Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We asked this week’s question of our TV Club writers:
Screw your own resolutions for what to watch this year; what programs do you wish others would start watching this year?
One of my favorite things about 2013 was all of the series that came to the U.S. from overseas and got people talking. (I didn’t even get a chance to get to one of the most acclaimed, Hulu’s Prisoners Of War.) Everything from Spiral to Borgen to Black Mirror made its way to American shores in 2013 (or greatly expanded its prior presence here), and that can only be a good thing. For most of its existence, American TV has been almost exclusively an exporter and not an importer. Now that’s changing, because so many of the places that need to program content just don’t have the time or money to produce everything they need to fill their airwaves. So my resolution for all of you would be to seek out an interesting-sounding show from another country and watch the shit out of it. You get extra points if it’s not in English. This is one branch of the exciting future of TV in the U.S., and I’d love to see companies that import interesting stuff be rewarded for doing so.
For the love of all that is seriously funny if you just give it a chance: Don’t run screaming from studio-audience laughter. Yes, many of the worst, cheesiest TV comedies ever made were filmed live in front of an overly appreciative audience. But performing, writing, and directing well in that format is some of the toughest work in television—which is why so many contemporary multi-cams don’t reach the heights of Seinfeld, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Taxi, WKRP In Cincinnati, All In The Family, Good Times, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Honeymooners, or I Love Lucy… See, you love all of those shows, and they made space for the chuckles of invisible strangers without cheapening the integrity of their comedy. It’s not a sign of a show trying to force its audience to laugh, and it’s not necessarily a laugh track—though the “sweetening” process never hurt Get Smart none.
I think we all need to start watching Reign. I don’t even really know why. But I watched it all in one go last month, and it was confusingly addictive. There have been very few critically acclaimed shows that disappoint me—I’m thrilled to see Mad Men coming back this spring and I loved Top Of The Lake, which I only just got around to—but this year, now that I have cable, I’ve been watching so much glorious nonsense: new episodes of Property Brothers, reruns of Miami Ink, marathons of Law And Order: SVU. And Reign, naturally. There’s always more prestige television to watch, always another new thing to check out. And you should do all that stuff. But also, remember to have fun. You can’t get to all of it. To my fellow critics, I’d say: Remember to watch stuff you don’t have to write about. And to everyone else: Watch what you like. Follow your televisual bliss, because we do live in an era of better TV than ever—some great, some terrible, but all of it fascinating.
At first glance, he may seem like just another white male talk-show host, but Craig Ferguson’s The Late Late Show is secretly the most punk-rock program on TV. For proof, look no further than his satirical robot skeleton sidekick (voiced by talented voice actor Josh Robert Thompson), his musical ode to Doctor Who, and the fact that he forgoes staged conversations and actually talks to his guests. Ferguson brings an intelligent, humanistic voice to late night—he won a Peabody in 2009 for his conversation about apartheid with Desmond Tutu. Plus he’s the only host who can keep up with the manic energy of guests like Russell Brand (by asking him whether he’s a Jungian or a Freudian). Ferguson prefers innovation and experimentation to well-worn shtick—which is precisely the reason it’s worth staying up to watch him subtly rebel against the late-night format.
There was a lot of misery on television last year, and I won’t lie: I loved a lot of it. But after a certain point, wallowing in the grimy ugliness of humanity—and our endless potential for disappointment and despair—gets old. It’s always easier to watch a show about someone who does bad things, because the lack of morality doesn’t force us to question our choices. “I’m not going to cook meth,” we say smugly, “so I don’t have to worry.” Shows like Enlightened, however (and even something more traditional, like Elementary or Person Of Interest), put me in the awkward spot of having to wonder if I’m as good as I could be, and whether I’m quite as firmly ensconced on my marble pedestal as I would like. So my resolution would be to seek out shows about people trying, and occasionally succeeding, to do good. Which sounds terribly dull and vitamin-like, but I think it’s important to experience art that increases our empathy alongside all that stuff with gunshots. Now if only we can convince TV execs to stop canceling them.
Not that anyone is looking for a new full-on television addiction, but if they were, I would lead them over to the many delights of HGTV. I love how it goes past elements like housing prices and design elements and spatial relations to the psychology of home, and security, and our most basic needs as humans. House Hunters is enjoyable for just yelling at the TV (“Who cares if you don’t like the wallpaper or the light fixtures, stupid! You can change those!”), but the show I really can’t get enough of is Love It Or List It. A family dissatisfied with their house enlists Hilary Farr to renovate it, and David Visentin to find them a new one, and at the end of the episode, they decide whether to go with the new house or stick with their old one, offering a fascinating combination of renovation and real estate. (Property Brothers features a similar pairing, wherein one brother finds the house for the other brother to redo.) What’s most startling about Love It is that even if David finds the family a perfect new house, they nearly always stay with their original one, tapping into all the sentimental attachment we have for the place we call home.
