TELEVISION TAKES TWO STEPS BACKWARDS
by Alessio Franko
HBO’s GAME OF THRONES is like one of its own conquering armies, an unstoppable force uniting distant tribes of TV viewers under its banner. Some watch to unpack the dense fantasy world of George R.R. Martin’s original A Song of Ice and Fire book series. Others watch for the spectacular scale, the impressive special effects, or the characters’ journeys. But one common praise of Thrones stands out for its sheer counterintuitiveness: It’s so realistic!
This sense of “realistic” is a euphemism for cynical. Thrones is notorious for having had its hero, the noble aristocrat Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), unceremoniously executed at the end of the first season for his attempts to expose corruption within the monarchy of Westeros. With this startling narrative move, Martin tells us that magic and dragons are not the fantasies that define his work, that the real fantasy is the distinction between good and evil. Morality, in Thrones, is strictly gray, and dignity is reserved only for the selfish, rational, and (perhaps quite literally) cutthroat.
With Thrones drawing to a close in 2019, HBO is pushing Westworld as its new must-watch epic. Based on a film of the same name, Westworld takes place in a futuristic Wild West theme park filled with lifelike androids that patrons are invited to interact with however they see fit — including raping and murdering them. Westworld attempts to win the Game of Thrones audience by taking its cynicism a step further, running on the unabashed premise that when freed from social contracts, human beings instantly reveal themselves to be atrocious.
Depending on whom you ask, our current “Golden Age of Television” legitimized the TV serial as an art form starting with The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. But television writers have come to take the stock phrase as a backhanded compliment, an implication that good TV must be a momentary phenomenon. Unfortunately, the current state of Netflix, for years a leader in expanding our sense of what TV can do, seems to be bearing out that conclusion. Its flagship shows, Orange is the New Black and Black Mirror, have grown complacent in their recent seasons, resorting to shock and rehash where they once offered strident social commentary. In cancelling Sense8, a beloved supernatural drama featuring multiple queer characters, Netflix took a step away from the sort of experimentation that made it the success that it is. Amazon studios has done much the same in cancelling I Love Dick and One Mississippi, both unusual shows by and about women.
WHAT WE ARE GETTING more of is shows with the ingrained cynicism of Westworld. House of Cards, for example, set on a Capitol Hill inhabited solely by corrupt schemers, is effectively a political show in which politics don’t exist. Beloved characters on The Walking Dead, a rotting shamble of its former self in its eighth season, are murdered suddenly and senselessly by fellow humans as often as by zombies. 13 Reasons Why attributes its central character’s suicide to the moral failing of those around her, a sensationalistic and arguably dangerous message, considering its intended young adult audience.
Nothing about this is unique to the hour-long drama format. From The Big Bang Theory to Workaholics to Girls and Transparent, many recent comedies follow characters whose lives consist of little more than pursuing their most mundane desires, without regard for those around them and often without even an awareness of what such regard might look like.
With every bite of these shows, we ingest a little more of the same message, that you and I and everyone else are all failures, to ourselves and to each other — and if you aren’t yet, the world will wear you down soon enough.
Millennials are already force-fed this narrative about ourselves every day, that we are addled by our technology, incapable of genuine social relationships, motivated by economic insecurity to be unreliable and disloyal, etc. Even modern Judaism deals in it: The rabbi at my local temple in Austin, Texas opened Kol Nidre services this year with a discussion of the importance of kavanah, the inclination of the spirit. Showing up to worship was not enough, he implied: It was up to each of us to orient ourselves towards a spiritual mindset, to be truly present. Such mistrust of our capacity has lurked between the lines of every Reform service I have been to for years, with spiritual leaders always alluding to some hypothetical smartphone everyone in shul would rather be on.
It is hard to orient my spirit when I am being told that I don’t want to there be in temple. It is likewise hard to organize for political power when I am made to question the value of political ideals. And it is hard to experience TV as art, deepening to our humanity, when so many shows take pleasure in showing people at their shallowest.
UNLIKE those breakthrough anti-heroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad), today’s anti-heroes are not concerned with questions of ethics and their duty to others — and while countless comedy characters today imitate the vain reprobates of Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, they do not receive the inevitable comeuppance that confronted Jerry and his friends, or “The Gang” in Philadelphia, at the end of each installment. In short, rather than growing in scope, the TV serial, both in drama and comedy, is losing pieces of itself. To understand why, we must understand the appeal of cynicism.
One of today’s most critically acclaimed comedies is Netflix’s animated BoJack Horseman, which satirizes Hollywood through its protagonist, a washed-up, horse-headed former sitcom star. More than just a sharp-witted comedy, Bojack is hailed for its sincere and unflinching explorations of loneliness and depression. But although redemption is on Bojack’s mind, the show does not appear to believe in it. The harder the eponymous horse-man strives to do right by those around him, the more he disappoints, sinking to downright morose lows in recent seasons. TV critic Les Chappell calls this the key to the show’s strength, a willingness to dissect human shame with what he designates as “brutal honesty.”
