The 2020 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, the Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang, and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.
Hello fellow teenage bounty hunters!
Willa ended the last installment with “bad TV” and “cop TV,” which are my siren songs. I am on the record as loving or at least being fascinated by the TV that’s truly bad, because I sometimes feel I learn so much more about how things work when I’m staring at something that so obviously, obviously does not work. On my list of shows that did not work for me this year but definitely had something interesting going on: Picard, Devs, Perry Mason, Run, Yellowstone, Lovecraft Country, and The Haunting of Bly Manor. (I think the more recent Industry may also fall in this category, but I need to sit with it a bit longer.) Meanwhile, in the interest of really wallowing in the muck, a list of shows I found truly unbearable: AJ and the Queen, Hollywood, Space Force, I Know This Much Is True, The Third Day, Love in the Time of Corona, Utopia, Ratched, and most recently, the truly execrable Selena.
There are a few different things going on in that second list, falling along the lines of “Is it the show, or is it this year?” I Know This Much Is True, The Third Day, and Utopia are quite different—the first is a hypersad realist story where Mark Ruffalo plays twin brothers, the second is a grueling mysterious island horror series, and the third is a comic-booky-but-what-if-comic-books-aren’t-dark-enough pandemic violence romp. But they clearly share a few things that made them especially unwatchable for me this year. They were long and they were bleak.
Of those, Utopia is the one I suspect I could’ve worked my way around to at least respecting in a different time. It has some interesting performances, and the Gillian Flynn brutality of it does make it stand out in a genre that often shies away from real follow-through. But whatever room I had in my heart for comic book discomfort belonged to The Boys, a show I have not worked my way around to truly loving but I can’t deny feels closer to the reality of corporate entertainment than pretty much anything else on TV. More than once this year I’ve pictured the scene from Season 2 of The Boys set at a televised congressional hearing, where one by one, everyone’s heads explode in a bright pop of red mist and brain chunks.
In spite of its pitch blackness, The Boys said something about the world right now in a way that felt really bracing. Its critique of media conglomerates and IP and world-devouring corporate culture is the closest I’ve seen a show come to thumbing its nose at the real centers of entertainment power. It holds true even if every time it makes those critiques, my brain falls into an upsetting little Möbius strip about the fact that the show belongs to Jeff Bezos. The same revelatory insight cannot be credited to The Third Day, a show that I guess is meant to be escapism? If your preferred type of escapism is “get trapped on a nightmarish island where you are inevitably subsumed into a prehistoric fertility festival and also 95 percent of it is shot with a nauseatingly shallow depth of field and also it’s excruciatingly slow.” I’ve never wanted the scary villager cult members to just get on with it already more than I wanted it in The Third Day.
There’s something heartening, though, about TV that was just bad, and I feel supreme confidence in declaring that it would’ve been just as bad at any other time in our TV lives. Selena is the one that drove me to distraction most recently. I’m aware that many of its problems are almost certainly due to what you could call an authorship problem; namely, that the beloved pop star’s father has taken total control of her story and seems bound and determined not to let any of that story take on the necessary elements of being a good story. (Like, say, character development or narrative tension.)
But not all bad things are so easily diagnosed. I didn’t include it in my above list because I’ve only watched a small handful of episodes, but one of the worst, most baffling things I watched this year was the season premiere of Bull on CBS. It’s a cavalcade of the things that make a show bad in 2020 in particular: terrible treatment of COVID (Bull gets COVID, you guys, but he recovers really fast so it’s fine) and a tone-deaf perspective on the criminal justice system. So far, so bad. Bull really goes the extra mile, though. There was a CGI baby that’s among the most horrifying things I’ve seen a while (including the torture scenes in Utopia), but then the whole thing ends in a fourth wall–breaking musical sequence?
This is why I continue to have a soft spot in my heart for truly bad TV. Sometimes, in its own way, it’s just as surprising as the really great stuff. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that episode of Bull before I actually saw it.
Also isn’t it so great that Michael Weatherly still has a job!