Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 10: The Good Lord Bird was funny and violent and sad.

The Good Lord Bird
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Showtime.

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

Hallo Meine TV Club Freunde,

My German is rudimentary high school level, so who knows if that’s correct, but I will take a brief moment to hop into Emily’s Babylon Berlin party anyhow. Babylon Berlin! Few shows this year have been more aware of the power of the image—both visually and thematically—and as Emily so correctly diagnoses, few shows had the kind of runway that this one did. The sprawl makes room for mistakes, but the sprawl also makes room for one-off experiments and odd narrative sidetracks. And I truly believe that there’s no shortcut for the feeling of having lived with characters for many, many hours. Some shows squander that, of course, and some manage to use their brief runs much more efficiently than others in terms of character development (I Hate Suzie!). It doesn’t matter how gemlike and efficient a short show is, though. It’s just never going to feel the same as it does to watch Gereon and Lotte circle each other for hours and hours and hours and then suddenly realize they’re standing very close to one another in a sweaty room full of friends, glancing at each other like they’re going to spontaneously combust.

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Which is not to say that there aren’t some really ideal cases for the short series; namely, The Good Lord Bird! How to With John Wilson is the show that surprised me the most this year, in a pure, “came out of nowhere and I had no idea what it was and even after I figured it out I was still surprised” kind of way. The Good Lord Bird was the show that surprised me the most in a “I was very, very worried this would be bad but it’s great” kind of way. It’s an unbelievably tricky tone to hit and to do it well: legitimately funny but also violent and sad. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a drama figure out how to treat its protagonist the way Good Lord Bird does John Brown. It laughs at him, and we want to laugh too, because as written and played by Ethan Hawke, he is hysterically funny. It’s also a show that presents Brown’s worldview with a huge amount of generosity. (“John Brown … made some points,” I thought to myself more than once during this series.)

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Simultaneously, though, The Good Lord Bird leaves open so much space for Brown’s flaws. Onion, played so well by Joshua Caleb Johnson, confronts Brown directly about his myopia and his savior complex. Onion’s taken in by Brown’s charisma, but never in a way that allows us to forget that he is being taken in, at great risk to himself and others. Plus there’s Hawke’s performance as Brown, which makes it impossible to ever forget that he is, conservatively, stark raving bonkers. In a very gentle, loving, open-hearted way! Except for when he slaughters people willy-nilly! The moment I fell in love with the show was when Onion’s discussing with another Black character, Bob, whether Brown’s fully lost his mind. In the background, Hawke-as-Brown wanders around holding a rabbit aloft, whispering to it. “Do you have a fire in your heart for justice?” he asks the rabbit, and then he decides that the rabbit probably does. That scene is so perfectly what this show is trying to be: a zealous white man full of biblical wrath, personal conviction, and utterly sincere sweetness. And at the same time, two Black characters looking at him and thinking, justifiably, “Really? This guy? This guy is who we’re going to rely on?”

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It’s not a show that could’ve or should’ve ever been a long TV series, and I’m thrilled that it exists exactly as it is. A movie would’ve crunched the story’s winding, picaresque form into something too short. A longer series would’ve had to dodge and falsely elongate the omnipresent doom of John Brown’s disastrous last stand.

It is, in short, a kind of TV show I love and have always loved: the miniseries! Hooray for miniseries. The problem is that as in so many things, there’s a pendulum swing of trends. There used to be mountains of never-ending, 24-episode seasons, and the miniseries meanwhile felt like a too-rare special form. The pendulum has swung in the other direction. Seasons are shorter, and even shows that run more than one season have shorter life spans and smaller ambitions, as our colleague Alison Herman wrote about earlier this year.

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Maybe it is, as Inkoo suggests, that we’re impossible to please. But maybe—and stick with me here—maybe all kinds of TV should exist at all times, for my personal enjoyment! Because I think they each have their place! Especially docuseries, frankly. I watched so many docuseries this year. Like you, Willa, I was just absolutely floored by City So Real, and will watch anything Steve James makes, ever. But I also watched a lot of fair-to-middling docuseries, because I think they’ve taken the place that reality TV used to hold for me. They are soothing, and rarely demanding, and people are so interesting? I wonder how much my love of the docuseries this year has to do with the docuseries boom we’re in right now, and how much it has to do with how much I miss just seeing strangers’ faces and wondering about their lives.

What I’m not quite clear on is why it’s the docuseries that’s been doing it for me lately, and not just straight-up reality. Do you have any idea, Inkoo? Should I just give my life over to 90 Day Fiancé?

Please say yes,

Kathryn

P.S. I just started watching Teenage Bounty Hunters, and if I finish it before I finish book club, I promise to come in here and say 12 mea culpas about how I failed to watch it earlier this year.

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