Our weakness is strong: thoughts on the year in TV

Our weakness is strong: thoughts on the year in TV

Fairly early in the discussion that brought the TV Club writers to the top 15 shows of 2013, it became clear that the ultimate decision for show of the year would be between the final season of Breaking Bad and the final season of Enlightened. It was only too appropriate. Breaking Bad’s end will stand as one of the titanic TV achievements of all time, a wrap-up that proved divisive in its final hour but built up to that with seven episodes that left fans slavering for more. It was, in so many ways, the TV story of the year, give or take a Red Wedding. But Enlightened, with its perfectly wrought little jewels of episodes, made an equally potent case for itself as the show of the year. Yeah, it attracted maybe one one-hundredth of a percent of the stories and attention of Breaking Bad, but if you were going to make a case for TV as a medium capable of great artistry, there were few shows that would help you make a better argument.

The two shows even made eerie mirror versions of each other. Breaking Bad was an hourlong drama with a relentlessly forward-moving plot, while Enlightened was a half-hour dramedy with a contemplative pace, but the two programs were concerned with many of the same themes, even as they featured characters who seemed to arrive at opposite conclusions. Both Amy Jellicoe and Walter White were hard to take, and their respective programs insisted that you venture deep into their psychologies as they attempted to make their respective worlds over in their own images. Both set off on their journeys because they felt alienated and rejected by the modern world, and both ultimately succeeded, though not without great cost. The final shots of each series even made for an intriguing dichotomy in the series’ respective approaches to their audiences: Amy walks away from us, no longer letting us be a part of her story. The camera pulls away from Walter, as if reflecting the revulsion so many viewers felt about him by that point.

Yet when the time came, to me (and to most of my colleagues), there was no better choice for the best show of 2013 than Enlightened. And that’s not because I think Enlightened had a “better” year than Breaking Bad, whatever that means. Breaking Bad or Bob’s Burgers or Orange Is The New Black or Person Of Interest or Mad Men or Broadchurch or Rectify—they all would have made suitable top shows. It was a good year for TV, the best I’ve seen since I started paying serious, critical attention to the medium in the mid-’90s. There were probably 60 different shows I would have been totally fine having end up as the top pick, even if only one of them was my top pick.

No, Enlightened deserved to be the best show of 2013 because it was a show about vulnerability, about what we might think of as weakness, and that’s what so much of the best TV of the year ended up being about.

Lots of my TV-critic colleagues—most notably Alan Sepinwall and Maureen Ryan—have spent the year beating the drum about how the bleak male antihero dramas that so dominated the last 15 years of TV discussion bear less and less fruit with every passing year. In fact, 2013 felt like a sort of breaking point for this model, with plenty of shows trying to emulate it and mostly crumbling under their own weight, while Breaking Bad displayed the logical endpoint of this sort of story: The man who would be king finally built his empire only to receive the karmic payback the demands of narrative all but insist be visited upon him. No less a TV expert than FX president John Landgraf said he didn’t see where the male antihero show can go in the wake of Walter White’s rampage over the TV landscape.

I’ve always called these shows “male” antihero shows, despite the fact that a few of them—Damages and Sons Of Anarchy, for two—were often just as much about how women can carve out spaces in these sorts of brutal worlds. (Both of those shows suggest they do so by being just as brutal as the men who would otherwise drive the stories.) That, I think, is because so many of these shows were driven by the sorts of values and story motivations our society codes as masculine. They were driven by pursuit of power, by being closed off to feeling, by the protagonist constantly, rapaciously taking everything in front of him. This despite the fact that the show that launched a million dark antihero dramas, The Sopranos, was about the ultimate lack of sustainability in this way of living, about how Tony Soprano’s unwillingness to open himself up to friends and loved ones would ultimately isolate and kill him. Even there, though, no matter what you thought of Tony’s brutality, the guy had swagger.

The best shows of 2013, however, seemed dominated by shows about the opposite sorts of values. They were about vulnerability, what it means to open oneself up to the world and how crushing it can be when the world laughs right back in your face. They were series less about the pursuit of power or material gain than they were about the pursuit of emotional connection and community, stories about people who just wanted to feel something. Because we humans generally like to split things up into two categories whenever we can, we’ve classified stories like this as inherently feminine (or, if they have a male protagonist, “artsy”). This is a false dichotomy, of course. We all want cool stuff, and we all want emotional connection. But these values drive the gap between, say, action movies and rom-coms, and we all know who those respective genres are “supposed” to be for.

