The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily St. James, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Variety’s Sonia Saraiya.
Friends, bingers, countrymen,
I come to bury television, not to praise it.
2019 was the first year I started to look askance at something I have said thousands of times: “I love television.” This phrase, which had previously seemed so pedestrian and yet so true, the cozy benediction lobbed at a loved one on their way out the door, suddenly became strange. There were individual shows that I loved this year: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s gleaming, sexy Fleabag, the voyeuristic vivisection of the 1 percent that is Succession, and my beloved trash fire, The Morning Show, to name a few. But TV is more than the sum of the narratives we find there: It has also weaponized our news, delivered to us our president, made us feel accomplished for crying on the couch, and become the most potent way for a number of massive multinational conglomerates to keep us glued to our screens. I love … that?
Over the past 20 years, TV critics have been engaged in a collective project to get television—the famed idiot box—the respect that it deserves. And, you know what, we did it. (OK, fine, maybe the people who make and watch the shows helped some.) The idea that TV can be great, can be art, that it is worthy of serious thought and heady conversation, has gone from being a provocation to such a snooze that I’m not going to yammer on about it, lest you drop to sleep this very sentence.
But the details of how this was accomplished deserve some more inspection. In making a claim for TV’s quality, we narrowed the medium down. TV is a big, ungainly menagerie, but we focused on the scripted stuff, the sharp comedies and, even more, the ambitious dramas. Sneered at in favor of the more established and genteel arts—cinema, literature—this TV couldn’t get no respect: The most powerful, lucrative, and popular mass medium of our time was also a scrappy underdog. We—critics, and a certain type of enthusiast, viewer, and fan—put on our rally caps and went to work to change that. With our passion, our writing, our conversation, we would take TV seriously, setting an example so that everyone else might do the same.
Our orientation toward television was necessarily fannish. I’m not saying that we all slavishly loved or agreed about every show. We most certainly did—and do—not! But we were total homers for TV, telling anyone who would listen that it was worthy of consideration, of time, of thought. With our help, TV summited Mount Respect, such that the aforementioned most powerful, lucrative, and popular mass medium of our time is no longer an underdog in any sense but an overdog many times over. It’s tough to hear, but us TV lovers, we are the Patriots fans of the arts.
Our triumph, it seems to me, has happened in a kind of contextual vacuum, one that takes for granted the primacy of scripted series over TV’s other formats: reality TV, talk shows, morning news shows, late night talk shows, news. The start of The Sopranos in 1999 inaugurated, in earnest, TV’s ascension up the cultural brow, but is it really more important than two things that happened around the same time: the complete weaponization of Fox News in the wake of 9/11 and the arrival, in 2001, of Survivor, which kicked off reality TV as we know it and led, in short order, to The Apprentice? All three of these events are examples of how seriously we ought to take television, but only one makes TV look good.
Historically, the people who have reflexively disdained TV, who dismissed it as gross, lowbrow schlock, were snobs, but they were also scared. They were scared of this young medium’s unprecedented power. If one of these historical cranks, Theodor Adorno, sulkily avoiding the California sunlight, or Neil Postman, asserting how we’re amusing ourselves to death, or anyone who has carped about the mass power of the idiot box, woke up today, at the tail end of 2019, in a world where our law-breaking president is worshipped by a portion of the population for his reality-TV honed “authentic” style, the same portion of the population that is inured to facts thanks to a TV network turned propaganda arm, they might sink down in their chair, flip on The Great British Bake Off instead of washing down a Xanax, and pat themselves on the goddamn back.
There has been and continues to be great writing about TV’s dark side—the New York Times’ James Poniewozik wrote an incisive book just this year about Trump’s symbiotic relationship to TV—but it seems to me there remains something holistically off about our treatment of television, something overly poptimistic. I could say, our disrespected little baby is all grown up; it doesn’t need us to champion it anymore! But the point I’m trying to make is: It was never our baby to begin with. It’s television! TV is too powerful to be framed as simply good or bad. What it needs is a criticism that doesn’t care if TV wins or loses but knows how to call the game—because, of course, it’s not a game at all.
