As we look back at the year that was, it feels like there was little that politics didn’t touch. Even the avenues we used to look to as escapes, like entertainment television, couldn’t distract from all the news constantly happening around us. In a long year when there were more than 400 scripted shows that premiered, it seemed like Game of Thrones was the only one that made for appointment television.
But of course, there was still a lot of TV to consume this year. In this S+ Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Chau Tu talks with Slate TV critic Willa Paskin about her favorites, how she prioritizes the shows she watches, “recapping” the Trump presidency, and the sexual misconduct allegations in Hollywood.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: You just published your top 10 list of TV shows in 2017. Tell us about some of your picks and what impressed you about them.
Willa Paskin: I think we might talk about this a little more, but this is a weird year for TV insofar as it was a weird year for all of the arts, I think, because politics and the real world big-footed them pretty hard, but there was a lot of things to like. There was a lot of TV this year, as there has been for the last few years.
My No. 1 show was The Leftovers, which is Damon Lindelof’s kind of gonzo series about grief that started out extremely sad. I found it very difficult to watch, but as it moved further away from its source material—which is this book by Tom Perrotta of the same name—it got wilder and weirder, and by the last season, parts of which were in Australia, and parts of which were in Texas, and parts of which were in limbo, it was just really amazing. Every time I turned it on, I thought, “Wow. Why doesn’t everyone make TV like this? You could just do anything you want really.” I thought that was really great, and really moving, and wise, and also just wild, so I recommend that show a lot.
Then my No. 2 show—because nobody cared about it—is a show called I Love Dick by Jill Soloway, who makes Transparent. It’s based on this cult novel by Chris Kraus about, like, an epistolary novel, a character named Chris Kraus who is a sort of failed filmmaker who becomes obsessed with—it’s an academic in the book and an artist in the TV show—and kind of reignites her marriage based around this obsession, and then starts to do a lot of really inappropriate things, and starts to make better art and come into her feminism while also being kind of a monstrous, unbearable person. The show is amazing. I thought it was about someone who’s really, really unbearable, so it will never be for everyone, but I thought it knew that, and it did really cool interesting things, and it expanded the scope of the book to include other characters in interesting ways. It was kind of pervy, and kind of heady, and smart, and awful, and it’s really interesting. I said this in my top 10 list—and then we’re doing a TV Club, like a roundtable conversation with other critics—it is definitely not for everybody, just like how Transparent is not for everyone, but even more so, but if it is for you, it really, really might be for you, like you might really love it.
Were there any big surprises or any big letdowns from the year?
I mean, this year is truly, it’s very much a blur. I think 2017 was very long. I think we experienced it in dog years. I definitely heard someone else say that. I stole it from them, and it’s true. It just went on forever. January feels a billion years ago. As I was making my top 10 list I kept being like, “The Young Pope aired this year? Catastrophe aired this year? Like that can’t possibly be true.”
And there is I think so much at this point that no one is paying attention to everything. I mean not, obviously that’s true, but there’s not even like a couple shows that we’re all paying attention to except for Game of Thrones, so in that sense it’s hard for things to be quite surprising in the same way, because we aren’t all discovering them together.
I did not watch Twin Peaks this year, because I was on maternity leave when it aired, and then I could never convince myself to sit through it, which was definitely a mistake, and definitely makes me a philistine. People loved it, and, I think, were really surprised by it, and that’s what they loved about it was that it—just, it was not like anything else. David Lynch just did what he wanted to do and people liked that. But I did not have that experience, because I did not watch it.
That actually segues into my next question: There are just so many shows out there—you said that there were like 400-plus scripted shows that premiered just this year. So especially as a TV critic, how do you prioritize? Do you listen to word of mouth? I mean, there’s obviously stuff that you have to review and everything like that.
Well, yeah. I mean, I listen to word of mouth so much. I think word of mouth in a way is the most important thing at this point. It’s not that it’s difficult, it’s just sort of confusing. Like, there was a window a couple years ago, and it’s really amazing ’cause it really only was a couple years ago where it still sort of felt like there was some onus on us to review everything or most things, which is sort of like that had been true for many, many years. So, you sort of knew it wasn’t possible anymore, but you kind of felt guilty that you hadn’t seen all the network shows or something.
We’re way past that now. It’s only a few years ago, but it’s way in the rearview mirror. Everybody knows that that is completely impossible, so it becomes a matter of picking through everything else to find the stuff that you think is really good, the stuff that people are talking about, and then also the stuff that just feels like it’s somehow important enough that people will be interested in it even if maybe they’re not eager to watch it necessarily. It’s just sort of a weird algebra of those things, like you want to champion stuff that people might not find. You want to talk about stuff that people are interested in that’s good or bad, because that’s what people are really reading about, stuff that they are familiar with. Then there are just some things by people that are famous enough, or networks, or that are about something that’s interesting enough that it’s worth, you know, that still sort of feel “event-y.” Event-y—that’s a very official word for what I do, how I figure it out. [Laughs.]
