Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 1: This is the Netflix Moment.

Collage of images from Netflix shows The Queen's Gambit, Love Is Blind, and Tiger King.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix.

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

Dear TV Club,

To state the obvious: It was not a good year. And that goes for TV too. Next year looks to be better for humanity (fingers crossed!), but I’m not so confident about the shows. We may get a few more great series, but I think we have arrived at TV’s near future, and it’s going to be everyone paying disproportionate attention to oxygen-hoovering but essentially just OK Netflix shows for a few years.

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For the past two decades, we have been living in the slipstream of TV’s epiphanic moment, when, the well-told story goes, TV got ambitious and great, complex and challenging, when it transcended entertainment and staked a claim as art. This narrative is a progressive one: TV improved, got better, there’s no going back. There would always be the mindless, turn-your-brain-off-stuff, but on the leading edge, what the audience wanted, what creators wanted to make, what cable networks wanted to air, was all improving. The golden age morphed into the unruliness of Peak TV, but that was progress too: People who were not white, straight men were making shows that were not all in the same angsty-realist so-called prestige vein, and they were making them for diverse audiences. We were still going up!

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But everything that goes up must come down. Well, not the volume of shows, which is what Peak TV was supposed to describe in the first place, but the general quality of it all. For a few years now, most TV has been very solid, rarely egregiously bad and not often great, a relentless stream of good enough, often masked by a handful of excellent shows. And I don’t think Peak TV accurately describes what is happening anymore: The mountain has a name. So what are we in? The Netflix Era? The Netflix Reign? The Netflix Blahs? It’s not that everything that was “buzzed” about this year was a Netflix show. Tiger King, Love Is Blind, and The Queen’s Gambit were, but The Last Dance, The Vow, and The Undoing weren’t. It’s certainly not that everything that was really good this year was a Netflix show. It’s not even that Netflix was the best business story this year: HBO Max is actually very good, and also there was the whole delectable Quibi fiasco! But Netflix is still the backdrop of everything, driving the market, setting the tone, and increasingly becoming the default place for audiences to find content.

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This last thing was true before the pandemic but has only been heightened by it: Netflix seems to have become the home screen of America’s viewing habits, the thing Kyle Chayka recently described as ambient TV, which you just have on—which, of course, makes it a bit like the other thing people used to just have on: network TV. I don’t want to overstate things: In some key regards, Netflix is not at all like network TV. Its business model allows it to cater to everyone while also being specific and sophisticated and targeted: It’s just for you, but, also, for everyone. In this regard, it has been able to triumphantly do what so many lesser tech companies want to do, which is to repackage something that we already had—taxis, offices, mainstream TV—and give it back to us, not just in an easier-to-use format, but re-branded, all importantly, as something cool.

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I actually think it’s hard to overstate how important that coolness—admittedly, like, a low-key coolness—is to Netflix’s triumph. This is going to feel like a tangent, but please bear with me: Before I worked at Slate, I was invited by a Slate editor to participate in a panel about the future of TV. One of the guys on the panel ran a second screen app—a place that was basically trying to do what Twitter did for TV, but without being Twitter; I don’t think it exists anymore—and we got into a prickly little back-and-forth about whether or not popular was the same thing as good, with me vociferously saying no. NCIS was popular, did that mean it was good? Hell no.

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I wasn’t wrong. But, in retrospect, it was an easy time to take this position. Simply put, I couldn’t get traffic writing about NCIS even if I had wanted to. This was right around the 2010s, this moment when, for a variety of reasons, the stuff that got the most traffic on the internet was not necessarily the most popular shows, ratings-wise, which tended to be linear series with a sizable offline and older audience, but series like Mad Men, the cultural footprint of which and online appetite for far exceeded its audience size. But Netflix has made this trade-off more complicated: While there are still tons of popular shows that mainstream outlets don’t write about much (just go look at Netflix’s top 10), there are a ton of not-that-good shows that lots of (relatively) younger, online, discerning audiences do want to read about. Coupled with the absolute torrential amount of content, it feels to me, as a critic, like I often am writing about what’s popular, not necessarily good, because that’s the most useful, most interesting, the most likely to get read. It seems more clear to me every day that the particular circumstances in which TV making and writing were oriented toward genuine greatness have smashed into the bedrock truth of TV, for good and ill, which is that very few of us need it to be great to happily watch it.

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Obviously, this year, there were were so many good reasons—the virus, police brutality, the president—that viewers might be particularly eager to attend to that which goes down easy, is heartwarming or distracting or trashy (which isn’t to say we didn’t remain essentially discerning in some ways: Not many people seemed to fall for Ryan Murphy’s inclusivity pap Hollywood). As Kathryn put it, this is a moment of Peak Comfort TV, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. As a person who felt like Ted Lasso was aloe vera for my soul and was so happy that The Queen’s Gambit turned out to be a triumphant sports movie and not some gritty addiction drama, I get the appeal. When the world is so challenging, you don’t always want a challenge in your downtime.

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But, strictly from a TV quality perspective, I’m just not sure we can put the genie back in the bottle. I think the lesson of the Netflix Moment is that TV only has to be so good (not very!) to be good enough to watch, especially when it comes with the imprimatur, however bogus, of quality and cool. I think that’s the Netflix secret sauce and the results are going to be with us for a long time.

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In talking so much about Netflix, I have replicated the Netflix problem of not attending to shows that might be more worthy of attention. And there were some good shows this year. Most especially Michaela Coel’s fan-flipping-tastic I May Destroy You and the year’s best documentary City So Real. Here’s my Top 10:

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I May Destroy You
City So Real
Ted Lasso
The Great Pottery Throw Down
The Good Lord Bird
Mrs. America
The Queen’s Gambit
Cheer
Bluey
Teenage Bounty Hunters

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There were actually a lot of interesting shows that didn’t make my list, and writing them all down makes me feel like I gave this year a bum wrap. Shows like How To With John Wilson, which I wanted to like more than I did, but I loved existing; the violently perceptive The Boys, which is hugely popular on Amazon but would have probably broken the world on Netflix; The Great and Dave, which might be on this list if only I had watched more of them; the prickly good I Hate Suzy; a great season of Insecure; and The Good Fight’s Jeffery Epstein episode, which turned Citizen Kane into a dick joke, in the best way.

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And that’s really just the beginning. What am I leaving out? What did you make of the year, holistically? What was most important? Was it better than I think, TV wise? Am I giving Netflix too much power, credit, its shows and audience not enough? What do you make of the popularity of so many saggy, baggy not particularly well structured documentaries—Tiger King, The Last Dance, The Vow—particularly in this year when we were allegedly hiding out from reality?

Kathryn, I already mentioned your Peak Comfort TV piece, but it gave me a lot of food for thought, because I think that, as ambitions go, trying to make people feel all warm and fuzzy inside … might be a lesser one than challenging them in some way. Please explain to me why I am wrong—you know, if you would like!

Excitedly waving my golden arm about the conversation to come,

Willa

Read the next entry. Read the next entry.

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