Television

The TV Club, 2019

Entry 8: I loved Fleabag, but When They See Us changed me.

Ethan Herisse and Marquis Rodriguez hug a third boy in a dark institutional room, in a scene from the series.
Ethan Herisse and Marquis Rodriguez in When They See Us.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.

@here,

Last time I didn’t discuss my Top 10 because I forgot about it, and I forgot about it because winnowing a Top 10 was a little annoying this year. I liked a lot of TV but only loved a small, select handful, and my superfavorites numbered just two or three. Ranking them made me feel crazy. A few people have asked me about my top ranking of When They See Us—someone specifically asked how I could rank it over Fleabag. That made me nuts. Fleabag is wonderful, I love it and her, it’s my No. 2. But I think I’m not quite in the place in my life for it to change me.

When They See Us made me see them, literally—the boys who got chewed up by the justice system, the web of lies that put them there. It made me really angry, and yes, it was so hard to watch. But what I really appreciate about Netflix, and Ava DuVernay for working with them, is that it didn’t go anywhere while I got ready to start watching it again. And to be honest, once I was able to summon the courage to face their story, the series took it in a direction that emphasized not despair, but hope—impossible but also amazing. I live in New York, and, shamefully, there was a lot I didn’t know about that story. So I was in a place for it to change me—and that’s always what I want, to be moved. Nothing else got me that hard.

To be sure, these shows that are retelling history rely on a naive audience to pack the punch they do. I might as well paint a huge target on my face. I loved Chernobyl, and oddly I had to keep watching even though it was so upsetting, because I was like, “How does this human history I could look up any time end?” Dickinson has me in a similar way, because although I had some passing idea of the secret life of the American poetess, I didn’t know how complex and romantic her relationship was with her best friend (and sister-in-law). You can say a similar thing about Leaving Neverland, which brought forward new allegations—but put a very sensitive, human lens on a story that had gotten the full tabloid treatment 30 years ago.

And then there’s Unbelievable, which wouldn’t be quite so unbelievable if I would just read the entirety of a ProPublica article once in a while. But of course, no article has those three performers, three incredible women who in their actions say so much about what women are forced to carry. Much has been said about Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, and much should be said. But Kaitlyn Dever’s amazing, too, and does so much of the story on her own.

Isn’t it weird that The Politician just, like, fell off the face of the earth? I spent a lot of time thinking about it when it aired—here’s some of it:

Time and again, Murphy’s shows don’t begin or end as much as they cycle. The same conflicts come up over and over again, be it in high school popularity contests, never-ending love affairs, or the primal horror of bodily harm. Narrative typically tries to make sense of the world with a beginning and an end, a climax and a lesson. But time is kind of a myth in Murphy’s shows too. His period visions are rife with knowing winks to the camera; eras turn into aesthetics, to be put on and discarded; and most crucially, adults act like children, as much as children playact as adults. Because TV is a medium so shaped by the time it takes up, his approach is especially disruptive. The story’s supposed to go somewhere, damn it. But what does a narrative arc mean in the increasingly competitive attention economy? What does it matter to Netflix, if the story gels, as long as the story takes up space?

I find myself a little less cynical now because—well, narrative, a good one, makes your show stand out in a sea of thousands. And The Politician did not stand out, despite using what seems like every item in Ryan Murphy’s bag of tricks. Netflix would definitely prefer it if he won lots of awards while working for them.

The splash of The Politician makes me appreciate the nose-to-the-grindstone efforts of network dramas working within tight constraints—such as both Stumptown (it’s still not about coffee!) and The Good Fight (the Diane Lockhart Takes LSD Show). I love what you’ve said about both shows, Emily and Kathryn. I have to recharge my TV batteries by taking breaks from screens—so definitely not The Witcher, ha ha ha. But it’s the weekly shows that end up nourishing me, little broth sips of TV.

My entire Fosse/Verdon take is that it’s a very good show that would have done very well five years ago, but now it feels strangely out of sync with what TV is doing—Succession, Russian Doll, Fleabag, Barry. We’re dark and emo now.

Sonia

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