But, yeah, I would say there’s a couple things that always very obvious you should review, and then there’s like an increasing sort of gray area where it’s sort of depends on if you want to, if you feel like you have something to say about. I think in that gray area often we skip—we meaning “critics”—skip things that we think are bad, because there’s so much why would you review something bad that most people will never even know exists.
Do you have any like guilty pleasure shows in that way?
I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. So, like I said, I was on maternity leave, so I got to watch a lot of stuff and didn’t have to write about them, and that sometimes does make shows more fun, because you’re just sort of watching them like a civilian and I’m thinking about them, but I don’t have to write about them, and I don’t have to explain what works or doesn’t work, so sometimes they’re just more pleasurable.
So like, a show that I think is not good at all, but I definitely watched all of is the show Friends From College on Netflix. I wouldn’t describe it as a guilty pleasure. I don’t feel bad about it, but I definitely do not think it’s good, but I also definitely wanted to watch it. It’s like a middling comedy about thirtysomethings. It has a pretty solid cast who are not all well-used, and it was just very sticky. Something about it was very sticky, even though it was not good.
A show that I think is kind of good, but that I don’t think it’s good in necessarily an interesting or unique way, but I find it very cozy, is the show Grantchester, which is a period PBS show about a vicar—a very handsome, young, cool vicar in like 1950s England who’s in love with a divorcee who solves crime. It’s really, truly lovely, and delightful, and it’s like a procedural, but you will understand it immediately if you turn it on if that’s your kind of thing. It’s very well-done.
What are your thoughts about binge watching? I mean, I guess critics have always kind of been binge watching, but do you think it helps some shows? Do you think it hurts some other shows?
Binge watching is just how we’re all going to watch TV forever now, and also there’s different sizes of the binge, right? Sometimes you want to watch three episodes of something, or if it’s a half an hour you can watch four. I don’t think most adults who have jobs and responsibilities always get to just use their whole Saturday watching a TV show—although, I suppose I did do that when I was in my 20s.
I think that there is something where it basically makes the actual experience more fun, although there is always that tipping point where suddenly it becomes disgusting and you feel awful, and you can’t believe you’ve been on your couch all day, and you need to shower, and you need to eat something, and it’s rough.
But, it’s basically fun, and then how quickly you forget it. Like, you do forget it really, really, really quickly when you’re watching that way, and I do think that just having to even just remind yourself what was happening in a show every week is like oh, that’s how memory works. If anything, you restore it, so those things, they do just feel fleeting.
I watch Netflix screeners all really fast, like I watched all of Mindhunter, I watched all of Stranger Things and I enjoyed those seasons basically, but they don’t stay. It makes it harder for something to stay with you, because there’s just so much, and I think it’s almost like it writes over your impressions of the first episode, and then the second episode, and the third episode, so by the end you just sort of remember the end, and the details are just gone.
But a lot of TV we watch in that sort of passive “it’s on” way, and so it’s not like all TV was something we were all paying all so much attention to every minute of before. But I don’t know that binging helps up pay attention.
How long do you think you give a show before you kind of give up on it?
This is a thing where I don’t have a normal relationship to television, so on the one hand, I’ve given up on everything because I have no time. So there’s lots of shows I like that if I were not watching TV for work, I would like to keep up on in a weekly basis. I would watch Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or, who even knows what I would watch. Lots of stuff, but I can’t so I haven’t seen those entire seasons of those shows at all this year, not for one second.
Better Things is a great example. I loved Better Things. Better Things is a FX show about a single mom starring Pamela Adlon that I thought was wonderful. They sent out the first seven episodes, and I gobbled them up, and thought it was great, and wrote a review of about it, and then they sent the last three episodes, but I had already written about it. I knew I really liked it, and I haven’t gotten to them.
I don’t keep up, basically. I watch things before they’re out, and then there’s very few shows—Game of Thrones is a good example—where you do feel like you have to watch every week, and so then you do. But usually I just gobble a whole bunch, and I will try to watch as much of them as is sent to me, even if that’s all 10, which maybe actually is kind of crazy and not necessarily the best use of my time and might actually really skew my reviewing in favor of the streaming services, but you know, that’s what it is. I’ve been thinking about maybe there’s a better way to do it, but I’m not sure what it is yet.
A lot more people are watching a lot more TV on the streaming services as opposed to the traditional TV networks, I feel. What are your thoughts about that? Do you feel like there’s better TV on certain channels, or networks, or streaming?
I think basically the scent in the air about what places make good TV is mostly right. I think the terrestrial channels, the networks that are ambitious, are probably still making better TV show-for-show than any of the streaming services. I think like HBO and FX are still show-for-show probably better than like Netflix, or Hulu, or Amazon—although all of those places have good shows, and good shows are popping up on lots of other networks.
But the thing is, at this point, Netflix has so much more stuff that it’s like it has a much lower average, but it has maybe more stuff you’re interested in. Netflix at this point, it’s very clear that its goal is just to be one of the big networks—or in a way, to be all of the big networks, to be like ABC, CBS, NBC all at once where it’s like you don’t ever have to leave there, right? You don’t need any other TV. They have everything, which means they have some good stuff, they have some bad stuff, some medium stuff. They have every different kind of stuff. You’re just in that ecosystem and you don’t have to go. It’s just like volume, volume, volume. So some of those shows end up being good, but a lot of them are not that good, but it sort of doesn’t matter because there’s always something else to watch, if that makes sense.
