Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Upside Down: Musings on a Year Watching Television

Pamela Adlon in FX's Better Things.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different...
Neil Gaiman, from The View from the Cheap Seats

2016 has been a long year, an awful year… even (to paraphrase Judith Viorst) a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. As I type this, news of the sudden passing of Debbie Reynolds has emerged close on the heels of the woefully premature death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher – adding to the body count of a year that seemed to be almost gleefully stealing our brightest lights. But, eager as I am to finally see the back of this year, taking on the task of reflecting on the past twelve months of television has been genuinely heartening. It has been an eventful – too eventful – year in the real world, but for television it has also been a time of innovation, and further strengthened my belief that TV has never been as good, as smart, as brave, and as human as it is now. It may feel more like a decade ago, but it was only last January that Louis C.K. unceremoniously gifted us the first episode of his stripped-down and ground-breaking Horace and Pete, and only six months ago that Netflix premiered Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ unabashed and brilliant homage to the best of the 80s, from Steven Spielberg to John Carpenter to George Lucas and Stephen King. And then last September, Netflix pulled the curtain back from its small corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and introduced us to Luke Cage – a series that, despite some plot weaknesses late in its first season, jumped with both feet into our difficult times and provided us with some of the year’s most compelling hours of television. In a year when reality threatened to overtake our imagination, both in menace and absurdity, television kept pace – providing escape, insight, and regular and much-needed reminders that the human race has more up its sleeve than the ever-darkening headlines suggest. A small caveat: what follows is not a complete ranked list of what television has offered these past 12 months, but rather a few reflections on where television has taken me in 2016.

The cast of NBC's Timeless.

Travels in Time
From the start, 2016 was a year that fled itself in advance or at least a year that was eager to cloak itself in times gone by. It was a year awash in nostalgia (the return of X-Files and Gilmore Girls and, heaven help us, Full House) and the dark inversion of nostalgia (Westworld, South Park, Stranger Things). In fact, the (sometimes productive) tensions on display in this surge of nostalgic offerings are paralleled by those in the time-travel stories that emerged from the networks at the same time. I have written on the appeal and possibilities of time travel stories many times on Critics At Large, but with all the new time-travel stories on the small screen and the feelings of discontent both reflected in and generated by the current state of the world these past months have given me more food for thought than ever. I recently picked up James Gleick’s fascinating new book Time Travel: A History (Pantheon Books, 2016). As he traces this very modern idea of notion of travelling through time, Gleick writes that time travellers and by implication time-travel stories and their writers and readers are powered primarily by regret (“Regret is the time traveler's energy bar,” he writes): regret for mistakes made and regret, broadly, for having only one life to live. On those terms, the synchrony of time travel and 2016 is almost too obvious to bother to spell out, and while it seems clear to me that the recent upswing in time-displacement stories are symptomatic of the same destructive trend in ‘burn it all down’ rhetoric on all sides of the political spectrum worldwide, there is also something quite positive and powerful lurking within it. After all, every door to a new and different future comes by way of a new engagement with the past, and from the intentional rewriting of our own stories – which makes these various adventures into time-hopping (from the giddy fun of Doctor Who and Legends of Tomorrow to the hallucinogenic 12 Monkeys and even – in its short, clumsy life Timeless), stories of an ultimately radical form of activism, rather than tales of passive revisionism.

Time-travel stories fall thematically into two categories: the ones that deny human freedom and the ones that celebrate it. Stories of the first type are both inspired by and generate a familiar malaise induced by the suffocating experience of time itself. The second, rarer but more philosophical honest in my opinion, use time travel to pick out that most liberating feature of living in time: our miraculous capacity to make a decision. (Safety Not Guaranteed, Colin Trevorrow’s small but beautiful 2012 film, explores this perfectly, the dramatic punch line of ­­­the movie being that time travel allows us to break free not of time, but of a certain idea of time one that is as dominant as it is debilitating.) Our love of irony (and a popular consciousness still deeply ingrained by Twilight Zone episodes) somehow finds the former more "entertaining," but the latter is by far the more human. The former also generally only really works for shorter stories – short fiction, film, and one-off episodes – but the long form of television almost inherently resists any notion of fate as a closed circle, making this new televisual era (despite its varying levels of success) perhaps something genuinely new under the time-travelling sun.

South Park (Season 20)
As unlikely as it may seem that a series just concluding its second decade could make any "best of" list, these are not normal times. This fall, South Park gave us its 20th season, and it was a tour de force, seat-of-Parker-and-Stone’s-pants experiment with full-season continuity. South Park, with a dramatic break in its show-running philosophy, introduced episode-to-episode continuity back in Season 18 (2014), and also maintained a continuous, if broad, overarching narrative last season. But this year’s story tied so tightly to the headlines, it let Trey Parker and Matt Stone take it to a whole new level. This season’s story interwove the ugly rise of Trump, the (not coincidental) ascendancy of troll culture online, and grade-school gender politics with the recent embrace of nostalgia culture (evidenced by the success of the new Star Wars movie and by the Ghostbusters reboot ‘controversy’) in a shockingly cohesive and satisfying way. Its ultimate success was all the more impressive in that they plotted it on the fly, week by week, from mid-September to the second week of December. (Spoiler: the running gag linking all of these episodes was the addictive, smiling purple fruit whose active ingredient was pure, uncut wistfulness for the past called “member berries” – as in, “'member Chewbacca? … ‘member feeling safe? …. ‘member when there weren't so many Mexicans? … ‘member Chewbacca again?”) It was scatological and deliberately irreverent, as often deeply insightful as it was ridiculously didactic – and, by its conclusion, its sideways funhouse mirror of our equally ridiculous reality somehow cast a few beams of light.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee premiered on TBS in February 2016.

