Television

The TV Club, 2019

Entry 4: TV isn’t dead, but it’s not getting livelier.

Photo illustration of a fully suited person from HBO's Chernobyl alongside the TV Club 2019 logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO.

The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Variety’s Sonia Saraiya discussing in the year in TV shows.

Dearest TV Club,

I feel so grateful, already, to be back here chewing over the past year with you ladies. I’ve been nodding and snapping while reading. Willa, I too am here to bury TV, not praise it; the Ides of March has nothing on the Streaming Apocalypse. Emily, I feel like less of a TV Critic than ever this year—this year has culminated, actually, with a still-developing plan to take a few months off from the TV game to work on some other projects. Kathryn, you do not need to worry about Quibi.

Last month I wrote this mega-thinkpiece titled “TV Is Dead, Long Live TV” that tries to express how different TV feels now at the end of the decade than it did at the beginning. It’s mostly about how all of these corporations are trying to monetize consumers’ attention, currently one of the most valuable goods on the market, and also how no one will be watching the same things anymore. Willa, you’re on target with your idea of TV’s changes, themselves, being the medium. I was digging around for Marshall McLuhan citations—I, too, had just finished reading James Poniewozik’s excellent An Audience of One—and ended up writing about this 1967 quote: “The next medium, whatever it is … will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form.”

I fiddled with different notions in the piece about what that medium has become—the internet, home to all streaming providers, or perhaps cellphones, the portable TV-to-go. Disney+, though, which launched the week I was writing, was itself the medium for its own content—portal and creator, mythology and environment. This is where I start to feel bananas because as a critic, a crucial element of looking at the content is trying to find its edges—what’s the creator’s choice, and what’s the corporate framework? What was the size of their canvas? But on Disney+ there are no edges. The Mandalorian is, on some level, greenlighted by the same people who approve the Star Wars feature films, who also make merchandising and demographics and distribution decisions. To review it is to review one facet of the Walt Disney Company.

TV criticism tends to focus on scripted works—and many of them, like Watchmen and The Morning Show, give us a ton to talk about. (Right now, I’m in the intriguing minority of finding Watchmen unsatisfying and waiting for everyone to figure out that The Morning Show is aces.) But while we were arguing about True Detective in 2014, the powers and vulnerabilities of TV were working behind the scenes to help get Donald Trump elected. It did become normal—love your observation, Emily, that TV normalizes everything, “slowly anesthetizing us to tiny, bespoke nightmares”—but normal began to feel not good, as a result.

I read Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing over the summer and sort of snorted my way through some chapters—not because anything Odell wrote was incorrect, but because in the world I inhabit, where content is like homework you have to get through every weekend, unplugging is unimaginable. It’s not just watching the content: It’s talking about it, disseminating it, joking about it, sharing it. Those things are all so fun, and I love it, even now, at what feels like the End Times of TV being worth loving. But for the love of God, let’s watch a little bit of TV and then do anything fucking else. Let’s read a book, see a movie, take in a goddamn live-action theater play.

I think this is why the TV of small doses has been so successful this year—more content is instantly streamable than ever, but it turns out a nice slow drip is exactly the amount of TV you need most of the time. Careful, considered, in moderation—very unsexy words, but it makes for a lovely viewing experience. HBO knows this, and relatedly, they’ve had a simply gangbusters year. And I’m saying that as someone who wasn’t taken with either of their big series: the final season of Game of Thrones and first season of Watchmen. Similarly to Kathryn’s point—Apple TV+, the thing that promised the least content and the most curation, has produced two things I want to watch out of four debuts, which is a better ratio than Netflix has ever managed.

I want to be a champion for creative TV, which takes risks on platforms that are significantly more accessible than a theatrical release. But usually, I end up having to defend bad TV before I can even get to good TV. I have written, ENDLESSLY, about how television is built for the bored and the distracted, the busy, tired, sick, and disinterested. It is not too difficult to extrapolate that to lesser-than, to lowbrow, to stupid. What a huge fucking mistake that would be, to devalue the power of this ever-growing medium, but there we are. I confess that I wish TV criticism were more than reviews of endless mediocre content, which it sometimes necessarily becomes. I take TV seriously, very seriously, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s good—that means, typically, I think it’s terrifying.

I feel that in our streaming world order, TV will retain the hand-me-down, lesser-than stench it has historically had, because no matter what it does it nearly always wants to be easy to watch. Is easy too easy? I think the structure of streaming platforms will make TV more likely to be bad, or at least mediocre. And lest we forget, the multi-cam broadcast sitcom has recently become the most lucrative commodity in television, with the rights to The Office, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory selling for hundreds of millions of dollars. What is happening to this beloved medium?

Oh, and my Top 10 list:

1. When They See Us
2. Fleabag
3. Unbelievable
4. Chernobyl
5. Barry
6. Succession
7. The Other Two
8. Leaving Neverland
9. Undone
10. Dickinson

I forgot it partly because I hate it. More to come.

—Sonia

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