Television

The TV Club, 2020

Netflix made The Queen’s Gambit a hit, and also kept us from seeing its true greatness.

Netflix's The Queen's Gambit.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

[Fiona Apple voice] Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies: [/Fiona Apple voice]

When quarantine began, I had a sudden sense of relief: Finally, I could get caught up on all the TV I had missed! I would start with Tiger King, so I could join the conversation!

I tried. I tried, and I tried, and I tried. As someone who closely studies true crime for one of my side gigs, I knew I should try to keep going past the two episodes I watched. But I just couldn’t. I just didn’t want to spend any more time in the world of that show, in the overly simplistic moral complexity that it dished out. “Overly simplistic moral complexity” came to define a lot of the shows I watched this year. They had the veneer of intelligence, but once you dug around in them, you’d find their core message was a Hallmark card with the company’s beloved grouch Maxine saying, “Life’s complicated, you know? Might as well have fun!”

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So I kinda stopped … watching TV.

This statement isn’t strictly accurate. A lot of the shows y’all have mentioned to this point are ones I nodded with recognition at, many of which would populate my own top 10 list were I making one. (I have freed myself from the tyranny of lists!!!) But compared with my media consumption in recent years, I’ve largely stopped watching even a lot of the shows I used to love. There’s a whole season of Fargo I got only a few episodes into, and I still haven’t caught up with Better Call Saul. Intellectually, I know I saw and loved a season of Better Things this year, but it might as well have aired in the 1930s for all the memory I have of the spring.

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In most other ways, I have been the pandemic cliché of a bored white lady stuck in her apartment. I got really into baking bread, and a friend and I took part in a two-person book club reading War and Peace. I launched several dozen creative projects, some of which bore fruition, and I got super into Phoebe Bridgers’ album Punisher. But when it came time to do the thing seemingly everybody was doing and consume more, more, more content, my brain just could not bring itself to do it.

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But TV has eluded me a bit this year. Even when I’ve loved something, it’s slipped through my memory like water through a sieve. For instance, Inkoo’s mention of Harley Quinn reminded me how much I adored that show’s second season and its casual queerness, and so many of you bringing up The Baby-Sitters Club reminded me that watching that show with my wife felt like much-needed cramming for a girlhood exam I had missed somewhere along the way. (To be clear: I loved the shit out of that show.) But when I try to actually remember the shows I liked, they blur together, until I’m remembering the time Harley and Poison Ivy had to babysit the kids of their soon-to-be stepdad and everything fell apart.

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Sidebar: BSC similarly spoke to my representation dreams, Inkoo, with an episode in which Mary Anne babysits a tiny trans girl. The episode is kind of the worst form of representation—the little girl exists so everybody can learn a lesson about treating trans people with dignity—but I still thrilled a bit to see a trans child treated so matter-of-factly in a Netflix show. Plus, since it’s a kids’ show, the moral instruction element doesn’t come off as cloying or forced. That said, the way in which the girl’s story was integrated speaks to Netflix’s ongoing attempts to reimagine diversity as an algorithm.It’s all surface-level enjoyment, but anything meaningful is kept off screen so you’ll keep watching.

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My larger point is that the rhythms of quarantine—all those same-y days blending into each other—have been both exactly the right thing and exactly the wrong thing for this era of content at all costs. On the one hand, who cares if you’re watching a mediocre TV show so long as there are more episodes for you to consume? On the other, when you’re watching that many mediocre TV shows, they all start to seem like one another a little bit, until you’re lost in a vague fog of pretty-OK nonsense that mostly exists to placate you and never quite challenge you.

This is to say that I’m coming at this question of comfort TV from a different angle, slightly. Comfort TV in and of itself is a noble form, one that is necessary both for this era and every era. But in the age of streaming, we’re using the comfort TV hammer to bash the head of every nail, in ways that both leave less room for challenging, thorny programming (or even would-be comfort shows with a couple of rough edges) and that tend to approach every single show as though it were a comfort-binge watch just waiting to happen.

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Which brings me to The Queen’s Gambit.

The Queen’s Gambit is about seven things at once. It’s an inspirational underdog story like Rocky. It’s a lovely bildungsroman about a woman learning her own power. It’s a somewhat spotty depiction of addiction. It’s an intellectual game of cat-and-mouse predicated on watching Anya Taylor-Joy just absolutely destroy everyone. (Destroy me, Beth Harmon! Destroy me!) It’s a tremendous acting showcase, not just for Taylor-Joy but for a huge collection of character actors. It’s a story where absolutely every supporting character exists to serve the story of one woman, in a manner usually reserved for men, which both leads to some thrilling moments (all those boys selflessly helping Beth when she needs it most!) and some really terrible racial representation (the series’ one Black character is a thankless afterthought). It’s a sports anime.

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When I watched advance screeners of The Queen’s Gambit—one after the other, having a great time all the while—I had the thought, “This will never be a hit, but I’m having a good time watching it.” How wrong I was. The show seemed like it took over the world for much of November, and yet despite all of the qualities I described above, it’s pretty much entered mainstream culture as “that show about chess.” That has me wondering if the qualities that I saw in the show were just ones I projected onto it because I really loved watching it. Was it as good as it seemed to me in the moment? Or was it just something that seemed like good TV, so I accepted it as good TV, because I needed something to watch? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

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I briefly wondered if this is something that has happened to other TV shows that became massive with the population, no matter how briefly, but I don’t think it has. People had House allegiances on Game of Thrones, and they dissected the character interactions on Breaking Bad. For whatever reason, Netflix has the unique capacity to take a big, knotty show—that, again, they should get credit for having made—and then flatten it out into its simplest possible version by the mere fact of it being broadcast on their service, where so many of us have been trained to consume even the streamer’s best shows as passively as possible. I’m tempted to make an “it’s not TV” joke here, but for many of us, Netflix isn’t TV. It’s a wall that talks.

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As Willa noted, that’s a return to the TV equilibrium of yore, which is maybe OK! I have started to sneakily think the real golden age of TV might have been the ’90s, and I’m not just thinking that because I’m getting so very old. The things I love about older TV are precisely the things that are missing from TV right now. In the olden times, TV sprawled and took its time and unfolded over many episodes over many years. Even a show like Breaking Bad took several years to unspool its story, and when you look at something like Cheers, it’s impossible to imagine something with that level of depth and complexity getting that long to tell its story today. We are built not for the long haul, but for an endless assault of the new. This is an era of Tiger Kings, not an era of One Day at a Times (sadly canceled yet again, despite being the sort of thing that would have run for 16 years in some other TV universe). That makes me sad, or maybe it just makes me old. But it does seem like whatever this medium I love is becoming, it’s not quite the thing that made me fall in love with it.

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That’s meant that I’ve been watching a lot of old TV, and maybe I’ll dig into some of that in installments to come. In the meantime, I’d love if we could talk Mrs. America, because it’s the one show I know I’d have on my top 10 list, which maybe makes it my No. 1? I’ve also arm-wrestled with Kathryn for the rights to talk Babylon Berlin and won, so put a pin in that for me.

I’m so glad to be back talking TV with y’all!

Bringing lesbian thirst to the pages of Slate dot com since 2016,

Em

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