Fake News, 2016-style
In August of 2015, Jon Stewart left Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and, the previous December, Stephen Colbert shuttered The Colbert Report after 9 years. 2016 opened with two new standard bearers – Trevor Noah in the middle of his first season as the new host of The Daily Show, and John Oliver beginning the third season of Last Week Tonight on HBO. Oliver’s unique take on the comedy news programme had already brought new life to the genre. (In all honesty, I never really mourned Stewart and Colbert’s respective departures, as their shows’ largely meta-relation to world events had long begun to bend under the weight of an increasingly heavy reality. The investigative component that Oliver introduced was the right idea at the right time.) Two notable moments from their shows still stand out for 2016: Oliver’s “ Migrants and Refugees ” segment from September, which ends with a tear-inducing gift to one Syrian refugee girl from her two favourite Days of Our Lives characters; and Trevor Noah’s dystopian pre-election, one-off nightmare episode – a 22-minute report from “Trump’s America, 2020” that was almost unwatchably dark in the days before the vote, and I expect would be just plain unwatchable in these months afterward.

But as solid as Oliver and Noah have been, 2016 also proved there was still room at the table: in February, fellow Daily Show alum Samantha Bee premiered Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS. The word “fearless” is thrown around a lot when it comes to female comedians, but Bee is the real thing. Her show’s almost exclusive focus on issues facing women (both inside and outside the U.S.), her clear and unvarnished feminist voice, and her fierce in-your-face intelligence filled a gap that I hadn’t even realized was there. It’s hard to pick out a single moment from her first season to celebrate there was practically not a single minute of her show that didn’t leave me grateful for the very fact of its existence though her response to the horrifying Miami nightclub shooting this June was a signature segment. Consoling in its humanity and profane in its delivery, it almost perfectly mirrored the anger, frustration and sadness we were all feeling.

With democracy and a free press under threat from above and below (this is a world in which somehow the word journalism needs to prefaced by “fact-based”), true political satire needs to be a moving target to be effective. If anything about 2016 leaves me even remotely hopeful for 2017, it is that Noah, Oliver and Bee will be on the air.

Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite on Netflix.

Louis C.K. Goes Viral
Louis C.K.’s brilliant FX series might be on indefinite hiatus, but the man’s impact continued to be felt throughout the past year. While his self-produced, self-distributed series Horace and Pete broke new ground as it returned to a classic style, he co-created, co-wrote and co-produced FX’s Better Things with Pamela Adlon. Adlon stars as semi-autobiographical version of herself, a struggling career actor and single mother of three daughters. Adlon takes her cue from C.K., inhabiting the central character with unflinching honesty both in her professional struggles and in her relationships with her daughters. That same powerful admixture of vulnerability and still-in-progress self-understanding is at work in another of 2016’s highlights, Maria Bamford’s Netflix series Lady Dynamite. It is a model C.K. has been perfecting for years on his own series and here with two very different female leads, telling two very different stories – is further evidence that the best, funniest, and most compelling stories come from the most painful and personal places. Both series will back with new seasons in 2017.

And one brief, hopefully not entirely narcissistic, coda:
Lee Majors and Bruce Campbell in Ash vs Evil Dead.
One of the simplest, purest delights of my year of television viewing was the second season of Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead. After a raucous first season (which ended right as 2016 began), the Bruce Campbell-helmed comedy/horror series’ sophomore season ran through the fall – giving me regular opportunities to soak deeply in the gross-out antics of Campbell, Lucy Lawless and co. Amping up the beheadings and splatter, this season also lived even more up to the promise of its conceit, giving Evil Dead fans, old and new, the chance to hang out with the most lovable quartet of demon-slaying, chainsaw-wielding, wise-cracking near-sociopaths the small screen has ever seen. (All that and a recurring role for a wizened and libidinous Lee Majors!) The peak of the season, and deserving of its own special shout-out, was the ninth and penultimate episode, which made good on the coy Army of Darkness references of previous episodes, and time-travelling ’73 Delta in tow brought our hero back to the space and time of the original film(s). Watching Campbell pull out his best slapstick Three Stooges fight moves and face down Tim Raimi in full “Possessed Henrietta” regalia in the world’s creepiest cabin basement gave me more delight than I care to admit publically. Though its final episode – the conclusion of the story that began in Episode 9 – was ultimately a letdown that took the series back into too-well-trodden territory, the joy that the previous half hour gave me persists even now, weeks later. (The A.V. Club’s Michael Roffman offers some insight into the behind-the-scenes intrigue that resulted in a visually climactic yet narratively anti-climactic conclusion of the season, but in all honesty a world where people argue voraciously about the integrity of the Evil Dead ethos is a world I want to live in.)

I wish you all a happy new year. (And – for one last time – good riddance to 2016. Just….good riddance. )

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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