Hello, Willa, Todd, and Tara,
The launch of the fall season used to be my favorite time of the TV year; now TV Club is definitely the highlight, and not just because the networks are serving up such duds. This is the first year I can remember failing to connect with a single new network show. Heck, I couldn’t even force myself to finish several of the pilots, including The Good Doctor, which I liked better when it was Sherlock, Royal Pains, The Big Bang Theory, and Doogie Howser, M.D.—none of which ever felt the need to pretend to kill a pet rabbit just to show what a jerk a future surgeon’s dad was.
I don’t think our TV-addicted president has changed my viewing habits in a fundamental way. I haven’t started watching Saturday Night Live or the late-night shows—I mean, I catch the viral highlights, but that’s like saying that reciting “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” counts as memorizing A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t watch Fox News or the Today show or any of the 24-hour all-Trump networks. But I will concede that my viewing habits have been subtly affected by our having a peevish, unpredictable boor in the White House, if only because I find myself more drawn than ever before to shows centered on dedicated, spotlight-avoiding, doers of duty.
Even for a committed republican like me, The Crown is both a satisfying, if slow-moving, soap opera and a rather stirring example of someone doing a job they don’t want and shouldn’t exist with remarkable devotion and self-sacrifice. The queen isn’t a natural speech-maker, but she manages to stay on script and avoid riling unstable nuclear-armed dictators with playground-bully asides. She’s an adult who tries to bring comfort and reassurance rather than upset people by giving them childish nicknames. (Am I the only one who thinks it would be tremendous fun to be a Margaret but has to admit that she’s an Elizabeth?)
Madam Secretary is also about a smart, creative, sober (in the sense that Trump isn’t, not in the one that he is) secretary of state, who is just as much of a team player in her loving home as she is in Cabinet. Back when Madam Secretary was first announced, some people complained that it would be a weekly campaign ad for a certain female secretary of state–turned–presidential candidate. When it became clear that the show was entirely unrealistic, that concern was quickly dismissed, but now every episode serves to remind us of the kind of administration we don’t have.
NCIS is a mess these days—it feels like the team changes every week and the storylines are a bipolar mixture of warm family treacle and random acts of evil; Gibbs was waterboarded in the season premiere—but it’s still doing boffo ratings in its 15th season. I’m guessing NCIS’s prolonged success is the real reason we suddenly have a slew of shows about diverse, mixed-gender teams of brave badasses (all led by fair and fun-loving handsome white men) who fly around the world and face mortal danger to rescue Americans and kill bad guys. Still, I can’t help but contrast the focus, skill, and sacrifices of the teams in shows like NBC’s The Brave and CBS’s SEAL Team with the seat-of-the-pants jackassery that’s served up daily on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our government’s a mess, but our special forces still kick butt. (The action on The Brave, as in Fox’s short-lived APB, largely consists of one set of people doing insanely difficult tasks in a dangerous location while another set watches them doing so on big screens in a high-tech office. American television never shows regular people watching television—but it’s happy to portray politicians, spies, and tech bros glued to images served up by drones and satellites.)
Another way Trump has messed with my viewing habits is the disastrous effect he’s had on my short-term memory. To repeat our era’s constant refrain, there’s so much news these days. My mental VHS tape fills up every couple of weeks, and I have to wipe it, just like I used to have to make room for more episodes of New York Undercover. Just as I was about to finalize my Top 10 list, I realized it contained four shows that had been released in the last month or so, so I made a last-minute tweak to address my recency bias. (Sorry, Mrs. Maisel, you really are marvelous, but we hardly know each other.) Of course, that’s Netflix’s fault even more than Trump’s. Now that it’s more common to consume entire seasons of television in a weekend, rather than on a weekly drip, it’s much easier to forget shows, even if they sparked 48 hours of delight months ago. (Todd, I also started watching a ton of YouTube this year—though my tastes turn more to gentle, genteel card-making and urban sketching videos.)
Delight and an element of surprise were the criteria I used to select my Top 10 (which could certainly have been 20 shows, though even then I doubt I could’ve gotten more than two or three network joints on my list).
- Claws (TNT)
- Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
- The Americans (FX)
- Line of Duty (Hulu)
- She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix)
- The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
- The Deuce (HBO)
- Longmire (Netflix)
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Willa, you often say that sociology is the least interesting way to critique television (or any art form). I agree, and although several of my picks focus on issues—or take them seriously, at any rate—that’s not why I chose them. I just adored Claws from the moment I saw its main characters—who are bigger, more female, more colorful, more of color, and much poorer than anyone else on television—strut around their nail salon with a confidence they might not be able to pull off elsewhere. Someone I discussed the show with compared it, unfavorably, to Breaking Bad, in large part because Dean Norris is in the cast. I loved Breaking Bad, but I like Claws more. Unlike Walter White, who’s privileged enough to be clueless about how the world works at the beginning of Breaking Bad, Desna and her crew (another tight team who have one another’s backs) are all too familiar with the myriad ways the deck is stacked against them. How could they not be? Desna, Jennifer, Virginia, Quiet Ann, and Polly have all dealt with big problems—abusive foster parents, drug addiction, compelled sex work, racism, homophobia, a mind more creative than someone of their station in life is permitted to possess—and while they might not have triumphed, yet, they’re all fighting like hell to at least hold on to the gains they’ve made. And what a collection of fantastic actors, led by the amazing Niecy Nash. The show is far from perfect—it’s marred by every scene involving a man—but it’s fun and thrilling and full of surprises.
Surprises are what earned Line of Duty—a British police procedural that airs on Hulu here in the States—its place on my list. It’s the one show that I remember staying up late for this year. Even in the streaming age, when you can watch anywhere at any time, I could not go to bed without finding out what happened next. It shares another trait I love, which I’ll talk about tomorrow, but I’m mentioning Line of Duty now because it had the most bonkers, yet totally earned, plot twist that I can remember in decades of TV watching. It’s so shocking, in fact, that I’m going to be annoyingly coy about it so that others can scream at the television (or for you youngs, the computer screen) when it plays out.
And a beautifully sprung surprise is why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is in my No. 10-10. I have loved the show’s goofy, loving humanity from the start, but when Jake surprised Amy (and me!) with a marriage proposal at the end of what had thus far been an amusing but routine Halloween episode, I had to say yes. And as jarring it surely is to juxtapose a marriage proposal on a lighter-than-air sitcom and a revelation of female genital mutilation on a heavy as hell dystopian drama, that Alexis Bledel scene at the end of Episode 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale was another moment I won’t quickly forget.
This missive is exceeding its ideal length more egregiously than an FX drama toward the end of its season, so I’ll pause for now, but tomorrow … Silicon Valley in the ’90s, Moscow on the Gowanus, and black Brooklyn.