Emily, what you are both so incisively describing and enacting is the thing that good criticism can do: make you question your opinions, considered and otherwise. It’s happening to me right now with the conversation about The Queen’s Gambit, which continues to bustle along, and, just today, had me toggling between my initial feeling that it was good but not fantastic and the sense that I underestimated it. What if it’s exactly the things that made me most willing to dismiss it—its fairy tale, superhero quality— that are part of what is so meaningful about it? Maybe the way that it imagines the world as we want it to be, where a female genius gets treated like a man, which is to say, fairly, isn’t facile wish fulfillment, but a necessary and generative act of imagination? I’m still not totally convinced! But every time I read something that wrings more out of this show I think more of it than I initially did. There is a there there, even if that there also includes a really pronounced magical negro problem, a Forrest Gumpian quality, and the show undermining the meaning of its missing misogyny by making Beth so damn beautiful.
I do tend to think that a show has to be of a certain caliber to engender this caliber of critical discourse, the kind that can make the ground shift underneath your feet. Anything that so many different people can go in on, finding the good, the bad, the blind spots, the revelations, the alt-readings, the moral failings, has to be substantial enough to support it—even if the very fact of a show’s quality can make its sins worse; it should have known better. We don’t need to come to a consensus about whether a show like this is actually good—we probably shouldn’t!—to acknowledge that not all shows are as good to think about as Mrs. America, I May Destroy You, and The Queen’s Gambit were this year, whatever you ultimately make of them.
While I’m talking about The Queen’s Gambit, I’m going to change tracks a bit. Aaron Bady wrote a whole twitter thread, and then a piece, pointing out that The Queen’s Gambit is a show in which, over and over again, things look like they are about to go wrong, only to go right, and that this might have an especial resonance right now. This is something we’ve been doing all of the Trump years, thinking about shows in terms of how they play right now. There have been umpteen shows in the past few years described in headline cliché as “the show we need right now.” In a Trump context this is usually shorthand for a show that might explain how we landed in the Trump moment; in the COVID context, it’s shorthand for a show that can help us escape it.
I’m as guilty of this kind of thing as anyone: My whole Emily in Paris piece culminated in a read on how the show plays like an escape from the present but is actually an indictment of it—i.e., it’s the show we need right now, because it’s telling on us. So much of what is interesting to think about when it comes to TV, and especially bad TV, is anthropological. Why did that show make a connection with the audience? Why did it work, even though in lots of ways it doesn’t? Answering such questions can involve lots of armchair theorizing that, for the past five years, has tended toward obvious, but probably at least semi-truthful, explanations.
What I’m wondering is, where does that leave the shows that seemed to work in this particular moment when the moment’s over? How will Ted Lasso play when we don’t need it so badly? Will it still be so lovely, or does it become cloying? Does the fact that Ted only makes about three-quarters sense as a character—if his charms have failed on his wife, maybe they shouldn’t work on literally everybody else—start to seem like a bigger flaw? Does the fantasy at the center of it—that a white, straight, Southern, football-loving, male American is a genius at emo and humane connection—become even more obviously, unbearably self-serving? And if the show keeps working, does that indicate moment-specific explanations are, like Ted, at least one-quarter baloney?
I’m going to make a sharp turn now to a fave topic of mine: bad television. In a year that was not particularly strong, there are plenty of candidates, but I’m going to toss out two that were not flat-out stinkers, which is what made them so interesting to me. The first is FX’s sci-fi drama Devs, which plenty of people really liked. Created by Alex Garland and beautifully shot and composed, it seems like a show that really was what it wanted to be. I, however, found it to be the hooiest. It is very possible I didn’t get the joke, which I have been told was, like, the whole thing, but I found it to be humorless and ponderous and, like Westworld—a show it is impossible for me to believe aired in the calendar year 2020—myopically fixated on all the wrong things: the all-powerful, all-knowing supercomputer and not, you know, the schmucky tech lords who control it.
Another one, which I found less bad and more “huh?” was HBO’s Run, which started as a kicky romance between Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson, old lovers who abandon their lives to meet on a train. They banter, they play, they lust after each other, the scenery flies by: so far so good. Then by the middle of the season they had … killed someone? I have never seen a show go off the rails so intentionally and yet heedlessly, to the point that—contra Devs—I really couldn’t track what it was trying to do, I could only be bummed it didn’t do more of the first thing: kicky romance on a train with Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson.
What are some shows that didn’t work for you—or that half-worked, or intrigued you with their flaws? Some that jump out to me are: Little Fires Everywhere, Quibi, whatever is going on with Ryan Murphy, Avenue 5, and, uh, Space Force. If you would like to go high even as I do my level best to drag you low, do you share my skepticism that anything will really change with police series, or want to elaborate on how they might go about improving? (A popular Slate theory is that Brooklyn Nine-Nine, without making mention of it in the world of the show, should just restart set at a post office.) Also, I wonder if any of you wanna dish about Normal People, which was a real thing this year too, and we have not even name-checked.
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