First In A Series About TV in the Last Four Years
For the majority of my time at this blog, I have done my level my best to try and simply criticize television without looking out at the world around us. I thought that was probably the best way to do my job, without any political or personal bias. But now that the election is over and the results are irrevocably in, I feel that now is the time to look back at how the political landscape has affected television and my views on it.
Let’s start with an irrefutable fact: it has been really hard to enjoy any form of art for the last four years. Television’s job, I have always thought, was to provide equal parts entertainment and escapism. But given the high toxicity that has seeped into just about every element of our lives for the past four years, escapism in any form has been very hard to come by. It’s hard to go to a movie or watch a baseball game or even watch your favorite sitcom without being able to fully escape just how painful the world around us has become. It’s been painful for the viewer, and it been damn difficult for the artists who’ve done so.
I don’t just mean all of the late night comedians, who’ve had to try and make entertaining a news cycle that just won’t end of a political situation that has stretched our democracy to the point that many of us thought — and are frankly amazed that it never did — snap. Everything few hours out of D.C. came some kind of violation of the so-called norms that made it hard for satire to even be possible. It’s been hard to be a comic in this era.
I’m also talking about the fact that even in the Golden Age of television, it’s been very difficult for even the best art to not look at the world around us and paint a picture that we could look at for long. I was never able to really watch The Handmaid’s Tale, in part because I never liked the book, but mostly because its dystopian viewpoint was not one I wanted to engage. Even the best television has gotten extremely dark. This isn’t strictly because of the era in which we live — the best TV was dark even before then — but its hard to like shows like Ozark or Succession, because of the bleakness they presented compared to the world.
Small wonder there’s been a rise in demand in escapism. Stranger Things is a brilliant series, but it literally takes us back to an earlier era where things seemed simple and kids could save the world. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel would’ve been a source of joy in any era, but the fact that it took place in the 1950s — that era when everything still seemed possible — probably has helped its popularity. Of course, there’ve also been a lot of reboots and revivals in this period, no doubt because so many people wanted to remember series that took them back to times when things were easier. I don’t think the Norman Lear live adaptations would’ve been nearly as popular in the Obama era.
But as a critic, it’s been a lot harder to enjoy even the best of television. There were a lot of great shows over the last four years — I went into great detail on many of them when I was reviewing the Best of the 2010s. But even while watching such great comedies as Atlanta or Fleabag or the final season of The Americans, it was always hard to watch them without always feeling like there was a pit in my stomach. Knowing that at sometime I would have to turn the TV off, and look at the news, and be reduced to where I was an hour earlier. I have a sneaking suspicion it was like that for many viewers these past four years.
So in the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of articles about TV in the last five years. Some of it will deal with the political situation — one can not separate Donald Trump from the medium he was spawned from. But some of it will deal with the nature of series that helped get me through this difficult time, the series that best encapsulated the world we lived, and seeing what TV will do now given certain aspects of the last year in particular. I will try to keep my personal biases out of this article — at least my political ones; my entertainment ones are harder to hold back on it. And I fully expect to draw some flak from it. But as I said, the last four years have been a real strain for me. And now that we’re in a new era, maybe these articles will bring, if not closure, at least a catharsis. I think a purge of some kind is definitely necessary before we move forward.