Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 8: Babylon Berlin is the rare show with room to breathe.

Babylon Berlin
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Beta Film.

The 2020 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, the Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang, and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.

Hey, TV-sitters Club:

I wish to state, up front and for the record, that I have always preferred big, sprawly TV to more compact stuff. The best compact stuff is, of course, a delight, but I have never quite forgotten a British person telling me in the early 2000s that we Americans had been sold a bill of goods in re: his country’s TV output. Most of it was bad, he assured me, and even if America made a lot of stupid shows, our supersized attitude to everything gave creators a chance to course correct in real time in a way that just couldn’t happen in smaller-scale programs. Similarly, larger series had to employ writers rooms and other mechanisms that, when used well, could save creators from their worst impulses.

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To this day, I don’t know if he was right—I certainly didn’t sit down and watch all of the British TV of 2002—but the ways in which the current small-series boom we’re living through has sort of borne out everything this Brit whose name I don’t even remember fretted about suggests to me he was on to something. We like to think that if TV became more auteurist, it would become better, because it would lead to more idiosyncratic and personal work. And, sure, as with something like Fleabag, that can happen. But often, smallerscale storytelling cramps the medium’s style and leads to stuff that feels unbearably generic.

This particular problem has led to a whole bunch of shows that are trapped in a “neither TV show nor movie” netherworld that ends up making them feel indistinct, even when they’re quite distinctive. I watched and quite enjoyed all 10 episodes of Hulu’s The Great, but when I try to think back on it, all I can remember is that I kept wishing its storytelling were more compact, which is to say I kind of kept wishing it would just be a movie. And that’s a show I like, one where I do feel like it eventually made use of TV’s wider sprawl. There are so many shows that never even got to the “I liked it!” stage.

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“It should have been a movie” syndrome explains a lot of my grouchiness with the current TV landscape, which has been hampered not by a sudden downturn in quality but, rather, by the market being flooded by projects that really could have and should have been movies that then end up in a “neither fish nor fowl” space of telling six-hour stories that really should have been three-hour stories at most. Even something like Netflix’s Dash & Lily, a charming Christmas romance that felt downright spry at just under four hours of content, probably should have been a 105-minute rom-com.

Every so often you’ll see a limited series that seems to have actually thought about how much space it needs to tell its story—Netflix’s solid Unorthodox, for instance, was just four episodes and felt about right for that run time—but they too often end up feeling like two gallons of water in a 10-gallon bucket. Wouldn’t you rather fill the whole bucket? Or use a smaller one?

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Thus, it makes sense that one of my biggest pandemic watching projects ended up being the entirety (so far) of Babylon Berlin, the German Netflix import whose mere name can summon Kathryn out of a dead sleep. Based on a series of novels about a glum detective in Weimar Germany, the series begins in 1929, right on the brink of the rise of the Nazis, and it examines a gorgeous, glamorous city where everything is, nevertheless, coming apart at the seams. The show is a crime noir and a musical and a romance and a historical drama and a story about how hard fascism is to stop once it’s gotten started. It genre-hops with thrilling abandon, and even at its worst, it’s so brazenly throwing things at the wall that I can never help but love it dearly. As a fan of maximalist TV, it only stands to reason that I would be a fan of perhaps TV’s current most maximalist show (give or take a Westworld—remember how that aired a season this year?).

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It’s also fascinating how Babylon Berlin arrives from Germany, looking for all the world like it’s trying to be an HBO show from 2006, one that might have been paired with one of the final seasons of The Sopranos. As the US is trying to create TV more like the European shows of yore, the rest of the world keeps leaning into formats we were running into the ground in the ’80s and ’90s, and those formats have lots and lots and lots of episodes. Babylon Berlin’s first two seasons, for instance, ran 16 episodes in total—and they were technically produced as one season, then split up into two for international distribution—and its third (the one that debuted this year) was a leisurely 12 episodes, just like Vince Gilligan used to make.

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Not everything in those 12 episodes worked. There was a visit to a sex club that felt particularly pointless and all the more exploitative for its pointlessness, and the show is plagued with a fairly major character,the detective’s lover, who simply doesn’t work. But the storytelling buffet means that these faults, which would be major in a show with a more compressed running time, blend into the overall tale the series is telling. Ultimately, Babylon Berlin is about living in a society that is teetering on the edge of something dark and terrible and not being sure what to do about it, which speaks enough to the times to overcome any number of flaws. (I kept pointing to it as a potential fix for what’s wrong with the common cop show, because its noir-inflected rhythms mean it takes place in a world where the only good cops are ineffective cops.)

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The last three episodes of Babylon Berlin Season 3 are pretty much perfect, including a largely unexpected resolution to the season’s mystery, a riveting sequence in which you think that the series’ heroes might finally stop the Nazis and avert the sweep of history, a long-awaited kiss, and a final image so potent that I’m still thinking about it months after I first saw it. But the single scene I loved most—maybe my favorite TV scene of the year—involved the characters gathering together in one supporting character’s apartment to celebrate his birthday. It’s the sort of thing that could so easily be cut, and exactly the sort of scene that the show needed to keep the final stretch of episodes from becoming too dour. The characters mingle and laugh. Two of them perform an impromptu musical number. Another two make eyes at each other across the room.

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The scene breathes. It’s the sort of moment I’ve come to miss in today’s ultra-compact series, and the sort of moment I really have started seeking out in the older shows I’m watching, where 22-episode seasons meant that, yes, there were quite a few bad episodes mixed in with the good, and that’s going to be a deal-breaker for many. But all of that space also left room for scenes that didn’t serve an immediate storytelling function but were simply there to give the characters a moment of respite from the story they found themselves trapped in.

Of course, Babylon Berlin is a massive international hit, and it actually is auteurist TV in a lot of ways, since the same three people write and direct all of it. That might be why it’s able to get away with some of the above, where a one-off miniseries for Amazon Prime simply can’t. And to be fair to our American shores, shows like The Boys and even something like Stranger Things have found ways to pause their relentless forward momentum to leave room for pauses and breaths. Yet I can’t think of an American show that would quite leave itself the room for something like that birthday party scene. (Well, Succession might, but it would never allow itself the sentimentality. To be clear, that’s a good thing, because sentimentality would destroy Succession’s whole excellent deal. But still.)

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Maybe this is just the relentless march of progress, and I should be happy that more TV is getting made and a lot of it is pretty OK. But I want something more, you know?

Willa, please sell me on Ted Lasso. I want to like it. I can’t quite get there. Barring that, we really need to talk about I May Destroy You (I loved it until I talked with some people who didn’t and found myself sort of agreeing with them) or The Good Lord Bird (amazing!) in more depth, huh? And I desperately want somebody to talk about cop shows in 2020 and am tossing that up in the air in hopes of being “not it.”

Seriously, if nobody takes on Mrs. America until things get back to me again, I’m definitely talking about it next,

Em

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