Insecure, She’s Gotta Have It, and Dear White People.

The TV Club, 2017

Three Shows About Black Artists, by Black Artists

The TV Club, 2017

Three Shows About Black Artists, by Black Artists
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Talking television.
Dec. 20 2017 9:30 AM

The TV Club, 2017

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Insecure, She’s Gotta Have It, and Dear White People.

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Logan Browning as Samantha White in Dear White People.

Netflix

Friendos,

We’re halfway through, and I’m just going to start cherry-picking the stuff that I loved. First up: a booming endorsement of Jill Soloway’s underappreciated I Love Dick, adapted from Chris Kraus’ nearly unadaptable novel of the same name. A funny thing about Soloway’s Transparent is that people who dig it and people who despise it usually agree on what the show is about:  a clan of wildly narcissistic Los Angelenos. It’s one’s patience for and fascination with this unruly, self-obsessed crew that separates the lovers from the haters. But when it comes to cringey misbehavior, solipsistic worldviews and wanton emotional destruction Chris (national treasure Kathryn Hahn) has the Pfeffermans pretty well beat.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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I Love Dick follows failed filmmaker and total handful Chris as she tags along with her academic husband, Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), to the moonscape Petri dish that is Marfa, Texas. There she becomes obsessed, sexually and artistically, with the big-time artist Dick (Kevin Bacon), a dick whose misogynist negging inspires Chris to become the raging feminist art monster she’s always wanted to be. Some critics thought the show sunk under the weight of its own feminist, topple-the-patriarchy ambitions, but to me, the whole thing felt gnarly and alive. It’s animated by an unhinged, pervy sexual energy and a feminism that is both right-on and completely destructive. Chris’ manic pursuit of total solipsism, in which her desire and her art are the only things that matter, is a kind of tit-for-tat triumph that makes her as self-realized as any man—but also just as shitty. (Well, nearly: The last plot twist, which is the most thematically satisfying use of menstruation I have ever seen, really does make Dick the dick.)

Women should get to be art monsters too, but I Love Dick doesn’t soft-pedal the monster part, even if it does make it a little aspirational. With this show, Soloway has pulled off the magic trick of making art about art: The group dance performance in the final episode knocked me out. For a while, every time I sent an email, I heard Hahn’s Kraus say, “every letter is a love letter,” which really makes a person think too much about hitting send on “sounds great!” As I said in my top 10 list, I Love Dick is not for everyone, but it is the kind of show that, if it is for you, will really be for you.

Oh, you know another thing that is amazing about I Love Dick? It’s 30 minutes long! Reviewing some show this year, lost to the sands of 2017, I described half-hour series as my personal kink and I stand by this statement: go brief or go home. Three half-hour shows that ably demonstrated that length is not a measure of ambition this year: Insecure, She’s Gotta Have It, and Dear White People.  These are all shows about black artists made by black artists, and I do not mean to shortchange them or prospective viewers by lumping them together. If you like great TV that is as smart as it is fun, watch all three. They are delightful and heady, tackling the biggest themes—race, class, gender, sex, self-determination, passion—with great buoyancy.

Not for nothing, these shows are all deeply romantic. Insecure, created by and starring Issa Rae, found Issa navigating love, class, race, ill-placed jizz, and the bittersweet collapse of her relationship with Lawrence (Jay Ellis). In Spike Lee’s TV version of She’s Gotta Have It, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) takes her art even more seriously than the three men, and one woman, in her loving bed. The show is full of sex and flirty banter, but it’s Nola’s burgeoning relationship to herself and her work that’s the dynamic to root for. Justin Simien’s Dear White People, set on the campus of an Ivy League institution, has a larger cast than the other shows, and it uses it to look at the experience of being a person of color at a largely white institution from many angles—while never ceasing to be a delectable college show, with all the learning and loving and making up and breaking up that entails.

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All three of these shows are attentive to class—to the gentrification of Inglewood and Fort Greene, the cost of higher education, and the varied financial circumstances of their characters—and to police violence. All three have restrained sequences that deal directly with the threat law enforcement poses to black people. Lawrence gets pulled over by a cop, who callously behaves like it’s no big deal; Nola gets arrested protecting someone else from a privileged gentrifier; and most harrowingly, in Dear White People, campus security pulls a gun on a black student at a party. These scenes are all the more nauseating for their refusal to turn such encounters into bloodletting entertainment—the near misses are dreadful enough.

Changing the subject inelegantly, I am going to take up my own prompt to talk about acting. First, and not mentioned in my rant on I Love Dick, is Roberta Colindrez, who played the lesbian artist Devon, a character created for the show, who had even more sexy cowboy energy than Kevin Bacon and I hope works a ton in 2018. I also want to shout out Jimmy Tatro, who played goofus of the year Dylan Maxwell in unexpected hit American Vandal. The mockumentary riff on Serial and other true-crime documentaries sounded like the apex of peak TV, an SNL sketch stretched to eight episodes. That it turned out to be a high school drama, more akin to Netflix’s smash 13 Reasons Why than it sounded, may explain some of its popularity, but damn if that show didn’t have the courage of its genre convictions. It also had Tatro, whose dim but falsely accused Dylan was both hilarious and heartbreaking. Tatro has the look of a bully but the transparency of a victim, and he gave an utterly believable comedic and dramatic performance. He, more than anyone, is the reason that show worked: Let’s draw some dicks in his honor.

OK, let’s start filling in the holes: What or whom haven’t we talked about that we really, really should have? Can anyone step into the moral mess that is 13 Reasons Why? Should we talk about The Handmaid’s Tale itself, instead of as a piece of symbolism? I’m not going to burden anyone with writing about late-night TV or Megyn Kelly, but those things did happen this year. So, as ever, did reality TV.

Keep climbing,

Willa