6:00am PT by Tim Goodman, Daniel Fienberg
THR TV Critics Debate: Summer 2017's Unexpected Highs and Lynchian Lows
Daniel Fienberg: Spring TV was an embarrassment of riches. We had The Handmaid's Tale and The Americans and Fargo and The Leftovers and Better Call Saul and a half-dozen other great shows that practically demanded weekly analysis. There was this rush of shows angling for Emmy qualification — and then summer somewhat ground things to a halt. At least last summer included Stranger Things (overhyped though it eventually became), the Olympics and the ongoing election escalation to keep us entertained. Have you felt like this has been a quiet TV summer or have you been entertained enough by Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones and a couple other things?
Tim Goodman: I've noticed a pattern here of you subtly or not so subtly trying to get my easily gotten goat. I see what you did there with Twin Peaks and, yes, I will answer. But first, I totally agree that spring was kind of a staggering push of high-quality and entertaining television. I had to rush to finish things that you reviewed and I didn't (The Handmaid's Tale being the biggest) and the experience was thrilling. I think that run of The Americans, The Leftovers, Better Call Saul, Fargo, The Handmaid's Tale — all serious contenders for pretty much anyone's Best of 2017 — was a high-water mark. For summer, I don't feel the same kind of lull that perhaps you do because I am no doubt much further behind you and your machine-like processing of TV episodes. So I'm enjoying the likes of Game of Thrones — arguably the only show I feel needs to be watched on the day and at the time it airs — but also really enjoying or have enjoyed Master of None, People of Earth, Insecure, The Defiant Ones and I'm Sorry, among others. And I'm adding summer fare you reviewed, such as Loaded and Room 104, to my list. I'm going to do Ozark as well, even though you didn't take to it.
Fienberg: The parts of Ozark that I liked, I liked very much. That was mostly Julia Garner and the rest of the show's actresses. When Ozark just focuses on the men, even if Jason Bateman is quite good, it's just another gloomy cable-style antihero show and it's part of a recent Netflix trend of taking shows that ought to be the bingeing equivalent of fun summer beach reads and making them dour and unwarrantedly ponderous. Ozark was practically popcorn fare compared to the erotic Naomi Watts thriller Gypsy, which was neither erotic nor thrilling, and the star-studded Friends From College, which offered the rare group of fictional characters less pleasant to spend time with than the real-life fame-whores of Big Brother. Netflix surely could have been forgiven a multitude of sins if only we'd been given more waffle-chomping adventures from Eleven and her pint-sized friends, but Stranger Things won't be back until October. Lest anybody think I'm down on Netflix, they also had the summer's most summer-y success with the wholly entertaining, limitedly brooding GLOW, like Stranger Things a well-executed exercise in '80s nostalgia. But wait — are you about to say bad things about Saint David Lynch and the unimpeachable Twin Peaks?
Goodman: I'm still a few episodes behind, but even though I got a late start I wanted to get through it so that I can say I was there when Showtime let David Lynch test the boundaries of indulgence. I will absolutely watch all 18 episodes because, through the first nine I watched, I think that, if nothing else, it's a fascinating case study of the difficult position a network gets in when letting an auteur do as he pleases — and the result begs the age-old question of "what is art?" I find that show flat-out terrible and indefensible, so I'm quite enjoying the apologists who swear to me that it's actually not a steaming pile of shit but a carefully considered look at ... whatever. Or that it's funny. Or entertaining. Or that the acting is bad "on purpose." It's a car wreck that I can't look away from, even though I haven't been able to catch up on other worthier or at least more entertaining offerings that I'm behind on.
Fienberg: Oh my! I'm not as into Twin Peaks as a certain auteurist segment of the viewership, who have decided that it is superior to ordinary TV. But it's definitely different from ordinary TV and it's pushing those boundaries, for better or for worse, every week. I'd feared this would be Inland Empire Lynch, but the season is actually much more the Lynch of Eraserhead, preying on primal fears and nightmares and spiking this loosely connected dreamscape with absurdist humor and wholly committed performances from Kyle MacLachlan, Matthew Lillard, Laura Dern, the late Miguel Ferrer and more. Most of the performances aren't good or bad. They're Lynchian. I'm not rewatching episodes endlessly and I could only barely sketch a season's plotline for you, but it's never boring and never familiar. While you're drowning puppies, do you want to criticize Game of Thrones for pandering with its season of non-stop emotional reunions?
