch, but I am an uncomplicated fan of “Baby of the Year,” which features Sam Richardson as the host of a baby pageant doing about eight different brilliant things with his performance all at once. His “get him outta here” puts me in stitches every time.)
Even when I don’t get it—especially when I don’t get it!—the effect that ITYSL has on other people really excites me. I think about the sketches a lot; I’ve rewatched them with James and other friends, and I’m always staring at people’s faces as they’re watching, curious what they’ll see in it. It would be dishonest to say it’s one of my favorite shows of the year—it makes me feel terrible every time!—but its comedic tensions prick something so deeply embedded within me that my dislike, my discomfort, reflects its brilliance. I keep thinking and talking about it, and I have a feeling that I’m going to end up quoting it a decade from now (to uncomfortable silence). I love that humor has this power, but it makes a fool out of me in the meantime.
Being a fool is important, though. Something that trips me up in this job is the fear of being wrong about something—an especially heightened fear when you’re reviewing a season based on just a few episodes. The internet privileges snap judgments and hot takes, and the ever-faster release cycle for these shows mean that the window for “dialogue” can feel vanishingly short. Because I feel like I am required to be an expert on some things (and of course, I love telling people everything I know), these constraints are pressures that feed my anxiety. I feel my best, and do my best work, when I acknowledge and embrace my own naivete. Maybe you guys don’t need that reminder—but I do! It reminds me that things that are good now don’t have to be good later; things that seem bad might yet become good; things that you dismiss now are going to become important later. Life changes you, time changes you, and yes, even TV changes you. If that’s not true, then what’s the point of all this?
A lot of TV shows this season have been about the unreliability of time—Russian Doll and Undone, for example, with earlier experiments by Twin Peaks: The Return, The Good Place, and yes, Community. I don’t know if this is everyone or just me, but this year I found myself unstuck in time, too, in a way. I found myself learning the same lesson over and over again, or suffused with feelings from years-old hurt in the middle of a current-day conversation. More than ever I see myself as not a fixed character, but a continuum of being, where I become more each day. TV, the magical box that manipulates time, helped me get here. That’s pretty cool.
A happiest of new years to you all—especially Willa, for organizing this and putting us all together. This feels like the perfect way to send off a textured, checkered, stuffed-to-the-brim year in TV.