What does it say about us that we value “brutal” honesty so highly? Brutal honesty is what we resort to when constructive criticism has been fruitless, when all we feel we can do is beat ourselves over the head with the facts. Brutality is not reasoned or reasonable. It is simply and meaninglessly what it is. It is where the human ends and the animal begins — indeed, a version of Bojack that traded cartoon animals for real live humans would be unwatchably melodramatic. Yet somehow, “brutal honesty” has become the pinnacle of sophistication in televisual storytelling. BoJack Horseman is not interested in making any particular statement, but the sheer ambiguity with which it addresses ethics fools the viewer into looking for one anyway.
This approach reaches its full articulation in Comedy Central’s latest, Corporate, which follows two zonked middle managers through the monochromatic halls of totalitarian mega- conglomerate Hampton DeVille. Corporate feels like a product of the companies it claims to lampoon, catering to your opinions and desires but uninterested in the reasons you hold them. Hampton DeVille is brutality incarnate, an environment that the employees know is dismal but that binds their mentality entirely. By the end of the pilot, the show’s defeatist punchlines already sound more like advertisements for neoliberal alienation than wry critiques of it.
NO SINGLE TREND can determine the character of TV as a whole, fortunately. The theme of redemption lives, nowhere more so than on Mike Shur’s The Good Place. An imaginative comedy about a woman (Kristen Bell) who must earn her place in heaven after being sent there by accident, The Good Place is a refreshing inversion of the “we’re all terrible” sitcom. Bell’s Eleanor Shelstrop makes real progress in her quest to become a better person because The Good Place treats ethics as a real force in the universe, going so far as to introduce mathematical formulas that express it and magical objects that appraise it. And Shur has the same faith in his audience as he does in his character, as he integrates obscure references to moral philosophers into his already labyrinthine storyline. But The Good Place will always be the exception rather than the rule on risk-averse network television. The wholesome network sitcom is a noteworthy way around the problem of brutality, but we must also be able to refute television brutality more generally. One step towards this refutation is seeing TV brutality for what it really is: a sensationalist expression, rather than a critique, of cruelty.
Issa Rae’s Insecure (HBO) critiques cruelty subtly, and to its advantage. Played without villains, Insecure nevertheless sketches out a cruel pattern in liberal American culture that is only made worse by its lack of overt brutality. Notable for its focus on black characters, the show otherwise follows the model of recent comedies about twentysomethings stumbling into love and adulthood. But Insecure also delves into the professional lives of Issa (playing a version of herself) and best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), and the side effects of being the only black woman in their respective work environments. All sorts of imperatives about who they ought to be and how they are allowed to behave spill over into their personal lives, confusing and constraining their relationships with their lovers and with each other.
Identifying cruelty and imagining a better world are always two sides of the same coin. Like Game of Thrones for the fantasy genre, or The Walking Dead for horror, AMC’s Into the Badlands can be understood as a legitimization of the martial arts genre through compelling character drama. In a post-apocalyptic setting, seven feudalist “barons” wage war for control of natural resources, with swordplay scenes as beautifully choreographed as they are gory. Nonetheless, the protagonists of Badlands are defined by their visions of a better world. Baronness “The Widow” (Emily Beecham) is the only character on TV with a sweeping socialist-feminist agenda as she frees her rivals’ feudal subjects and offers abused women fresh starts in her egalitarian corps of warriors. Where Thrones replaces facile morality with economics textbook truisms, Into the Badlands allows The Widow to exist in moral ambiguity without doubting the goodness of her intentions. Her allies pressure her to account for how her position of power complicates her crusade against hierarchical cruelty, but we are left to come to our own conclusions. The show teaches us that the conflict between allies is always more interesting than the one between adversaries.
FX’s Atlanta, which follows its co-creator Donald Glover as Ernest, a struggling talent manager in a mostly black environment, is also a meshwork of tenuous alliances. Ernest lives with the mother of his child even though they have separated, and he is financially dependent on his erratic cousin’s rap career. Characters move through Atlanta dealing not only with the precarity of their own situations, but with the situations of those with whom they are mutually dependent. The necessity of trust in this world only makes trust more delicate and thorny. Atlanta offers no easy answers about where a better world lies, but its injection of dreamy surrealism into its recognizable setting powerfully resists the stultifying contemporary obsession with seeing things “as they are.”
We have every reason to be cynics, and there is such a thing as healthy distrust in people. But it’s curious that we find ourselves so eager to apply this exhausting calculus to our fiction as well as our reality. Perhaps brutality is a perverse kind of salve for modern anxiety: If everyone sucks, if morality is an illusion, then we can each cut ourselves a bit more slack. But by feeding us this kind of fare, television is returning to its consumerist, soap-opera roots, standing the feel-good formulas of old on their head, but hardly advancing as an art form. The “Golden Age” proved that TV characters do not have to be likeable to be relatable. But that discovery is futile if our characters are not worth relating to.
Alessio Franko, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is pursuing a Master’s in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in his hometown of New York City and earned his Bachelor’s in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.