Goodman: Absolutely not. This is all well-earned payoff for Game of Thrones and I'll take that — plus the action — over some of those early seasons, where the storytelling was bogged down in too many characters and the pacing slowed to a creep. Still enjoyed it then, but this takeoff toward the inevitable end has me hooked. Also, I love puppies. But back to something you said earlier — that after our wild spring of new releases, summer kind of ground to a halt. Um, great! More time for everyone to catch up on the countless shows they are behind on. If the volume is a bit slower in summer, I'm not sure the quality has gone down much. I actually believe that summer is turning out quite a few surprises. I mean, Get Shorty from Epix is kind of an out-of-nowhere stunner that I love. And many critics are saying the same for offerings like Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber and AT&T Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes. That's a trifecta of quality fare from outlets not previously known for doing anything very interesting in the scripted space. Since you were tasked with reviewing two of those, is your feeling "What a fantastic set of surprises!" or more along the lines of "Oh, tremendous, more inventory for my DVR and fewer hours of sleep"?
Fienberg: I like how those three shows in particular run counter to the business narrative of the summer, which is that Peak TV has peaked and that the scripted tide has begun to recede, what with Netflix finally beginning to cancel stuff and WGN America backing away from Underground and all of those trends. Instead, you see Audience Network, which most viewers probably don't know if they even get, unleashing a solid thriller in Mr. Mercedes and Discovery doing a sturdy cat-and-mouse drama in Unabomber: Manhunt and Epix continuing its push into scripted respectability with Get Shorty. None of those shows are remarkable, but they're all anchored by great star performances and they all continue to prove that you don't know where the next truly watchable show is going to come from — and that you don't need dragons to cut through the summer clutter. I also continue to insist that dragons are cheating and that a lot of the drama on Game of Thrones this season has relied on normally smart people doing really stupid things. And speaking of smart people doing stupid things, we both recently spent two-plus weeks in an over-chilled ballroom in Beverly Hills listening to networks present their upcoming programming for fall. Any trends or signs of hope that particularly interested you at the Television Critics Association's press tour?
Goodman: Well, I certainly was intrigued by the massive sign of hope that was broadcast television admitting, almost across the board, that not only was it on solid ground but that it was profitable and had solved the puzzle of how to monetize digital — a not insignificant story if it's true, which I'm assuming it is since so many of the networks either boldly reiterated it while here or confirmed it when I asked them separately. So that's kind of amazing. I mean, they could be lying, but Godspeed to them and profits and patience if they're not. That's huge. It also allows me to write less about them from an industry angle and go back to mostly ignoring them except for the odd very good sitcom. I also think that is a fantastic development, although it might require more work from you (I kid, I kid!). But as you know, I put off watching the network stuff until the very last minute, so it's always fun to talk to other critics and get a sense of the room and this year, save for one or two offerings, the feeling seems to be that this might be the worst broadcast fall qualitatively in a long time. Do you get that sense? I mean, I have some high hopes on the cable and streaming side (The Deuce, Future Man), but there seems to be a near total lack of buzz for the fall on broadcasting.
Fienberg: We're going to talk much more about this in the weeks to come, but it's surely a dismal fall for new network pilots, which doesn't mean that a show like CBS' S.W.A.T. or ABC's The Mayor might not turn the corner between pilot and series and become the best version of itself. That happens sometimes. Rarely. But it happens. Instead, I feel like we're getting a lot of military shows that viewers haven't proven they want, plus a bunch of reboots and remakes that viewers have generally proven they don't want. Fortunately, there remains cable and streaming and even PBS. So if Wisdom of the Crowd isn't worth getting excited for, The Deuce and The Vietnam War are. And if you can't get pumped for the returns of Code Black or Taken or Rosewood (only two of those shows are actually coming back), there's always Better Things and Bojack Horseman. Don't get too excited for Future Man, though. It's not the comedy version of The Handmaid's Tale for Hulu.
Goodman: I'll definitely be there for all 18 hours of The Vietnam War — Ken Burns remains a national treasure. And if the last five years of television has taught us anything, it's that no matter how many misses there might be across the landscape, there's more than enough hits (many of them already in existence and unwatched) to keep viewers busy, especially us.
Fienberg: And what is The Vietnam War if not Game of Thrones without the dragons or Stranger Things without the demogorgon? It's a portrait of America's own Upside Down, of our own national awareness that winter, metaphorically, was coming. It's dark and gripping, but still a welcome distraction from staring at CNN all day. Maybe all TV is escapist TV if what you're escaping is the real world today.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.