I can’t see this actually being effective, because execs in all corners of the entertainment field put moneymaking potential first, and seem to be extremely shortsighted about what people actually want. So when I say I’d like everyone to watch American TV series with planned, self-contained dramatic arcs, it’s less because I think it’ll affect the industry meaningfully, and more because I want more people to learn how satisfying it is to not be strung along for years without meaningful progression or action on dangling plot threads. (Cough cough, Lost and Burn Notice—and just American series television in general.) Oh, how I’d love to see American TV act more like the Japanese or British model, with each season of a show telling a single planned story rather than being a constant string of teases and setups. It can be done without sacrificing tension, by building characters people want to see more of, like The Wire. Or answering the big “Why?” and “How?” questions early and then getting the tension from an imaginative, flexible scenario instead of meaningless teases, like The 4400. Or creating a tone and aesthetic and luring people back to see what’s next, like American Horror Story. Or just telling one story at a time, like 24. There are plenty of successful examples of self-contained arcs in American TV, but they still aren’t the norm. Maybe if people entirely give up on “how long can we string this out without answering any questions” series, though, it’d become less of an anomaly.
I think people—myself included—should resolve to sit down and watch a television show made for children that hasn’t become cool for adults to watch. As much as shows like Adventure Time or Gravity Falls have enabled us to turn our critical lens on programming intended for younger audiences, I always find it incredibly instructive to watch something that hasn’t been given such rarified status by the cultural elite (or even just adults). As Netflix and Amazon move into original children’s programming, what do those shows look like? What stories are they telling? Which animal will start a podcast in the backdoor pilot for the inevitable and much-anticipated Dog With A Blog spin-off? My entrees into contemporary children’s programming have most often been prompted by cultural conversations (see: Bronies), but I’ve also enjoyed just turning on the Disney Channel and allowing simple curiosity to drive my consumption. It may not turn into a weekly commitment, but it’s a window into another generation’s perception of what television is, perspective I feel has value to anyone who cares about the medium’s future.
The 60 Minutes Benghazi-report debacle was a depressing reminder of what a rarity good, honest TV journalism has become. But at a time when both scripted shows and “reality” entertainment are becoming increasingly unreal, it seems more important than ever to make time for those who are upholding the mission to use TV to make sense of the world we live in and to bring distant and disparate quarters of it closer to us. Last year, the most dependable high-profile shows of this kind could be seen on PBS’ Frontline and the various documentary anthologies on HBO, and that hasn't changed. But as more and more well-respected TV pundits and anchorpeople just implode, I’ve become increasingly grateful for that select group of TV hosts who seem to have their heads screwed on straight and who can be counted on to go interesting places and ask the right questions about them, such as Lisa Ling and Anthony Bourdain. Unlike the Megyn Kellys and Lara Logans of the world, they’re likely to find themselves restricted to off-center little corners of the cable universe: Ling does her too-infrequent but usually invigorating reports for Oprah Winfrey’s network, and Bourdain recently took his show from the Travel Channel to the smoking wreckage of CNN. But they’re worth digging around for.
Zack’s made the argument for shows that have some inherent good in them, but I’m going to pivot through the alignment spectrum and take a more chaotic perspective: Look for the most ridiculous TV you can find. I’m not talking about reality shows about ridiculous people; I’m talking about shows where just describing the premise makes you shake your head, of which there were so many last year: A doctor has a split personality that takes over every 12 hours, 12 clocks hold the secret to the apocalypse, a CW show inspires a deranged cult, a tornado of sharks tears about Los Angeles. They’re ridiculous ideas, but the fact remains that they’re ideas very few people would think of, and the fact that they’re getting made implies people are still willing to take chances. I think chances like this need to be rewarded at every turn, because the alternative is that networks stick with bland offerings that are an easy sell—cop dramas with a twist, male antihero dramas. If you see a show and your first reaction is “That sounds insane,” watch it anyway. Sure, a lot of these shows may be terrible, but every so often, being ridiculous pays off. Who would have thought one of the fall’s best new shows would be about a time-traveling Ichabod Crane battling the Headless Horseman?
