Hello again, fellow toilers in the streaming caverns:
There are so many places I’d love to go on this, our last day. Do I talk about how I have hope for Amazon, for once, now that Roy Price has been ousted? Do I discuss how Netflix increasingly seems to have no idea how to make a compelling TV drama, but seems to have pretty much nailed the extremely specific “comedies that Todd likes” formula? Do I follow Willa’s lead and bash Game of Thrones Season 7 some more? Or do I touch on any number of the many good-to-great TV shows we simply haven’t talked about much, from Stranger Things to Better Things, from The Expanse to The Exorcist?
Nah. I’m gonna talk about the Hallmark Channel.
Early in 2017, especially when Duck Dynasty and Girls ended right around the same time (in strangely similar fashions), I made it my mission to watch more red-state TV, which is to say more shows that were aimed squarely at heartland conservatives, or just at white rural viewers. The easy answer to this has always been, “Just watch CBS,” but CBS’s shows are courting too wide of an audience for what I was after. I wanted the shows Fox News viewers watch when they don’t want to watch Fox News. And what I found, friends, was pretty patronizing hooey.
Some of this stuff isn’t bad. I’ll agree with June that Longmire has its charms (and an actual willingness to grapple with morality more complex than “good” and “bad”), and the year’s early suite of cable dramas seemingly aimed at traditionalist tastes, from History’s Six to WGN America’s Outsiders (and, hey, remember when WGN America programmed original series?), had some good episodes among them. But for the most part, these programs are all too happy to live inside a beautiful bubble where everything is just fine, and you don’t ever have to interrogate your moral values.
Of this sort of programming, I probably best liked many of the Hallmark movies I sat down with this year. If you watch too many of them in a row, you do find yourself starting to fall into the lull of their decidedly traditionalist vibe, but even the worst of them don’t attempt to proselytize. They take the wholesomeness of their snow-coated small towns for granted and assume that you, too, in the audience, wish that things could be this way. But they’re also inclusive cheese if you don’t particularly wish to live in a blindingly white snow paradise. You can enjoy them on the pure level of wanting to see a happy ending and a world where it wouldn’t occur to anybody to swear. It’s no wonder the network’s Christmas movies are such big business—they appear to have cracked the code on how to tell stories to red-state America without violently turning everybody else off. When Trump is long gone from office, Hallmark will still be making movies where career women give up their jobs for the right guy, and where it wouldn’t occur to anybody to say anything other than Merry Christmas, and I’ll find it hard to be too mad about it. There’s an audience for this stuff, and I’d rather they be watching it than most reality shows targeted at them, which balance a longing for white Christian America with a weirdly cruel, classist mockery of the very viewers presumed to be watching.
That’s also to say nothing of Fox News, which I spent a lot of time watching in 2017, and which I still get the shakes when I think about how I haven’t watched in a while. There’s something so potent, so certain about Fox News that I find it hard to let go of, even though I agree with almost nothing about it. There’s an allure to fundamentalism, to the certainty that you have all of the answers, and everybody on Fox News gives off that allure. I think most progressive-minded viewers wholeheartedly believe that Fox News is a web of lies, and they’re not wrong. But it’s also a fog with just enough truth in the haze that it’s easy to get lost in it, even when you know you’re lost in a fog. It wants you, above all else, to never question your own righteousness. Everything that’s wrong is somebody else’s problem. It’s seductive and bewitching, and easily the best-crafted of the 24-hour news networks. (Watching CNN is often like reopening a web browser with a lot of tabs open to YouTube and having them all start blaring at you at once. Watching Fox News is simple and easy to understand at every moment on a pure visual level.)
Thus, if we circle back to the discussion we had on Day One here, what worries me about the role of TV in the Trump administration isn’t that the president watches a lot of TV, or even reportedly that he called Rupert Murdoch to make sure Murdoch wasn’t selling Fox News to Disney. No, what worries me is that this hugely successful cable channel, with a largely captive audience, has created a self-sustaining TV bubble that you never have to leave. (Hell, the Hallmark Channel has, too.) Fox News exists to keep you watching Fox News, not to provide information. And while that’s largely been true of TV news forever, it feels particularly destructive when a major news channel is peddling a bunch of smaller lies, yes, but also one really big one: You’ve never done anything wrong. Now that Rupert seems like he’s entering the Fox News business full-time, I’m more worried than ever, and I think progressive-leaning folks across the lefty spectrum don’t quite understand the real problem with Fox News.
So I keep thinking about the shows that do want to engage with the thorny morality of being alive right now, in ways that seem designed to draw in more viewers than my most beloved, little-watched cable dramas. The Good Place is a minor hit in the broadcast network world, but that still makes it a pretty big one in the full scope of TV as a whole, and there was a time when it felt like literally everybody I knew was watching Season 1 on Netflix. I’m so grateful that we have a show dedicated to parsing out thorny moral problems and ethical dilemmas, that also doesn’t forget to be a roaringly funny comedy. Its big twists remind me of The Great Divorce, by Christian apologetic C.S. Lewis, who suggested that the difference between heaven and hell might just be a state of mind.
Or maybe there’s Better Call Saul, which is better-watched than a lot of other cable dramas thanks to its Breaking Bad connection, and which seems earnestly interested in really deconstructing the antihero myths its parent show so built up. Or what about Mom, which Tara so beautifully encapsulated a few days ago? Or the always raucous, always-engaging The Carmichael Show, which we sadly lost this year? (All hail the multicamera sitcom!) Or even good old This Is Us, which wants to remind all of us that we are, after all, human beings with a great deal of emotional geography in common? It’s never been my cup of tea—I once described it as the American Horror Story of feeling stuff—but I like that it seems to be working, that its open-hearted, inclusive soul has won a mass audience from all over.
Or, hey, there’s maybe even Stranger Things, which is all about the power of friendship, and long-running Grey’s Anatomy, which remains one of TV’s best and most inclusive workplace dramas, and stodgy old NCIS, which loves its characters too much for me to ever really give up on it, or Superstore, which every week takes on an America too rarely depicted on-screen and doesn’t give in to preachiness. 2017 was a dark year, onscreen and off. But as I look around, I try to stay hopeful both about the good things we already have and the good things that might be coming, a hope that will surely be quickly dashed by the new season of The X-Files (can’t wait).
See you all then.