The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.
Hello, my weary ones:
In 2019, I made a rather massive change to my public-facing identity, one that I don’t know if many people noticed: I stopped trying to keep up with everything on TV. And then I stopped trying to keep up with almost everything on TV. And then I stopped trying to keep up with most things on TV. (Oh, also, I came out as a trans woman. If you somehow only read my work via the TV Club, um, hey. She/her. Name’s Emily. When I started taking estrogen, I discovered a capacity for terrible dancing Elaine Benes would be proud of.)
I was still keeping up with more stuff than most people—my year-end list of programs I had watched enough of to feel reasonably certain I could pass judgment on them for a Top 10 list was still just over 100 titles—but I no longer felt the need to watch a thing people told me was great on Netflix just because they told me it was great. I’m sure The Crown Season 3 is all that and a bag of chips, but you know what? I was having way more fun with Watchmen, which kept thumbing its nose at me like it was going to do something utterly disreputable before dragging me ever deeper into its goofy yet profound bullshit.
Indeed, Watchmen became kind of the only thing I wanted to talk about for most of the last three months of the year. Whatever its faults—and it certainly had them—it was a program that was constructed explicitly to just be a fucking TV show. It had lofty ambitions. It had some of the most creative plot turns in all of entertainment. And it had a god-tier cast of actors. But what kept me coming back each week was the show’s capacity to surprise and delight and confound. Even when I was actively pushing back against something it was doing, Watchmen was so happy to have me over at its house. “We need to talk about the elephant in the room,” it would say, and I’d launch into some too-woke-for-words spiel about the show’s constant flirtation with appropriating white nationalist propaganda in the name of subverting it, but it would hold a single finger to its lips, then whisper, delightedly, “The elephant’s in a coma.”
My very favorite kind of TV show is like this: a good and gracious host, having me over to just have a great goddamn time. There will be drinks and cheeseballs and maybe a game of charades. But these sorts of shows have been in short supply the past few years, especially when it comes to ongoing drama series (my favorite kind of TV show). Too many series seemed to be grim slogs that were designed to let you screw around on your phone while they were airing, and I include a lot of shows I like in that description. The best TV of the 2010s often had a slight air of making you work to enjoy its pleasures. And I do very much love to work for my pleasures, but sometimes I want to watch a naked blue man walk on a swimming pool.
The past several years have represented a shift toward the binge watch, but in 2019 the episodic model I prefer—where every week offers a new and distinct story worth dissecting—made the best possible argument for itself. Even shows I didn’t really like, like The Mandalorian, became shows I kept up with simply because there was only one per week and I didn’t feel instantly behind. If you look at Watchmen and Succession and Chernobyl and Fosse/Verdon and even the genuinely bewildering final season of Game of Thrones, you start to get a sense of a medium remembering what made it so lovable in the first place.
I get this sense when I talk to people around Los Angeles, too, whether they’re involved in the TV industry or not. There were streaming series that made a dent this year; everybody loved Fleabag, and there’s been a late-breaking love for Unbelievable. But the shows that really seemed to get people talking aired week to week. HBO had an incredible run of them, including a few I don’t really like all that much (Big Little Lies and His Dark Materials) that, nevertheless, seemed to inspire articulate grumbling among many of my favorite industry pals. (Neither was a patch on Game of Thrones for its ability to inspire equal parts disdain and envy among those who work in entertainment.) HBO is betting big on episodic releases, and it felt like 2019 might have been the buzziest year yet for the network, which is saying something.
Or maybe I feel this way because I’ve stopped paying attention to TV I actively don’t care about, and a lot of the TV I actively care about is on HBO. I sense that I missed out on some stuff by doing so, and I still share a lot of your overall pessimism about the medium, Willa. But I’m also having a great time with regular ol’ TV TV. Like have you seen CBS’ Evil? It’s all over the place, but every couple of episodes, it comes up with something so dark, or hilarious, or darkly hilarious, that I can’t help but find myself falling ever more in love with it.
