Critic's Notebook: In 2019, Television Finally Understands Internet Culture

Patrick Harbron/CBS
CBS All Access' 'The Good Fight.'

Twenty years into the new millennium, television has stopped using the internet as a mere storytelling gimmick and has started exploring how apps, smartphones and platforms infiltrate our everyday lives.

On this week's episode of CBS All Access' legal drama The Good Fight — one of TV's brightest hidden gems — rational, straight-shooting attorney Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) finds herself the victim of a filmed racist incident that goes viral, spreading her face across social media. In just five minutes, her humiliation becomes frozen in time and will replicate infinitely, inviting strangers to mock and threaten her over the the web. She's been memed.

Like its predecessor The Good Wife, the show incisively questions how technology continues to shift American culture. The Good Fight, however, particularly illuminates the potential menace lurking inside the great democratizer that was supposed to be the internet.

Still, in 2019, who isn't umbilically fettered to this immense global system of tubes and screens? Each morning, before I have even opened both my eyes, my brain has scanned Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Twitter and Gmail for overnight updates. (I don't Snapchat; I'm not a monster.) Spotting the little red notification bubbles on my smartphone apps pumps dopamine straight to my neurological pleasure centers. Sometimes, the anticipation of what might be on the other side of the icon is more exciting than the content itself.

All day long, in between pressing responsibilities, I fragmentedly scroll feed after feed to ingest memes, catch up on news, gossip with friends, share photos and comments, procrastinate from writing, curate my public image, peek into acquaintances' lives and check in on the court of public opinion — purely based on what an insentient algorithm decided would motivate me. What you call Kubrickian heights of technological dystopia, I call Monday!

Fortunately, TV finally understands the realities (and hilarities) of the digital age. While the Internet has been a subject of great interest to American television creators since the late 1990s, many early stories centering the conventions of the web treated it with casual, mockable distance — a curious and dangerous creature to be vivisected in front of a gawping audience. (See: The X-Files' 1995 episode "2 Shy", which showcases online stranger danger, or The Simpsons' 2002 entry "I Am Furious (Yellow), which pillories the dot-com bubble.)

Despite the fact that we'll soon be entering the third decade of the new millennium, it has only been within the last two years, roughly, that television storytelling has finally caught up to how social media and internet culture infiltrates and, in some cases, defines modern life. Specifically, shows revolving around millennials' struggles to grow up — from The Good Fight to The Other Two — reflect how screens keep us simultaneously tethered and unmoored in a rapidly changing social landscape.

Some of the most innovative television series of the last few years have deliberately embedded web-based communication tropes into the very visual scaffolding of their shows. When The CW's Jane the Virgin debuted in 2014, text message chat windows popping into frame still felt like a unique and prescient mode of storytelling. Now, onscreen chat windows — which work like subtitles during scenes where characters silently type to each other — are ubiquitous enough across television that they're basically presumed at this point. And the more these moments authentically capture the aesthetics of real-life operating systems, the more delightful the experience of watching them.

Earlier this year, the masterfully edited final season premiere of Comedy Central's Broad City was a series-best episode that follows Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) traipsing across Manhattan through a series of short, zippy Instagram-style video "stories" documenting Abbi's 30th birthday celebration. The framing device triumphs because of the verisimilitude to the social and visual language of Instagram: emojis, music clips, geolocation tags, walking narration, enthusiastic product recommendations, flashing cartoon filters, comedic camera zooming, Boomerang-like editing to play and reverse a booty shimmy and the irritating obsession with blasting a birthday greeting to your best friend across the whole galaxy. The episode reminds you that these "stories" are an entirely new genre of entertainment born directly from the adorable narcissism endemic to my generation.

