Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 16: What is television, anyway?

Small Axe's Lovers Rock and Mangrove
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Prime Video.

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

My fellow fans of streaming content:

What is television?

We’ve alluded to this question several times throughout our discussion, so I thought I would circle back to it, here at the end of things. It might seem academic to most readers, who probably don’t care what stories they consume where, but for those of us who cover this field, it’s at least somewhat fraught.

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The pandemic has both highlighted this question in bold yellow and underlined it four or five times for emphasis. In the course of our discussion here, WarnerMedia announced that its movie slate for 2021 will be released on the HBO Max streaming service and in theaters simultaneously, a huge break from existing precedent. The vast majority of people who watch Wonder Woman 1984 or The Matrix 4 or the new Dune adaptation will watch them on their TV screens, and those films will debut on those TV screens. So are these movies or TV shows?

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The answer here seems pretty obvious to me and hopefully to you: They’re movies, because that’s what they were intended to be. In some other, better world, they came out in theaters because COVID-19 fizzled out in China, or was properly contained in the U.S., or just never existed to begin with. But the further we get into the streaming era, the less clear these distinctions are. The HBO film Bad Education, for instance, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last September, but it never got a chance to play in theaters, despite being a terrific little midbudget movie with a wonderful Hugh Jackman performance. Was it a movie? Was it TV? It won Emmy Awards, but what would have happened if it debuted on HBO Max instead of HBO proper?

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Similarly, the endless Twitter debates over whether Steve McQueen’s (wonderful!) anthology series Small Axe, which is somehow both a film series and a proper TV anthology show at the same time, feel like they’re driven less by any real skin in the game and more by raw terror at the idea that TV has taken film’s place at the center of our cultural firmament on the one hand and a general sense that film types still turn their noses up at TV on the other. Is it enough to say that Small Axe is fantastic? Do we have to classify it?

I mean, I don’t, because I’m not making a Top 10 list, so I don’t have to arm wrestle with Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson for custody of Small Axe. But the fact that I think you can make a reasonable argument for the show as either film or TV underlines the future of this medium of ours, which is to say that everything is just sort of going to become the same thing—a mass glut of undifferentiated content that we decide is “film” or “TV” mostly based on how long it is and/or how much the film snobs of the world want to declare a piece of television a film just because they think it’s better than “mere” TV.

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To see what I mean, consider Netflix’s Unorthodox again. At around 210 minutes long, it’s basically the same length as Martin Scorsese’s Netflix film The Irishman, but because it’s split into four episodes, we’ve decided it’s a TV show. I don’t really have a problem with this—splitting a story into deliberate episodes seems as good a differentiation between film and TV show as any we’ve come up with—but it’s not hard to imagine a world where Unorthodox or even something as long as The Queen’s Gambit (which is, after all, no longer than, say, Oscar-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America) get reedited into film versions of themselves.

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Again, this might all seem a little academic to those of you who don’t obsessively follow critical debates on Twitter, but I think the question should be concerning to everybody who cares about either of these media. The collapse of the midbudget movie has sent many of those projects scurrying to television to become miniseries. (The Queen’s Gambit spent decades almost becoming a movie, for instance.) And in some cases, that’s wonderful. There have been a lot of great miniseries in the past few years that would have been movies covered in flop sweat as recently as five years ago. Something like The Good Lord Bird all but requires the expansiveness of a miniseries. As a movie, it might feel hemmed-in.

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But all the examples I’m pointing to are good ones! (Another potential example: FX’s A Teacher, though that miniseries really requires you to watch all of it in one go to understand what it’s doing, which might work better in the more compressed time frame of a film—which it was, before Hannah Fidell adapted her own movie for TV.) The real problem stems from when these projects that might have been midbudget movies in the past become miniseries without any real idea of what makes a good miniseries work. Literally any person who watches a lot of streaming television can point to a so-called miniseries where the individual installments seem subdivided almost at random, and not in a way that enhances the project as with, say, Twin Peaks: The Return (where the seeming randomness revealed itself to have a method in the end).

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We live at a time when so many of the rules of film and TV storytelling seem to be completely imploding. That’s exciting in some ways, because new rules are being written and broken every day, but it’s also a little terrifying because a good storytelling rule can help you out of a jam when you’re in one. I’ve been rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine recently, and part of that show’s power is the way in which it slowly but surely tricks you into getting super invested in a deeply serialized story about the future of galactic civilization without seeming like it’s doing that at all. Such bait-and-switch tactics are really hard to pull off at a time when everything is just sort of there.

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But you know what? Maybe that’s fine. Maybe these are the growing pains we have to do through to get to the bold, promised future where everything is pretty good all of the time. Honestly, we’re almost there! And in the spirit of the season and thanks to my own generosity, I present to you the 10 following hot takes!

COVID is taking out all the best comedies with a social conscience. Superstore is showing its age in its sixth season, but it’s probably the TV show that’s best handling the pandemic, and now its sixth season will also be its last, with a curtailed episode order to boot. Similarly, One Day at a Time has left the airwaves, as mentioned in one of my prior missives. TV comedy is often one of the best vehicles we have for talking about the problems in the world around us, and now we’re lacking in two of the best shows at doing this very thing. Boooo!

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The end of the Trump era will reveal Succession as the series about the long tail of parental abuse that it truly is. OK, this isn’t really a hot take, but I believe in it deeply!

Trump himself will take a gig as a commentator on one of the Fox News rivals and create a schism in the American right. I mean, it could happen! I didn’t watch two full days of Newsmax for nothing!

Trans characters are kind of a fad right now, and I don’t know how I feel about that! On the one hand, I like the casual inclusiveness of, like, Josie Totah popping up on Saved by the Bell as the teen mean girl you know I would have been if not for … well … the unfortunate reality of my adolescence. But a lot of shows seem like they’re casting trans characters as a way to score some easy inclusivity points. Say what you will about Luca Guadagnino’s very good We Are What We Are, but it really did try to wrestle with teens having gender angst. More teens! More gender angst!

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The Mandalorian is kind of awesome TV to do chores to. I was never on Team Mando (I was never a Star Wars kid, hence) until I realized that I could do household chores while watching it. Suddenly, its appeal skyrocketed in my eyes!

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New Girl deserves to get the Office treatment of obsessive adoration among Gen Z. What are you teens waiting for? Check out what your millennial forebears were up to in the early 2010s!

The cat on Star Trek: Discovery rules. I’m really enjoying this season of the CBS All Access show, especially because the cat is so good. More cats on TV!

That Euphoria Christmas special has me convinced my favorite disaster might really pull things together in Season 2. I use “disaster” lovingly here. Zendaya and Hunter Schafer are so terrific I would follow them anywhere, and the Christmas special suggests a show that finally has a sense of what it can and can’t do.* Euphoria!

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Everybody should listen to some audio fiction podcasts already. And not just because I cannot say this without horribly compromising myself! The field is telling the sorts of effortlessly diverse stories, in a wide variety of genres, that TV just can’t. (But you should really start by listening to my show.)

Schitt’s Creek is just OK. I MUST LIVE MY TRUTH.

A pleasure as always, everybody. I look forward to talking with you in 2021 about the ways in which the Gossip Girl reboot set off the class revolution. Until then!

xoxo,

Emily Girl

Read the previous entry.

Correction, Dec. 17, 2020 This post originally misspelled Hunter Schafer‘s last name.

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