6:45am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Now's the Time to Set Aside These Common TV Prejudices
We're six weeks (or six years) into self-isolating to stop the spread of the coronavirus and, for reasons I don't understand, people are still talking about Tiger King.
A thoroughly watchable, but thoroughly mediocre, documentary series about scuzzy people doing scuzzy things to animals should not be your great TV-viewing achievement of 2020. We're a world of Henry Bemises — if you don't get that, The Twilight Zone should be next on your binge list — and yet we're also a world beholden to a lot of prejudices when it comes to our favorite leisure-time activity.
Since we have time enough, that ought to free viewers from at least one or two standard points of hesitation when it comes to actually diving in and watching some of the shows your friendly neighborhood TV critics have been recommending for years.
Let's get to a few stumbling blocks that should be pushed aside:
1) Shows With Bad Titles — I tried to think if I've ever watched a show exclusively because I liked its title. Maybe Dirty Sexy Money? But that's at least partially because my simian-loving fingers write the title as "Dirty Sexy Monkey" at least half the time. So if you'd never watch an ongoing TV show exclusively because you love the title, why would you eschew an ongoing TV show exclusively because the title confused or irritated you? It's a title, folks!
The key, of course, is to try to train your brain to give a badly named show a new title.
Cougar Town, for example, was a bad title, a title that maybe related to the original premise of the show, but had nothing to do with the series after the second or third episodes. So try calling it Cul de Sac Crew or Wine Time or Florida Friends!
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for example, always intended its title to be taken ironically. It said so right in the theme song. Instead, the failure to recognize that irony scared people away. So try calling it Thanks a Bunch! or Pretzel Time or West Covina Friends!
Terriers, for example, inexplicably perplexed people. No. It's not a show about dogs. Get over it. Terriers are scrappy dogs and the show is about scrappy private investigators. They're like terriers. Kinda. Whatever. Move on. It's a great and quirky mystery finally available to stream on FX on Hulu. So try calling it Hank & Britt or Burnt-Out Investigations or Ocean Beach Friends!
This is all mind over matter, folks. Simply don't use the show's name. Why would you deny yourself the amusement of Trophy Wife or Selfie or Black-ish just because ABC is very bad at naming shows?
1a) Shows With Bad Promotion — Take, for example, FXX's Dave. Did billboards featuring star Dave Burd emerging from the fly of a pair of boxers as his Lil Dicky alter ego turn you off? Maybe watch the show and don't think about the promotion? Actually, in this case the promotion fit some of the tone of the show, but I'm here to say that after an aggressively raunchy first few episodes, Dave settled into a rhythm and an aspiration of depth and became a great show in its second half, one that some of the people who were grossed out by the promotion would appreciate for its interrogation of toxic masculinity. But that transitions me to my next prejudice you finally have time to get over.
2) Shows That "Get Better" — My appreciation for Dave was fitful through the fourth episode, but the fifth episode was an intriguing exploration of manic depression in the hip-hop world and subsequent episodes continued that trend toward something darker and more thoughtful. They were, at times, also side-splitting. But can you skip the first four episodes? Probably not.
I feel bad every time I write a review telling people that a show gets better, because I know that the "Can you skip …" answer is almost always the same, "Nah." But who has time for that?
The reality is that very, very few shows start off genuinely bad and get genuinely good in a way that would allow you just to leap ahead to the good part. That list is basically Parks and Recreation and almost nothing else.
That isn't to say there aren't shows that improve. It happens all the time, but usually you can see the elements in those early episodes that are more "uneven" than "outright bad." The even more common phenomenon is shows that simply require a little time for audiences and the shows to get on the same page. I, for example, believe that the pilot of Succession is great, but I've heard from various people that the show gets good after four, six, seven or 10 episodes. I happen to think the show gets better when you understand what the show is doing, or at least what its tone is, but that can occur in 10 minutes or, apparently, in 420 minutes.
I don't know if The Leftovers, as another example, "gets good" in the second season. That's just where its interests and mine began to intersect fully after having done so in fits and starts in the first season. I don't know if Halt and Catch Fire "gets good" in the third and fourth seasons, but that's just when my investment in the characters became sufficient for every little victory or setback to elevate or crush me. I'd never tell you, though, to skip the first season of either show.
