Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 5: In defense of short attention spans.

The Great Pottery Throw Down
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO Max.

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

Heyo,

Emily, your lamentation that we don’t take the time to discuss big, knotty shows in detail anymore got me thinking. And what I think is … I am to blame? I’m not egomaniacal enough to think I alone am to blame. Streaming platforms that drop entire seasons on as at once might be more responsible, but I too play my tiny part in this state of affairs. The first way is: I like it.

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I have said this before, but my kink is a 22-minute show. I want everything to be shorter: episodes, seasons, show runs. (I was sad about the GLOW cancellation though.) I am available for flings, brief friendships, hitting it off at a party and never speaking again. But multiple seasons? Not really! Most people are more faithful to their long-running faves than I am, but attending to the shiny, buzzy, new thing is mostly how the TV ecosystem works right now, with Succession and The Crown, maybe, the exceptions that prove the rule. The Crown did just get substantially better! In its fourth season! Proof I’m doing things all wrong!

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And yet whirring through zeitgeist television, barely stopping to pause, often feels to me like it accurately reflects the merits of the shows in question, which are best considered fleetingly. Like, if we have no collective cultural memory of Emily in Paris in two years (who am I kidding, two months!), is that not appropriate? The fast-forwarded pace at which we latch onto a new “it” show—not all of which are created equal—does at least give a lot of shows a moment in the spotlight. There were plenty more shows that felt like they achieved escape velocity, critical mass, some sort of widespread attention this year than there have been in years past, and while many of them were bad, talking about them, if only for a day or two, was fun. Another things I like about  our short attention span is that it avoids this thing that drives me crazy about TV close readings, and was maybe most pronounced with Game of Thrones. It’s when the conversation has become so intense, arcane, and granular that it no longer has any connection to bigger questions—like, I dunno, whether the thing is good at all.

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I think throwing a whole season of a show at us at once tends to side step the worst of this—though, maybe, also the best. When a show is super, it’s too bad how quickly we move on, or never even find it. But when it’s pretty good, or not even that, we’re all avoiding an onanstic hothouse. Honestly, though, I have been really impressed by the duration and depth of The Queen’s Gambit conversation, which almost two months after it’s release, is still going on. That might be the most sustained interest in a Netflix show … ever? It’s almost as if that thing were being released weekly! But the conversation, I think, has been better than if it were released weekly, more holistic. Sure, its included a lot of chess talk, but people have also poured over the fun details—  the wallpaper, the clothes, the stringbean—while getting to the meaty stuff in a series of essays that take different positions on the meaning of the show’s feel-good, comfort TV bones. Yes, there could have been a few more odes to Marielle Heller and her very original, enabling, loving adoptive mother, but this is the show that seems to have missed out least on a robust conversation, just because it came out all at once.

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Did you notice I called The Queen’s Gambit comfort TV? Having successfully, like a dog with a bone, worked my way back to this subject, I have one thing to add: my other comfort show, The Great Pottery Throw Down. Over the years I have learned that I am a sucker for craft competition shows that showcase real artisanal skill. There is something about the humility and the facility of people just crushing crafts that I find genuinely inspirational. I have never watched one of these shows and not wished I could do what they do. (For whatever reason I do not feel this way about The Great British Bake Off. I watched the Nadiya season for the first time recently so I know it will never get better, but even it didn’t inspire me to bake more cakes, just eat them. I think it’s because I know I am not detail-oriented enough to be a good froster.) The Great Pottery Throw Down very much follows the GBBO model: no drama, no fuss, lots of low-key British attitudes and repressed competition. Ceramics-wise, it’s not up to the artistry of my favorite from last year, the glass-blowing show Blown Away, but humanity-wise, it can’t be beat. The judge Keith Brymer Jones, a big ol’ bear of an artisan, with lots of sleeveless T-shirts and a molting Flock of Seagulls haircut, cries all the time, at the effort, and progress, and achievement of the contestants. He hits, in his way, the same notes as Ted Lasso: a man unabashed to be emotional, loving, kind, the proudest and most supportive of papas.

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Oh lord, I said that was it about comfort TV, but I can’t stop myself. I have one more thing to say even though it’s looking a gift horse—the way Inkoo gracefully split the difference between my cranky position and Kathryn’s more generous one—in the mouth. It’s just this: making something that achieves its goals, almost no matter what they are, is very hard, and that may even be particularly so if the goal is to make you feel good. But I maintain that there is a meaningful distinction between a show whose aim is to make you feel good and one that is trying to get at some truth about what it’s like to be a human being. Shows can entertain you, make you laugh, and tell the truth—30 Rock, Fleabag, Russian Doll, The Office(s), Succession, even I May Destroy You in parts—and I think that is a higher order of achievement than, say the warm fuzzy that is my beloved Ted Lasso, a show that essentially inhabits a counterfactual, if very lovely, universe.

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This reminds me: I wrote this review about how High Fidelity—which also aired this year!—took place in an alternate reality, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about that idea. I think The Queen’s Gambit might take place in one too! Anyway, I will now zip it about comfort TV, but I hope that will not preclude you from talking about it should you have more to say. I really do think it was defining aspect of this year and the “TV we need right now.” But if you are ready to move on to other things, I second the call for Mrs. America and re-up one for How to With John Wilson. Also P-Valley shows up on a lot of lists, and I would love someone to explicate its pleasures. (I sort of think it’s like the most prestigious show that aired this year?) Also, Inkoo, I totally gave up on My Brilliant Friend, not because I didn’t like it but because, as previously stated, I am terrible at keeping up with TV shows, and I would love to hear about it. Ooh, also, why is The Crown so good this season? And Kathryn, Inkoo, did you, like Emily, watch anything old this year? I recently watched an episode of Ally McBeal and … I think it was amazing?

Remember the dancing baby,

Willa

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