Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 15: In a better time, Utopia might have just been bad. 2020 made it intolerable.

A scene from Utopia
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon Studios.

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

To my favorite Technicolor psycho nurses:

Like Willa, I’ve spent a lot of this past year—especially the past month, after Biden’s victory—wondering how our entertainment preferences might change in 2021 and how TV programming may shift in response. The show I’ve thought the most about in this vein is my beloved The Good Fight, which began explicitly as a response to Trump’s election. After his win, Diane Lockhart is ready to peace the fuck outta America and retire to an Italian villa to live out her wildest Under the Tuscan Sun wine-lady fantasies, but the liquidation of her life savings in a Ponzi scheme forces her to rejoin the workforce, and the only law firm that’ll have her as a partner is a majority-Black one. During the Trump years, The Good Fight has been a salve for my sanity as quite possibly the only series to out-absurd the unsatirizable current administration (that “Sliding Doors” Season 4 premiere! The contents of the vault on Jeffrey Epstein’s sex island!), while vigorously interrogating its protagonist’s former white feminism. After COVID shut down production midway through the current season, the show also saw the surprise departures of Cush Jumbo and Delroy Lindo, whose storylines had definitely not been wrapped up in any way. What does The Good Fight’s #resistance look like, absent its primary nemesis? Will they continue parodying (or “swatting”) Trump World figures? Will there be any appetite for their continued mockery, or will we want to forget those besuited slimeballs as quickly as possible? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to see how The Good Fight gauges the post-Trump culture.

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I wrote a few years ago about how the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories retroactively ruined The X-Files for me—a show that was deeply formative for teenage me as a gateway into both TV criticism and fan fiction. (Who among us?) The Trump years have only supercharged conspiracy conservatism, and correspondingly, my distaste for cabal-stopping entertainment has only grown. As many critics have noted, Utopia arrived at exactly the wrong time, peddling a tale about a man-made pandemic and offering as the unlikely heroes a bunch of superfans seeking clues to a prophecy in their favorite comic book. Utopia is based on a 2013 dramedy, and had it debuted in 2019, I might’ve merely hated the show’s fan service (and Gillian Flynn’s self-conscious edginess). But in 2020, the idea of glorifying the fictional counterparts of anti-vaxxers and 5G paranoiacs—in part because the characters weren’t developed beyond those archetypes—just felt unbearable.

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I also wonder if, when the world no longer feels like an active dystopia, we might be more favorable to a show like Brave New World, whose lack of anything to say about our current condition might have had escapist appeal. Like Westworld, the Aldous Huxley adaptation was way too self-serious and way too fond of gratuitous nudity, but it often looked great and provided at least a peek into the kinds of anxieties that gripped readers during the Depression. But in 2020, when 3,000 crises were happening on any given day, dystopian fiction with little to no commentary to offer just felt lazy and incurious, as opposed to the kinds of stylish, airily philosophical genre fare it feels like we’ve always had.

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I’ve already gone on at (too much) length about 90 Day Fiancé, so instead of dwelling on the intriguingly botched experiments we’d rather forget about—like The New Pope, which somehow aired this year and which I think I never quite understood the point of—I’ll channel Emily’s optimism and focus on the series I’m curious to check out to see if they course-correct. Ramy was hugely ambitious in its sophomore year, plummeting its (Muslim American) everydude protagonist into moral depths that blurred the line between willful naïveté and horrifying irresponsibility. But the episodes that dealt with any of the show’s female characters, especially Ramy’s girlfriend-turned-fiancée, were hugely frustrating—and a step backward from the debut season. And yet I remain extremely curious where Ramy Youssef will take his characters next. As the Season 2 finale suggested, it could literally be anywhere.

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I’d also add to that list Never Have I Ever, Saved by the Bell, and Lovecraft Country. Of those three, Never Have I Ever is the one that grabbed my heart and made me sigh to the extent that I had to keep telling friends: “Just grit your way through the first four episodes. Then it becomes magic.” Like a version of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon just scolds while Tracy and Jenna become fan favorites, Saved by the Bell gave too many N.Y. Times editorials to its students of color to summarize and too many of the scene-stealing lines to its supposedly bad zany rich kids, but that fatal imbalance is something I can see showrunner Tracey Wigfield fixing, and fast. Lovecraft is by far the messiest of the three, but also the most promising—never not brimming with references, desire, and gore. Anytime I’m tempted to write it off as a failed genre experiment that’s too tangled to embrace, I remember the power of the “Catch the Fire” sequence in the time-hopping penultimate episode and feel humbled all over again.

Always ready to explode in slo-mo,

Inkoo

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