Television

The Perfect Show for the Era of Disappearing TV

Imagine a world without music, movies, books—then imagine how quickly we could end up living in it.

Mackenzie Davis sitting in a tent outdoors and reading a book in a scene in Station Eleven.
Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven. Ian Watson/HBO Max

Imagine a place where anything you wanted to watch, anything you wanted to read, anything you wanted to listen to was always at your fingertips. Now, imagine all that went away. All the shows and movies you’d come to love, the writing you loved to read, the music that made you feel, they all disappeared from this place we were keeping them. And because that place had all the solidity of the cloud, and because nobody thought to make archival copies of all these things, they were simply gone—not harder to find, not relatively inaccessible, just gone. This dystopian scenario is one of the many calamities depicted in Station Eleven, the HBO Max miniseries that started airing at this time last year.

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Station Eleven is a story about a post-apocalyptic world in which a horrific flu has wiped out most of humanity, those who are left have turned mostly into ruthless scavengers and pirates to survive, and everybody, everybody, in the world is racked with grief. It’s also a story about memory. Adults tell children folktales about what Googling was like, theater troupes travel the Midwest doing avant-garde stagings of Shakespeare, and a commune in an abandoned airport has set up a “Museum of Civilization” that prominently features a nonfunctioning gaming console. While death and destruction headline this particular dystopia, what makes it particularly dystopian, and what the show finds most interesting, is the idea that nobody would remember all the art and all the beauty this civilization managed to produce before it got wiped out. It’s a show about the fragility of art—even art preserved in nominally “physical” media—but also about the importance of holding it close.

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For all those reasons, it’s a show that maybe the executives at Warner Bros. Discovery—the conglomerate that now owns HBO Max—should watch sometime.

One of the most significant, if least spectacular, media news stories of the past year has been the quiet dismantling of the HBO Max streaming catalog. For a variety of reasons, most relating to the burden of streaming-content payment obligations, WBD has been removing movies and original series from its streaming library, and even canceling series currently in production. The gutting began this summer with a handful of children’s shows (hundreds of episodes of Sesame Street, as well as series like the adorable Esme and Roy, developed through HBO’s much-ballyhooed partnership with Sesame Workshop), but continued on through the fall and winter, vanishing series like Made for Love, The Nevers, Love Life, The Gordita Chronicles, and The Time Traveler’s Wife. Even Westworld, a show that had once been a tentpole for HBO, took the hit. Most of the series, it seems, will be bundled and sold to third-party FAST (free, ad-supported television) streamers—think Tubi or Pluto—but, for the moment, the shows are just gone. Because few of these titles were huge hits, the backlash has been simmering rather than spectacular, but these moves portend a bleak future for streaming, or at least one that’s far away from the naïve hope that streaming platforms could serve as a forever archive, preserving our classics and holding on to the others for discovery.

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The problem here is not necessarily that the utopian dream of streaming is dead or even that these shows themselves have gone forever from their platform. As Kathryn VanArendonk points out, the occasional disappearance of television shows has been a regular feature of television as a medium for much of its existence. The difference here is less about what is irrevocably lost—these shows are likely to reappear, albeit in different places, at some point—than what could be lost.

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Specifically, many of the series WBD has decided to remove do not exist on physical media. There’s no Blu-ray, no DVD, no VHS tape in a dusty attic. If a massive conglomerate decided one of these shows was no longer profitable on their streaming services but also not worth the hassle to bundle and sell off elsewhere, it might well and truly be gone. In some cases, not even the people who made the show have their own copy. As we’ve seen on multiple occasions throughout this year, the streaming renaissance seems to have been premised on a vision of the future that has not quite come to pass. The high-minded ideal of endless content and creative freedom was nice, but it was always tethered to the notion that it would ultimately turn out to be profitable. It hasn’t quite, and so that’s led to high-profile cancellations, plummeting stock prices, and sell-offs to new channels and platforms that look a lot less like the streaming gold rush and a lot more like regular old TV. If we initially watched and contextualized these shows as part of a never-ending river of high-end content, individual entries in an endless torrent, how might we watch them now that we know they might be a bit less abundant, a bit more precarious, a bit more fragile in the future? What’s left of these niche series after the streaming boom ends in a whimper?

