The 2020 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, the Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang, and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.
What a strange year it’s been, in the world at large and in the world of TV. I had this sense that reality fell off a cliff in March, and meanwhile, for several months at least, most TV felt like the Wile E. Coyote , spinning along on the same forward trajectory with little acknowledgment that the ground had dropped out from under it. There’d be these TV dispatches from the downward plummet—all the miserable Zoom episodes and reunions, and then the eventual slew of more produced coronavirus TV (Social Distance, Connecting, Love in the Time of Corona). But for so much of this year, watching TV felt like watching these weird remnants of another world. They would resonate or fail to connect just like TV always does, but they’d be reaching out to a completely other world than the one they originally intended to reach. So there’d be hits and misses, but sometimes they’d feel weird. Some shows would really pop in ways that surprised me, and others would totally disappear in equally surprising ways.
We’re still living in Wile E. Coyote land, for some TV. The Flight Attendant, coming out on HBO Max right now, feels like one of those dispatches from a totally different world. In a great way, to be clear. What a delightful, intense relief it is to watch Kaley Cuoco hurtle her way around a nonsensical thriller plot, in a New York that looks bravely naked with all these unmasked pedestrians on the streets. The Mandalorian feels the same to me—just pure, disconnected escapism, on a literal other planet. And I suspect that there’ll be a lot of TV that stays in that realm, as far as making specific reference to COVID goes. I won’t complain.
But there are more subtle ways that the Wile E. world of TV looped into the pandemic nightmare realm, and one of the biggest was that Peak Comfort piece I wrote earlier this year. It’s an argument I’d been thinking about long before the pandemic, but this spring seemed to crystallize something that’d been brewing for quite a while. For a while there’d been a gap between the shows that got talked about (sad, slow, opaque ones) and the shows everyone wanted to watch before they fell asleep at night (trashy ones, or comforting ones, or already familiar ones). This year that gap seemed to really collapse, for worse and also for better. There was vanishingly little interest in Damien Chazelle’s slow Parisian jazz drama The Eddy, and there’s also been almost no discussion of Steve James’ fantastic docuseries City So Real—which also makes my best of the year list, Willa.
At the same time, the thing I wanted to try to celebrate in Peak Comfort was the gradual move toward thinking of good TV—great TV—including shows that were generous and fun rather than onerous and morose.
Willa, to your question about Peak Comfort and the idea that it may be a higher ambition to challenge than to soothe, I guess my question is whether we consider TV greatness to be just that: a really great TV show? Or are we measuring TV greatness the way we judge gymnastics, by saying that things that are harder get more points? Even that feels like something I’m not sure is true. Is it really harder to provoke than it is to create deep, ecstatic narrative pleasure? (And also, do we need to accept those as separate categories? The Good Lord Bird feels like an example of a show that did both, to its immense benefit.)
OK enough of that. Here’s my top 10 of the year, which looks a little like Willa’s, so I hope you, Inkoo, and Emily, will argue passionately for the greatness of … I don’t know, maybe Yellowstone? Picture me now as that emoji face with the sunglasses on.
I May Destroy You
The Good Lord Bird
City So Real
How to With John Wilson
What We Do in the Shadows
The Baby-Sitters Club
Yours in Peak Comfort (and also jealousy that I didn’t think to put Bluey on my list),