Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 9: Democracy turned procedural thriller.

City So Real
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kartemquin Films.

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

Streamers,

OK Emily, you say I May Destroy You, I say how high! Michaela Coel’s series is, very straightforwardly, a show about consent, sexual trauma, and recovery, but it is not just those things, whatever just could mean in this context. At the end of the first episode, Coel’s character Arabella is drugged and raped at a bar, but before that there’s already enough for a whole series up on screen, one about the dynamics and dating habits of a group of friends, about the social milieu of a cohort of young Black Brits, about the emergence of an incredibly talented but raw young writer totally entangled with social media. Those threads never go away, they just infuse the show with more.

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For me, maybe the worst thing you could say about I May Destroy You is that the extent to which it is so committed to exploring consent in all its permutations can make the plot, particularly for the supporting characters, feel overly predetermined, edging on didactic. But I just so appreciate that this is a show that has something to say, even as it’s also noodling around and finding ways to say it creatively: in flashback, with humor, in imaginative dream states. It’s about so many things: being raped but also being a mess, being a jerk, being a friend, being too online, being vulnerable, being a writer, not being a writer, being creative and destructive and creatively destructive. Also, for all its seriousness, it’s funny! It’s goofy! It’s incisive about devoted and flawed friendship! It’s chill about drugs! And it steers out of a structural trap—that it could easily become a whodunit, with an audience overly hung up on identifying Arabella’s rapist—so cannily, you don’t even notice it’s doing it.

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Watching I May Destroy You, I kept thinking about the famous Girls line, “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice of a generation.” I feel like just mentioning Girls in this context could strike people as foul—the juju of Lena Dunham is that strong—but I don’t mean it that way. I mean, watching this show I thought, Michaela Coel is that kind of voice, and instead of softening it with a joke she went and proved it, making a deep, big, and uncompromising show that encompasses her own experiences and way more besides. This is what I most want from TV: something literary, which I wish we had a good TV cognate for so I don’t sound like such a tool using it here! But TV that’s chewy and challenging and considered and personal, where every detail pushes and signifies and bears up to thinking about.

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Except for the times I want The Bachelorette. We all contain multitudes! What Inkoo said about gossiping about reality TV got me thinking about my recent reencounter with ABC’s long-running reality show and how it reminded me that, when it comes to puzzle TV, nothing has a goddamn thing on reality series. In the latest season, longtime series regular Claire “blew up” the series, in a much-teased turn of events that had viewers in high Sherlock Holmes dudgeon for weeks. As the cheeky, conspiratorial theorizing about what really happened grew, I leaned into it, listened to some podcasts, read a lot of theories, and nodded my head at all the unanswered questions. It was for work! Until it wasn’t. It all reminded me of how people watched True Detective or early Westworld—except that The Bachelorette’s audience is completely tongue in cheek and not totally self-serious—so you know, much, much better.

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A lot of people watched a lot of reality TV this year; it just didn’t look like, you know, reality TV. This was a banner year for reality TV gussied up in the guise of “documentaries.” That the Tiger King himself, the be-mulleted Joe Exotic, thought he was starring in a reality show is why there was all that footage of him in the first place, even if it was assembled into something slightly—barely?—more upscale. The Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance cut back and forth more than a misedited Back to the Future, but sports documentaries always work for me almost no matter what. There was also Cheer, which edges closer to the straight–no-chaser reality TV end of the spectrum. It was a big sensation back in January, and the disturbing and distressing events involving one of its cast members since, essentially the show’s emotional center, make writing about it a little hard, but this was always a show that was about hard things. Was it about makeshift families or abuse? Was Monica a real Coach Taylor or someone who cared about winning at all costs, even the cost of her charges’ health? Still, as the show opened up on the kids and their histories and their dedication to doing something so hard, in order to be a part of something bigger, it got me. There were also the dueling NXIVM documentaries, one of which, HBO’s The Vow, led viewers to believe the worst thing cult leader Keith Raniere had done was that he made people play volleyball all night long. (Kathryn, of course, wrote about the volleyball thing—along with the whole glow-up of reality TV I’m talking about here).

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To me, though, there really was one doc to rule them all this year, better than the rest. National Geographic’s City So Real is loosely oriented around the 2019 Chicago mayoral race, and it hops around neighborhoods and constituencies, looking at candidates and the ongoing fallout of the Laquan McDonald shooting. It’s a fly on the wall in Black barbershops and white barbershops, posh dinner parties, protests, city planning meetings, neighborhood election headquarters, voting precincts and radio stations. Watching it I kept being like, this is like The Wire or The Good Wife, but real! When I say that I mean: oh. My. God. Is this thing full of characters! And oh. My. God. Is it full of arcane city politics! One episode concerns itself with the incredibly time-consuming and insane process by which you get on the ballot in Chicago; it involves hours and hours and hours trying to delegitimize your competitor’s perfectly legitimate signatures. It’s people in a windowless room for hours going over handwriting and it is riveting and hilarious and tense. There’s shit talk and kooky lawyers and more shit talk and it is not at all a good use of time and resources but everyone is proud of how hard it is, in a way that is just so goddamn Chicago. (And, yes, I lived there just enough to be able to say that.) City So Real is chewy and riveting and human and I have been hand-selling it to people by randomly and persistently texting them: You must watch this!

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I had so many more paragraphs, including ones about Ted Lasso, but I will have to get to it next time—or one of you can take it first. I like Emily’s idea of sticking with the year’s greatest hits, or at least the good stuff—though never fear, next time around, I will be calling for the bad, as well as the cop shows. It seems to me Good Lord Bird and Mrs. America and P-Valley could still use some loving, but so could the things that were good but didn’t quite make your list. (Kathryn, Twitter tells me you just got to Teenage Bounty Hunters!) For me, that would include a show like I Hate Suzy, and I’d love someone to tell me about this past season of Better Things or Dave, which I think I would have loved, you know, if I’d watched them.

Also: I’m very Industry-curious,

Willa

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