It’s not a coincidence that I’ve been thinking about TV more holistically at this particular moment: It’s something the streaming services almost seem to demand. When all the trees rise up and start flinging themselves at your face in a desperate but fleeting bid for attention, it’s actually hard to miss the forest. (“All these projectile trees must be coming from somewhere!”) The streaming era is built on an acknowledgment of TV’s especial, intimate power over audiences. Content companies, old and new, are sprinting to make it, because they have deemed it the killer app, the best way to hold onto customers. But the streamers, and Netflix in particular, have a strategy of total inundation that makes individual shows increasingly disposable. The TV business is unprecedentedly robust, even as it gives individual shows a slimmer slice of the pie, or cancels them after four seasons.
I’m not saying the streaming services didn’t make some great TV shows, and here’s my top 10 list to prove it: Six of these shows aired on streaming, the other four on premium cable. There’s also a handful of shows, like Netflix’s When They See Us and Unbelievable, that are excellent, but which I found too excruciating to put on a list I think of as a deeply subjective collection of the shows I most enjoyed. (I probably should have included The Morning Show for the same reason, but this list isn’t so subjective that I felt good about including something I knew to be flat out bad.) For all my reservations about TV, I think the first four shows on this list are as strong, if not stronger, than any I’ve ever had on a Top 10. That is a sign of a health.
4. Russian Doll
5. Blown Away
6. Leaving Neverland
7. Couples Therapy
Still, despite this list, despite everything I watched, despite all the shows I wish I had time to watch (a top 10 list unto itself, really), for me this year was less about the shows than about a feeling—a kind of propulsive thrum—that we are living through the hyper-McLuhanization of TV, where it’s the medium, and all its changes, more than the individual shows, that is the message.
And those changes, they are enormous. We are now living in a moment where news has been jettisoned from a large number of TV platforms. Where people are still fighting about the collapsing distinction between TV and movies, even as both are becoming more like the internet: something you can watch alone whenever you please. Where, for consumers, TV really is becoming more like literature, insofar as there is so much of it you make your own path through it all, only rarely expecting something you consumed to break out. Where viewers have become so isolated from one another that the next reality TV goon who would be president is going to have trouble finding a robust and varied enough audience to propel him to the office—just as the next Will & Grace will have trouble finding an audience that doesn’t already agree with it. Some of this may turn out to be good, some of this may turn out to be bad, or good and bad may be totally beside the point, but all of this belongs to the ambit of any TV critic, just as surely as the shows do.
To be a TV critic, for years, was to be a kind of anthropologist of popular taste, which, like much of the TV itself, was often very bad. Only relatively recently has it become a job in which most everything is reasonably well made and there is a decent likelihood you will occasionally interact with art. Only more recently still has it become patently wasteful to write about something lousy, unless it is, for some reason, a big deal. The transformation of TV criticism into a true arts criticism reflects a real change in television, but I worry it is also a kind of abdication, sidestepping what has long been TV’s most unique quality: the powerful and unruly influence of even its trashiest, cheesiest output.
Oh look, I’ve ranted so much I’ve made myself hoarse: Thank goodness I can turn things over to all of you. We’re going to get to the shows—despite all you just read, I want to get to the shows!—but first I want to know what you make of the state of TV right now, how it feels to you. Am I a total crank? Am I not giving enough credit to television, particularly with regard to its strides in representation? Am I not giving enough credit to TV criticism, which may be more clear-eyed than I think? Is there some show that broke through the volume and just really laid you out? Emily, I get your newsletter, and you wrote one a few months ago that dovetailed with some of this, thinking about the changing role of the critic as TV itself changes, and I’d love to know what you make of all of this—or really, anything at all.
If you think this was grumpy, wait until I go in on Baby Yoda,