I’ve cut back considerably on TV the last couple of years to focus more of my screen time on film. I think there has been a noticeable decline in the average quality of television since online streaming services started producing original content. Some of it is good, surely, but they just produce so damn much of it and almost all of it is bad at this point.
In any case, almost all of the shows I still care about are on at once right now, so I thought I’d offer a brief write up of what appeals to me about these shows. I also recently checked out the first episode of Lost in Space, mostly because of Parker Posey. I thought it was pretty bad but had some promise and we didn’t see much of Posey, so I’ll give it another episode or two before giving up.
Ranked by personal enthusiasm:
Legion is certainly the second boldest and most unconventional show in recent memory (after Twin Peaks: The Return). It’s not so much that it’s original– it borrows heavily from Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and (Olivier Mathieu pointed out to me) Michel Gondry– but rather that the synthesis it achieves is inspired. The production design is delicious. Legion takes place in the X-Men universe, but doesn’t feature any of the well known X-Men aside from a few (mostly vague) references to Professor X. The basic premise is that David Haller was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, but the symptoms are actually manifestations of his super power. I can’t really say more without spoilers. The show is full of narrative tricks. There’s time travel, an astral plane, inception, etc. I often feel like I have no clue what’s going on in Legion, then suddenly a lot of stuff will seem clear, but only for a minute and then I’ll feel like I have even less of a clue than before. S2 seems to have a slightly more lucid narrative than S1 but it could just be that it’s right about to pull the carpet out from under us. In summary: if you want something bold and bizarre, check out Legion. It’s not at all required to be a fan of the X-Men or comics in general. The show is barely recognizable as a Marvel property. It would help, but is not essential, to have very basic knowledge of the X-Men universe.
Homeland is the only show that I’ve seen deal effectively with Trump. Its approach (adopted before Trump was elected but ultimately perfect) is to imagine the inversion of the current political situation. In this season of Homeland and the previous one, the show speculates about how it would go if a female Democrat with Trump’s level of disrespect for political norms and the rule of law were elected in the current environment of dire polarization, mainstreaming of propaganda, global information warfare, etc. It’s a brilliant approach. Trump is terrible for fiction because reality is so surreal and horrific already that there’s no space to exaggerate anything for satirical or dramatic purposes. And beyond that, most of us are just burnt out on Trump 24/7. By inverting the situation, Homeland finds a way of examining the political landscape without falling into the Trump trap. Claire Daines is better than ever in the new season. I saw a hot take somewhere complaining that the empowered female warrior is depicted as mentally ill. I find this criticism utterly misplaced. Homeland’s approach to disability is like Finding Dory: mania is Carrie’s superpower. The show does vividly depict the harms wrought by her mental illness, but it also emphasizes how it enables her to do things that other people can’t. Also, speaking as someone who has been very close to people with the same condition that Carrie has, I find Daine’s performance remarkably resonant.
Yes, there are a few bits of bad or incoherent plotting. I don’t care. If I know there’s a new Homeland episode, it’s like knowing that my favorite flavor of ice cream is in the freezer.
3) Ink Master
Ink Master is the greatest of all reality competition shows. It’s like Top Chef or Project Runway, but with tattoos. This is much more interesting, because unlike the food on Top Chef, you can evaluate tattoos for yourself from home, and unlike the clothes on Project Runway, tattoos have consequences. When something goes wrong on Ink Master, someone ends up with a jacked up tattoo on their body. Aside from the superior premise, there are two things that elevate Ink Master. The first is the judging, which is the best judging in all of reality TV. The judges are two tattoo luminaries (Oliver Peck and Chris Nuñez) and Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction. They are *brutal*. But they also do a fantastic job educating the audience about the standards they are using. By watching this show, one learns a tremendous amount about what constitutes good tattooing. If you have tattoos, be warned that you will become aware of all of their flaws. The second thing that elevates Ink Master is the way they change up the format to keep things fresh. This season, for instance, they brought back three past winners to coach the new contestants and engage in a side competition. The early seasons of Ink Master aren’t as good as the more recent seasons, but if you love the show, it’s all delightful.
4) Naked and Afraid
The other great American reality show. Naked and Afraid puts one man and one woman in a harsh environment with a couple survival tools and no clothes and leaves them there for 21 days. There is a camera crew and medical team on site, and the contestants do receive assistance in emergencies, but this shit is no joke. People are medically evacuated *all the time*. The contestants have some background and expertise in primitive survival, and they often are able to forage or catch *some* food (often gross food– and be warned that there is a lot of wild animal butchery), but mostly it’s starvation, struggle, and misery. They often have to deal with thousands and thousands of bug bites. The show is gruesome. But that’s not the primary thing that’s so great about it.
What’s great about it is its social experiment with gender dynamics. I’ve seen every episode (I think this is season 10) and taken together it’s a pretty substantial data set. Almost always, the male contestant seizes the leadership role and treats the female contestant with condescension, and almost always she broods silently about it for days before coming up with a strategy to address her concerns without creating a conflict. We get lots of asides from both contestants where they tell the camera their thoughts about the other contestant and the overall situation. We hear both the man’s side (typically “I really hope she doesn’t slow me down. I’m calling the shots, that’s for sure”) and the woman’s (“He doesn’t seem to realize that I have survival expertise and that I’m not some novice girlfriend tagging along on his camping trip. What an asshole. I have to be careful to hide my feelings, though, or else I’ll have to deal with an ego tantrum”). There are so many different ways it ends up going. Sometimes the woman confronts the man and he feels terrible about the way he made her feel and changes his ways and learns a lesson. Sometimes she confronts him and he’s like “I’M A MAN. And where I come from, the man hunts and the woman gathers. So why don’t you get some firewood together while I hunt wild boar.” Sometimes he catches no food and they are starving so she takes a try and immediately catches lots of food. There are some episodes where the man doesn’t seize the leadership role. Some men have a congenial approach from the very beginning where they’re like “first tell me what your thoughts are” and treat their partner with appropriate respect throughout. We get to see how much better it goes when this happens. Also, while the contestants are naked, sexuality almost never comes up. In some episodes they initially check each other out and maybe mention in an aside that they find the other attractive, but by day 3 or 4 these thoughts are totally supplanted by misery.
5) The Americans
My general opinion of The Americans is that it’s past its peak but still solid. This is the final season, and so far it looks like they’re going for fatalism. It’s entirely worthwhile but doesn’t get my blood pumping like Homeland.
I haven’t started Billions S3 yet but I have a couple episodes waiting for me and I’m looking forward to it. Paul Giamatti is fantastic in the show and I appreciate how anti-moralistic and subversively fun the whole thing is. The only sympathetic character is non-binary Taylor, whose introduction makes the examination of toxic cesspool masculinity much more interesting. Mostly we are rooting for the evil hedge fund manager against the corrupt federal prosecutor.