So just plow through, y'all!
A corollary …
2a) Shows That "Get Worse" (and then "Get Better") — Every show, no matter how great, is entitled to a bad episode or two. Some great shows even have a bad season or two mixed in, which prompts one of the most frequent questions that I get: "If I'm watching and loving [Insert Show Here] do I need to watch [Allegedly Bad Season] or can I skip ahead?"
Frequently mentioned contenders in this category include: Friday Night Lights, season two; Justified, season five; The Wire, season two; The West Wing, anything after Aaron Sorkin left; and Dexter, anything after season five.
Keeping in mind that I'm inherently a completist, the answers to those are: Definitely watch, even if I think the flaws of the second FNL season have almost become underestimated over the years, since the blunders that season go far beyond just Killer Landry. The fifth season of Justified is clunky and dull and a general swing-and-miss, but you've probably watched worse stuff, so stick with it. Of course you should. The second season of The Wire is fantastic and anybody who tells you otherwise is wrong. Yes, The West Wing becomes a somewhat more generic show after Sorkin left, but it's still substantive and I think the sixth season is a tremendous season-long examination of the electoral process. And yes, feel free to stop watching Dexter after the fifth season, even if the seventh season was a small comeback until it wasn't.
3) Shows That Ended Too Soon — A recent phenomenon I've noticed is viewers refusing to watch edgy-seeming shows when they premiere because they're afraid they won't get to air their first run of episodes, which helps contribute to low ratings and that causes such shows not to get to air their first run of episodes (much less get renewed). It's a circle of TV doom.
Personally, though, I love one-and-done shows. I like the courage of a showrunner trying something different, the partial courage of a network ordering a show without a clear promotional hook or commercial precedent and the underlying sadness that can add richness to a prematurely canceled series.
In an ideal world, each and every one of my favorite one-and-done shows would have a conclusive finale, but you know what? I'm a sucker for a life-goes-on gentle cliffhanger. So I adore the place that Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared reach by their season/series finale. I think that Terriers has an utterly satisfying ending even if it isn't conclusive. If you stop watching AMC's Rubicon at the penultimate episode, it's bordering on perfection.
I know you may be addicted to closure, but I still highly recommend oddball one-and-done shows like NBC's Awake, Fox's Action and Wonderfalls and Greg the Bunny and Firefly. AMC's Lodge 49 got two seasons, but that's only 20 episodes and it doesn't exactly end, but I'd tell you to watch anyway. Dig into Everything Sucks! on Netflix and try to find Sweet/Vicious from MTV and go to YouTube and seek out the bootleg episodes of Fox's Method & Red. Life is too short and quarantine too long to deny yourself five or 10 or 20 hours of viewing pleasure just because the creator didn't get to put a formal "The End" on the finale.
4) Shows That We've Made Sound Like Homework — I'm sorry. I'm as much to blame on this count as anybody.
Have I emphasized the sociological deconstruction of institutions in crisis in the American city in The Wire when I should have said, "Dude, it's a cat-and-mouse thriller about cops and drug dealers, plus it's truly one of the funniest shows on TV"?
Did I praise Hannibal for its operatic excesses and painterly compositions when I should have said, "Come on! It's Hannibal freaking Lecter and he's eating people"?
Have I gushed about the bucolic poetry and spirituality of Rectify when I should have pitched it as, "A wrongfully accused man gets off death row and tries to find the REAL killer"?
Did I bury the sexiness of Vida in favor of emphasizing its code-switching and intersectionality?
It's an inevitable consequence of prestige TV that in praising shows and attempting to validate a previously oft-maligned medium that critics sell the medicinal value and not the entertainment. It's like if you didn't know what red wine was and somebody said, "It's good for your heart!" instead of "It has hints of ripened cherries, notes of tobacco and it gets you drunk as hell."
The Wire is thrilling and hilarious.
Rectify is mysterious and really funny in places.
The Shield has one of the most exciting pilots ever made and it's absurdly badass.
Justify is like the awesomest version of Walker, Texas Ranger.
The Leftovers abounds with full-frontal nudity and Perfect Strangers references.
Come on, people! What's it gonna take?
You've got the time. We owe it to ourselves to do better than Tiger King.