Many of my favorite TV shows are speculative fiction, a genre that, with one exception, tends to feature slow starts. So I consistently have an issue where I might say that an Angel or a Babylon 5 is one of my favorite shows and recommend it to people with the caveat that the first season is pretty iffy, then I hear the words that drive me crazy: “Oh, I’m a completist; I’ll watch it all.” And then, almost inevitably, a few weeks later it’ll become clear that they’ve watched a few poor first-season episodes in a row, gotten bored, and moved on. Yet through the vast majority of television history, there were no completists. Almost every show was designed so that you could drop in at any point, skip whatever seemed boring, and still get to the good stuff. The idea of being a completist only really works for the most prestigious cable dramas that are great from the pilot. While I love my fair share of those prestige dramas, they’re not, nor should they be, considered the default mode of television viewing. There are too many slow-starting science-fiction shows, comedies, and even a few dramas to get hung up on needing to see every episode in chronological order. Stop being a “completist” if it means you’re ignoring great TV. And this goes for myself as well, stalled as I am halfway through the first season of 30 Rock.
Orange Is The New Black gave us many things this year, and I’m hoping one of them was a better understanding that fantastic TV doesn’t actually have to air on TV. While I think OITNB is the strongest TV-not-on-TV, there are so many overlooked Internet-centric projects going on, especially in comedy. If Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Reggie Watts, and Tim and Eric ganged up together for a television project, people would tune in (or at least talk about it), but their online video channel, JASH, hasn’t received much attention. Comedians have been using the Internet as a tool to break through for a decent chunk of time now—those early Lonely Island videos are from 2005!—but many people wait until comedians show up on a network show or cable special to really get into them. My resolution as a comedy fan: Make an effort to seek out interesting online comedy projects (webseries, sketches, music videos, whatever) from emerging talent. Yes, it is a dick move to say, “I’ve liked him since his INTERNET VIDEOS,” but it’s still a very satisfying thought to think, and it’s a thought you can only think if you do some digging and check out new voices.
Mine piggybacks off Erik’s, in the sense that his reference to classic TV shows is what caused it occur to me, but it’s one I feel strongly about: Check out some TV series that debuted before you were born. Yes, some programs obviously age far worse than others, but if you frequent this site at all, then you’ve clearly got an appreciation for pop culture, so why not broaden your horizons and educate yourself a bit? I’ve mentioned in past AVQ&As about how, when I was a kid, I devoured whatever trivia books I could find, and the result was that I learned about thousands of TV series from the 1950s and 1960s, many of which were so short-lived that they never made it to syndication. Over the years, however, many of them have made their way to DVD, and I’ve sought them out to see what they were really like. Some were as good as promised (The Phil Silvers Show), others were fun in a kitschy sort of way (Honey West), and, yes, some of them were pretty “meh” (The Mothers-In-Law), but even when they were just the worst, I still walked away having furthered my pop-culture education… and if you take this shit as seriously as I do, I feel like that’s walking away with a win. Hopefully you’ll feel the same way.
As a lifelong sketch-comedy nerd, I advise everyone to take advantage of the infiltration of alt-comic sketch shows onto the airwaves. No longer bound to the lumbering, middlebrow behemoth that is SNL, sketch aficionados have a near-embarrassment of bold, idiosyncratic comic voices to choose from. Thanks to places like the Comedy Channel and IFC, people like Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer), Nick Kroll (Kroll Show), The Birthday Boys, Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Scott Aukerman, and especially the peerless Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key (Key And Peele) are opening up the genre to new, adventurous conceptual material (and don’t have to hold remedial, PR-driven casting to get it). Sketch comedy thrives in the absence of formula and restriction, and sketch nerds like us can revel in the variety 2014 offers.
One of the best things streaming TV services have done is to flood its libraries with foreign television, bringing it within easy reach. And one of the best things Sundance did this year was to make French miniseries The Returned a prime-time event, which stood alongside import Borgen to suggest increasingly mainstream cultural space for non-English-language TV. And one of the best things FX did this year was to remake The Bridge, reminding us that the original is probably better. The binge-friendly setup of streaming TV makes it easy to leap whole seasons in a single bound, and there’s a lot out there worth watching. This year, embrace the subtitles, and watch a show that’s not in English. If you’re wary, I promise that doesn’t mean dooming yourself to stoic prestige TV; if you’re not in the mood for intense French political procedural Spiral or the Swedish Sleepy Hollow-for-serious-people potboiler Anno 1790, there’s a K-drama just waiting to suck you in with impossible plot twists and vampire prosecutors. The world’s getting smaller; take advantage.
Riffing on Rowan’s answer a bit, I’d ask people to watch shows on the bubble. Whenever I tell a friend to watch a low-rated show in its first season (say, Hannibal), they always respond, “But it’s just going to get canceled!” Well, not if people watch it! I understand the desire to avoid being hurt by cancellations (still getting over Awake), but if you choose not to watch shows you would otherwise enjoy or even love because they’ll get canceled, you’re denying yourself a potentially great viewing experience and making sure you do nothing to spread the word—something that might actually save the show. When everyone catches up five years later on Netflix and asks why more people didn’t watch a Terriers or a Last Resort when it was on the air, it’s at least in part because of this sort of TV defeatism.