I think Hulu has, of the streaming services—I mean The Handmaid’s Tale had a good year, basically, and they had some other good stuff, although I would have to actually look at what that was to remember in this moment to what shows those were.
Overall, how do you think you would describe 2017 in TV?
Todd VanDerWerff—who’s one of the critics at Vox—is in TV Club in this conversation we’re having, and he said this: The show of the moment is the news, the TV moment that we were all paying attention to was about Donald Trump, which we were all like reading, and writing, and thinking about in a recap-y TV show way. A lot of the most provocative and collective TV moments we had this year were also about Donald Trump because they were like late-night television, they were Jimmy Kimmel talking about health care, they were Saturday Night Live. They were Handmaid’s Tale, which was sort of read so explicitly about Trump, so he was not escapable in anything in television, as well, and so I think he was basically the big story of TV, too.
And then another big story right now, obviously, is all the sexual misconduct allegations in Hollywood.
Well, that is also a story about Donald Trump. I mean, that’s the thing. It did get kicked off with Weinstein, but it’s a subtle story about the president. And yes, of course, TV could not escape that story either. Obviously, it’s had a huge, actual, concrete effect television in the sense of there’s all these television figures that have been caught up in the scandal, including Louis C.K., and Matt Lauer, and Jeffrey Tambor, and Kevin Spacey. House of Cards is recasting the lead of that show because of that, so that’s had a very concrete effect. Then obviously, also, just in the air, a lot of shows have been about this, and I mean there’s lots of shows that came on this year that didn’t know that these scandals were going to be happening, or know necessarily that Donald Trump was going to be president. Handmaid’s Tale; The Deuce—David Simon’s great show about the sex trade in the ’70s; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which just came out, which is about a female stand-up comic in the 1950s; Alias Grace, this other Margaret Atwood adaptation.
They’re all so much about these all themes, and there’s so much about structural misogyny. There’s so much about harassment. There’s so much about sexism and gender stuff. They were gonna exist anyway, and obviously they feel a little different. They feel a lot different. They feel more urgent and they feel more timely because of what’s happening in the world. But I think it was in the air, basically, because these shows were gonna exist no matter what.
Like as a critic, how do you think all this stuff has affected or will affect kind of your work? I mean, are you looking back at some of the shows that you reviewed and what you thought about them, does it make you rethink anything?
Well, I mean, I wrote about thinking about Louie after the stuff Louis C.K. came out, and as I said in that piece, I don’t think that the revelations about Louis C.K. make Louie a bad show. They just make it a little bit—not even a little bit—they make it a different show, because he was working all the stuff out. He was talking about it. He was talking about consent and masturbation, I mean, endlessly in the show, and we just interpreted it differently than we will now. We just didn’t have as much information as we should’ve had, or that we needed to have. It doesn’t become less interesting from that. It sort of becomes much darker and more dissembling, but it’s not like an unhonest show still. It’s actually probably still a good show; it’s just that it’s a different show.
So, I think I’m worried about more than whether like them having misread shows in the past is thinking like how much are we forcing our readings of them in this present to speak so directly to politics. It’s very easy to see Donald Trump in everything, and that’s because a lot of these ideas that he personifies are in everything, and they’re certainly in things that are trying to grapple with what’s happening in the world.
I mean, Donald Trump was elected president as part of this backlash to a lot of the progressive goals that television has sort of embodied in the last couple of years, towards more diversity, towards having more people of color, and women, and transgender people like in roles of power and on screen, and like media roles of note. So, he is in everything. You can see those shows are like in reaction to him, even if he had never existed. They’re both sort of coming out, like he’s a backlash to the same things those shows are sort of a response to, so you can see those connections.
But sometimes you just are like, is it exhausting to see him in everything? Do people get exhausted reading about him in everything? Like isn’t some of this forced? That’s more what I’m thinking about than worrying that I’m not seeing him enough, or that I’ve missed something. Even though that may not turn out to be the case in the year to come. I might be singing another tune.
Thinking about the year to come, what are you looking forward to in TV in 2018?
There’s a lot of stuff, and I’m not 100 percent sure of what all of it is yet. But I do know that The Assassination of Gianni Versace—which is a follow-up to The People v. O.J . Simpson—the American Crime Story show from FX is starting in January. I’m really interested to see that. I’m really interested to see, not only if it’s as good—although it’d be hard to be as good—and then if it’s how, it has this different writer, how they can sort of carry over that true crime friction in the story. You know, O.J., it’s like the American story. This is a very interesting story, but doesn’t have the same position and doesn’t touch on all the stuff that the O.J. case does.
I’ll be interested to see about that. Roseanne is coming back this year. There’s just a lot, there’s gonna be a lot of television.
As always, right? This is the case now.
Yeah, exactly. Like Apple’s making TV. I mean, it’s really about to get bananas. There’s a lot of stuff happening.