That vulnerability was everywhere on TV this year, both on new series and in returning ones. Think, for instance, of The Americans. It’s a spy show, sure, but almost secondarily to the fact that it’s about a marriage, about two people who realize 20 years into a sham relationship that their pantomime of love has become something more than an act. It was a series that pitched its climax not on an action sequence but on one character, so closed off to the possibility of connection when the season began, nakedly begging another to give that marriage another shot. Or think of Rectify, a series only nominally about the mystery of whether a man released from prison really committed the crime that landed him behind bars and far more about his desire to reconnect with the world he enters and how his re-entry casts ripples throughout the tight-knit little town he calls home. Think, even, of Orange Is The New Black, that raucous, warm-hearted prison dramedy, where the protagonist’s ultimate goals become less about getting along and getting by and more about learning to see the world through the eyes of the people she’s locked up with. (That her journey parallels the audience’s ends up being the show’s neatest trick.)

There’s even more. Masters Of Sex was about more than a landmark sex research project. It was about how terrifying true intimacy can be, to the degree that its best episode ended with a man begging the woman he was in love with to close her eyes so she wouldn’t see him crying. Hannibal might have seemed like yet another network procedural or, worse, serial-killer show, but it was actually a beautifully ornate portrayal of an emotionally fraught and vulnerable relationship growing between two men. Orphan Black placed all of this in more metaphorical terms, in the tradition of the best sci-fi, as a young woman opened up, learned about the family she never knew she had, then did whatever she could to protect it. Twin “mysteries taking place in small towns by large bodies of water” shows Top Of The Lake and Broadchurch were also about how realizing there’s a killer in the midst provides opportunities for both suspicion and connection, as was FX’s spin on the same rough genre, The Bridge.

It wasn’t just new shows, either. Both Mad Men and Arrested Development—paragons of the old model of TV—ended with their protagonists emotionally naked and exposed to their children, hoping against hope those children might see them for who they really were. (In both cases, they did, in ways that perfectly reflected both series’ worldviews and characters.) Girls ended on a moment of uncertain romantic reconciliation, on a person who’d tried to push the world away finding the world kicking in her door. Justified underlined at every opportunity the themes of community that made it so rich. And, as Zack Handlen noted so ably in his piece on the show for our best-of presentation, Game Of Thrones sowed discord, sure, but also a fair amount of connection and empathy.

And then there was Enlightened, a whole series about a woman who doesn’t like the world as she sees it and tries to change it by opening herself up to everyone around her. Amy Jellicoe isn’t just vulnerable; she’s an exposed, throbbing nerve, daring to take what others might see as weakness and make it her strength. The moment when she finally gets to say to the CEO of her company what she’s been wanting to say for so long—what so many Americans have been wanting to say to their own bosses for ages now—was the most satisfying on TV for me this year, not because it was a victory for her but because it took the vulnerability and emotionalism and passion and, yes, “weakness” that was Amy Jellicoe and found a way to make that seem like raw, beautiful strength.

But it’s wrong to hold up Breaking Bad as somehow outside of this trend. Yes, the show was about a man who almost always thwarted connection, but particularly in its most powerful episode, “Ozymandias,” it was a show about how throwing away those deeper lines running between him and his would-be loved ones exposed him and made him even more vulnerable than he might have been otherwise. The stronger Walter White became on a surface level, the weaker he became in terms of his health or his emotional life or his connections to others. He was a man who longed to be an island, then found that to be wanting. It was like the series had found its way back around to the flipside of that Sopranos coin after all. Amy Jellicoe’s weakness became strength, and Walter White’s strength became weakness, and it all made so much sense.

I don’t want to claim every worthwhile TV program of 2013 was somehow about vulnerability, about opening up to emotional connection at the cost of seeming super badass. Scandal, for one, is all about people who are destroyed by their emotional connections, and Boardwalk Empire keeps doing its unique, wonderful thing about men (but rarely women) who build themselves islands where they might be happiest. And it’s not as if television has never seen shows about these sorts of topics before. Like everything else, TV runs in cycles, and there will come a time when this cycle feels as old hat as the antihero one has started to seem right now.

Yet everywhere I looked on TV this year, people were reaching out for connection, for community. They were opening themselves up to looking sincere and earnest and humble, and they were hoping against hope they would find a friendly face smiling back at them when they did. I would never claim a little-watched program like Enlightened was somehow responsible for all of this—for one thing, the timeline doesn’t make sense—but it was the show that best encapsulated something that was bubbling in the zeitgeist. We went it alone for a good, long while. Now comes the part when we learn how to live together again.

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