Fellow Comedy Central sitcom The Other Two is an entire thematic deep-dive into how YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms maintain the pulse of celebrity fandom. The series trails the rise... and rise of a Bieber-like pubescent pop star, Chase Dreams (Case Walker), and his two emotionally lost older siblings. One of the funniest, most searing and vulnerable shows on television right now, The Other Two is never better than when savagely skewering Hollywood and how fleeting popularity lives or dies by clicks, views, follows and re-posts. Aspiring actor/principled normie Cary Dubek (Drew Tarver) finds himself both incredulous and jealous of his little brother's meteoric success thanks to the kid's viral YouTube music video titled "Marry U at Recess." In one of the inaugural season's most cutting episodes, he superficially befriends a group of gay social media influencers — and performing more outwardly "queer" than he typically does as a gay man — in a thirsty bid to land a Ryan Murphy audition. "They're not even considering anyone with under 50K Instagram followers," a friend informs him. In another vignette, the hashtag #MyDadFroze takes off when it's publicly revealed the Dubeks' patriarch died during an alcoholic binge on the roof of their house.

Other comedies shrewdly convey how social media helps people to commodify themselves. Lena Waithe's under-the-radar delight Boomerang hones in on a group of 20-something black marketing professionals as they navigate careers, romance and friendship in Atlanta. As I mention in my review, I knew the BET dramedy was going to shred when it slyly referenced Black Twitter — one of the platform's many subcultures — within the first two minutes of the pilot. But the show not only offers a hilarious Cardi B-like erotic dancer who uses her social media following to build a music career, it actually plucked a real-life social media sensation to play her. (Lala Mila, Boomerang's irreverent M.V.P., propelled her career on comedic short videos uploaded to Vine and other platforms.)

For as lighthearted as these above shows are, others, such as Hulu's Shrill (which contends with cyber harassment) and HBO's Random Acts of Flyness (which decries how race, racism and technology will continue to intersect) reveal a darker streak to the worldwide network that was meant to connect, not divide, diverse groups. Because it's able to hide behind the CBS All Access paywall, The Good Fight takes no prisoners when it comes to its incendiary anti-Trump politics. But this fantasyland version of resistance politics doesn't strike as hard as the show's take on battering ram internet culture. The Good Fight has explicitly critiqued the rise of the alt-right, introducing a supercilious Milo Yiannopoulos-like polemicist (played by John Cameron Mitchell) who explicitly uses social media campaigns to bully and troll those who disagree with him. Last season, the series' take on #MeToo included arguing a case about a fictional online whisper network called "Assholes to Avoid." This season, it mines how a once-obscure website like 4Chan has become a powerful political lobby since the 2016 election.

While these shows hyberbolize the effects of social media, others depict how even small moments scouring the web can have a big impact on our everyday lives. On this past season of HBO's High Maintenance, an emotionally wounded woman pores over YouTube unboxing videos of lifelike reborn dolls, eventually buying one of these baby dolls that look like they came straight from the Uncanny Maternity Ward. (True story: I, a doll enthusiast, almost won one of these on eBay during a particularly grim semester in college.) On HBO's Insecure, Issa (Issa Rae) must constantly navigate the pressures of social media presence (or lack thereof) following breakups and men ghosting her. And on Hulu's middle school nostalgia comedy PEN15, our 12-year-old heroines explore the social protocols inherent to AOL chatrooms in the early 2000s (and how easy it was to take on new personas behind a digital interface).

Of course, plots and story arcs hinging on how our lives intersect with the online world have dogged narratives about young people for the past 25 years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first TV show to use the word "Google" as a verb and Gossip Girl's entire raison d'etre centered on a blog that exposed the sordid lives of NYC prep school kids. (Blogging — how 2007!) But it's tween television, specifically, that has been the harbinger of this current era, historically leading the first waves of programming to grasp the importance of media fixation in the lives of young people. For the past 20 years on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, dozens of TV shows have featured kids seeking fortune or just fame via the internet — from iCarly and Austin & Alley to Bizaardvark and Coop and Cami Ask the World.

Instead of just using social media culture as a mere "newfangled" gimmick, the writers and producers of these series fundamentally understand how apps, smartphones and platforms are creating new opportunities (and conflicts) in modern communication. Like conducting state business via WhatsApp.