The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.
Hello one last time, Watchwomen—
Emily, what a lovely list of performances! I especially appreciate your calling out Sian Clifford in Fleabag; while the astonishing bucket of awards for Fleabag this year felt unexpectedly right, Clifford’s role never rose to the same level of widespread acknowledgment, and she’s just so great. I’d also like to add a note of praise for Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack. Although I have problems with that show, it’s also full of exquisite moments, and invariably they rest on Jones’ performance as the idiosyncratic and passionate Anne Lister.
I don’t want to end this TV Club on a sour note if at all possible, and so I won’t linger on 2019’s truly terrible TV for too long. I do want to try to probe why my reaction to it is very much in the same vein as Willa’s, though—something like, “Thank God there’s still some legitimately abysmal TV out there.” The Netflix sci-fi show The I-Land is abominable. Apple’s See, which is definitely “better” in terms of production values and overall coherence, is almost more heinous because of how miserably nonsensical it is while also having apparently unlimited resources. (The most useless way I spent my time this year was probably baffling at how fashion works on a dystopian show where everyone in the world is blind. Why would these characters have made any fabrics with colors in them? How could all the evil people be wearing black? What is the point of silent, decorative hair feathers?)
There are probably lots of reasons why I greet really, really, really bad TV with more delight than I should. In part it’s the pure pleasure of dunking. I spent a long time watching MST3K when I was younger; looking at a show and wondering how the heck it got this bad is just another kind of loving, for me. In order for that to really work, though, the thing in front of me needs to be so bad that I no longer imagine empathizing with the people who made it. It needs to blow past the place where I can sort of see what they’re going for, and reach deep into that zone where the train has gone fully off the tracks. It helps if I find the show to be ideologically offensive as well as aesthetically bad. The moment in The I-Land where a busty woman runs on a beach for 90 full seconds while a camera pans slowly over her sweaty, bouncy torso, for instance—it’s really a kindness for shows to give me this kind of critical clarity very early in their runs.
Truly bad TV feels almost as important to me as truly great TV. If given a choice between awful and only OK, I’m probably picking awful. And that’s not just because I like to dunk on it, I swear. (Clearly I do like that, though.) Sometimes, as I get caught in a drift of noticeably mediocre screeners, it’s helpful to remember what bad is. A form of gut recalibration, just as useful for me to do on the low end as it is on the high one. Especially as most production values have drifted more toward shiny competence, I like having some touch points for what something looks like when it really, really whiffs.
The other reality is that bad TV is often much more interesting to think about. Badness can be just a cavalcade of unconscious mistakes, but sometimes it’s because a show is aiming for something big, and its ambition has wildly outstripped its capacity. My favorite 2019 example of this is an interactive reality show on Netflix called You vs. Wild, starring notorious own-pee-drinker Bear Grylls. In the show (game?), you follow along as Grylls finds himself in treacherous wilderness situations, and you click on options to help him navigate toward safety. (Or, obviously, you do what I did, which is try to kill quasi-reality Bear Grylls over and over.) You vs. Wild is not good. There are seams showing everywhere. It’s overdramatic and also too boring. At one point, you have to help Bear Grylls escape a feral wolf, and never has a wolf been more plainly staged at a specific spot, told to growl menacingly, and then congratulated for being a very good boy the second the cameras stopped filming. Still, in spite of, and sometimes because of, its badness, You vs. Wild has really stuck with me this year. Its cheesiness, its weird experimentation, the endearing scrappiness of it, the part where Grylls chastises you for making him smear poisonous cactus sap all over his hands … that’s some memorable TV, you know?
I think bad TV can also feel unifying as well as clarifying. I know there are some people out there who love See, but at least the ones I’ve encountered love it in a way that also recognizes its silliness. Of course, because it’s on Apple TV+, lots of people have no idea See even exists, so that’s also limited my exposure to big groups of See fans. (Because no one needed Apple to ever get into the original content game. Look, I brought us full circle!) And yes, it’s good when people feel many different ways about the same TV show. It’s also comforting when we can all agree that something is really, really bad. It’s The I-Land!
It’s not that I want there to be more bad TV in 2020. I don’t, I really don’t! After the first episode, watching The I-Land was like trying to eat a brick. But as we’ve been touching on here and there throughout these entries, my primary fear for the future of TV is that this moment of expansive differentiation collapses into sameness. I hope to see lots of fantastic television this next year, but I also hope that the bad TV I see is interesting-bad, notable-bad, how-on-earth-did-you-think-this-was-possible bad. That won’t be true for a lot of stuff. Much of it will fall in the mediocre knockoff territory.
Shows like Watchmen give me hope for the future of TV, though. Daring, all-in kinds of shows, like Pose and Dickinson and Ramy and Russian Doll, and somehow Evil even though it’s on CBS. In their own ways, I guess You vs. Wild and See give me hope, too. Someone out there thought to themselves, “I wonder if this terrible, terrible idea is actually brilliant.” The answer is no, it was not. But I’m legitimately glad they tried, and I wish more people had the opportunity to give their terrible ideas a chance.
It’s been so nice to spend this time with you all. I can’t thank you enough for inviting me.