Above all, I’m trying to reclaim TV as a communal act. There is a certain sense that we’re always surrounded by television, that it’s in the air around us at all times and on the phones of the people we sit next to on the train. (Yes, I ride the train in Los Angeles nearly every day.) It’s easy to forget how TV is this big background hum in the lives of most people, which makes it easy to miss how it shapes our lives. But we forget that at our own peril, too. The more we silo ourselves off from each other, the less the conversation seems to matter. I’m not mourning the monoculture so much as the idea of a shared language, the idea that the version of pop culture I’m consuming isn’t so drastically different from yours.
The bet the Netflixes of the world made was that they could create a kind of constant personal bubble, in which the algorithm delivers unto you exactly what you want to see, and then you watch it. But 2019 felt like the year that bubble popped for me and a lot of my TV fan friends. It felt like the year that the conversations about TV finally started to move on from Game of Thrones and back toward other things.
What’s been interesting, however, is the way that the Game of Thrones era ramped up and hypercharged some of the worst tendencies of online TV discussion so that Succession ended up being a show mostly celebrated via memes and out-of-context screenshots of its best moments (all good!) and largely didn’t seem to make a dent in the consciousness as a discussion of capitalism run amok or a horrific legacy of abuse perpetuating itself throughout the generations. It’s the show that explains us to ourselves best, which might be why so many of us aren’t quite willing to look right at it.
Or, honestly, look at how many folks looked at Watchmen and saw a puzzle box show, because that was what Damon Lindelof had made before. It had puzzle box elements to be sure, but it also played so fair with its reveals that the internet had guessed most of them long before the series made them text. What it was more interested in, ultimately, was asking questions about the brokenness of the world and then interrogating all of the ways that brokenness came to be, without patting itself on the back. (It might have taken a showrunner as self-loathing as Lindelof to make a show as singularly dedicated to examining the casually smug destruction wrought by white Americans who think they know best.)
To preserve my love for what the medium might be, I had to amputate the part of myself that was forcing me to watch so much of the dreck and, worse, the pretty good stuff that I just never cared about. TV anesthetizes, even at its best. It inures us to horrors, and it normalizes the worst possible things. (I’m the girl still sort of halfheartedly trying to talk up The Handmaid’s Tale to uninterested passersby, but even I will admit that the show’s faltering stabs at social relevancy in its third season felt like bizarre takes on Law & Order ripped-from-the-headlines episodes, so desperately does the series want to shock us into paying attention again.) Donald Trump being president has become this typical and normal thing, and I don’t know how I feel about that. But TV normalizes every president. It just feels particularly weird with this one.
I spent most of the first half of this year working on the first season of my TV history podcast Primetime (on which Willa graciously guested in one episode), and one of the things that struck me in working on this show was just how completely television smooths out things that would have been unthinkable. Presidents count on TV boosting them, even when TV is being mean to them, because TV can’t help but make us feel like we love the people we see each and every week. So if TV normalizes, what does it mean that TV is everywhere all of the time, slowly anesthetizing us to tiny, bespoke nightmares?
Well, as long as it’s breaking things as magnificently as the 10 shows on this list are, I’m going to be OK with it. (And it’s worth noting that I am holding my list until I’ve seen a couple of finales, so the order of these might change when all is said and done.)
4. Russian Doll
6. Lodge 49
7. Better Things
9. Mr. Robot
10. David Makes Man
That’s right, I put Mr. Robot on there! I cannot be trusted!
I’ve been calling that my last TV Top 10 ever, and if it is, it’s a pretty great batch of shows to go out on. I feel mildly more optimistic about the medium in 2019 than I did in 2018. But only mildly.
(And let’s be honest with ourselves. I’m going to do another list next year, and it’s going to have, like, Season 2 of The Morning Show on it.)
Kathryn, pick up any of the many threads I’ve let dangle. Or you know what? All four of us are Morning Show appreciators, while also acknowledging that it’s truly bad TV. Make your best case for it, pal! (I’m also going to say the word Dickinson, just to see what happens.)
New and improved with fresh pine scent,