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Station Eleven has an answer, as long as you can still watch it.

I have a theory that Emmy voters only watched the first episode of Station Eleven. The miniseries, released in weekly clusters on HBO Max between December and January, was critically acclaimed but has somewhat drifted out of cultural memory since its premiere. Part of this certainly has to do with its relative absence from the annual TV awards this fall. It’s one thing for a beloved show to get snubbed, but that’s not quite what happened to Station Eleven. Anybody who watched the miniseries last winter knows that it’s anchored by titanic lead performances from Himesh Patel, Mackenzie Davis, and Danielle Deadwyler. Patel, an incredibly deserving nominee, was the only one nominated; he also just so happens to be the only one who appears in the first episode. (Brilliant child-actor Matilda Lawler’s snub is less explicable.) Hence my theory. The simplest explanation for why Davis and Deadwyler missed out on nominations for their unforgettable performances is that Emmy voters simply didn’t know they were in the show.

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But why? Why wouldn’t Emmy voters have beheld Patel’s heartbreaking turn in the pilot and quickly inhaled the show’s remaining episodes? Well, the simplest explanation for that is that an audience in the midst of a terrible pandemic might not have been super excited to watch a show about an even worse pandemic. Station Eleven, adapted by Patrick Somerville from Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling novel, is funny, life-affirming, brilliantly written, and deeply imaginative; it is also incredibly sad and ruthlessly cruel—as the world often is—toward even its most beloved characters. It’s also told across multiple different timelines and time periods and multiple different locations such that some of its main characters literally never meet. It is not, in other words, an “easy” show, in either its structure or its content. Indeed, many of its raves had asterisks. It’s great; it might not be for you. Alison Herman’s review at the Ringer bears the headline, “If You Can Bear It, ‘Station Eleven’ Is Exactly What We Need Right Now.” Meghan O’Keefe’s review at Decider was calledStation Eleven is the Best Show You’re Not Brave Enough to Watch.”

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Revisiting it at the end of this year, it’s instructive about what we stand to lose if our art starts slipping away. Perhaps the key lies with the collectors, the curators, the keepers of the remnants of memory. Those who hold on to the past are those who survive best, who learn from and to some extent luxuriate in what they’ve been able to hold on to. It is these people who can rebuild. But the show also implies that these people—the creators of the Museum of Civilization—are part of the problem. They preserve what was good from that lost culture, but, in doing so, they also preserve that culture’s rot. They teach the children to be as good, and as bad, as those who came before them.

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Perhaps, then, the key lies with the artists, the interpreters, those who recite from memory and reimagine the old world in new ways. There is a future there, but there’s also a kind of uncontrollable, ritualistic mourning. These artists—the troupers—travel in a literal circle, and while that circle forms a community and a network, it is also a trap.

Westworld getting transferred from HBO Max to an ad-supported streaming network is not quite as bad as what happened to the earthlings of Station Eleven. But art, Station Eleven might remind us, gives us a way of seeing the world in which we actually live, whether you’re a stranded astronaut or a dying king, or just somebody who’s mildly annoyed that your favorite show got canceled.

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The best thing about Station Eleven is that it isn’t easy. Its difficulty is likely why many viewers are still waiting to watch. But this year at HBO Max has taught us that we can’t just assume these shows will stick around forever. Perhaps the best outcome for Station Eleven would be that it gets rediscovered, it becomes a cult hit at a moment when a broader public is ready for it. Warner Bros. Discovery is heavily implying that we might not have that luxury anymore. Station Eleven might not be able to wait around for us.

That prophecy is not lost on the show’s creator, Patrick Somerville, who has spent the past few weeks ruminating about that eventuality. ”If Station Eleven ever disappears,” he recently tweeted, “I promise to purchase one acre of land somewhere in the Mojave desert and just play it on loop, projected on a rock, forever.” This year at HBO Max might be an isolated event in the life of a struggling media company, or it might be a grim portent of things to come. Either way, if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth queueing up Station Eleven this winter, before it’s too late.

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