That TV is “good” now seems to be beyond dispute. No one need ask “Is there anything good on?” anymore, because we all know that there is something good waiting for us on our DVR, on a streaming service, for a la carte purchase, etc. I don’t need to rehash the rise of the serial drama or the advent of the second Golden Age of Television or whatever you want to call it — plenty of other people have done that better than I can. But there is always someone telling me, as I’m sure there is always someone telling you, about some show you have never heard of but that you have to see. And, if you are like me, after the third or fourth time someone tells you you have to watch that show, you make a solemn pact with yourself never ever to watch that show, just out of sheer spite.
And yet sometimes, whether out of weakness, boredom, or genuine curiosity, I find myself watching a new series. And in watching these series, I’ve started to realize that my own judgments have become fuzzier, less definite. Some I have an immediate allergic reaction to and stop watching; some I continue to hate-watch, though I’ve stopped thinking they’re good, and I refuse to behave rationally, accept the sunk cost fallacy, and stop; some I continue to watch because I want to be part of the culture (i.e., memes — what’s up Game of Thrones); and others I actually enjoy and admire. I’ve often thought that, even with shows that I dislike or think are just straight-up bad, the overall quality of television is up. There are more shows now that seem like they are custom made for someone with exactly my tastes: ambiguous, allusive, surreal, darkly funny, accommodating to pessimism and negativity, comfortable with silence, auteur-driven, and visually attractive. “Arty” or “pretentious,” take your pick.
But I frequently find myself watching a new, arty, expensive-looking series, asking myself, “Is this good?” and finding no way to answer the question. I had this experience most recently with two series: Netflix’s The OA and HBO’s The Young Pope. Both of them came to me as “must watch” shows, though for totally different reasons. The OA, I had heard and read, is a drama about loss and trauma, featuring nuanced performances from young, mostly unknown actors, with a quasi-mystical vibe to it. The Young Pope is a TV show called The Young Pope starring Jude Law as a young pope. The OA seemed to scream “prestige drama,” while The Young Pope looked like fun sexy garbage, replete with absurd stunt casting and a title so on-the-nose it’s almost subtle. And they are quite different shows. But after a few episodes, I noticed myself reacting in a similar way to both of them. I have no idea if they’re good or not. I have no idea if they are as smart as they want me to think they are, as deep as they want me to think they are, or as artful as they want me to think they are. More than that, I remain vaguely suspicious of these shows, suspecting that they’re compensating for some essential lack of ideas, intellectual heft, and existential import by using strategies that suggest ideas, intellectual heft, and existential import.
Some of this comes down to the ways the series use silence. Characters stare silently, look at each other without speaking, seem to contemplate ineffable mysteries. This is less true of The Young Pope, whose characters are perpetually explaining their own feelings and motivations to each other in yelly, improbable monologues. (See for example, an enraged, cardiganed James Cromwell yelling, “I was supposed to be pope!” at a sulking Jude Law. Me too, dude!)
But The OA, at least the handful of episodes I made it through before giving up, is full of characters staring and contemplating, full of moments in which we, the audience, are meant to infer some deep, ambiguous process going on within the character, in which, in fact, the scene’s meaning and drama are often left up to us to produce. And the The OA is not alone in this. Hulu’s The Path (which I kind of like) is redolent with characters staring off into empty space while they struggle, silently and internally, and I’m willing to bet a number of other dramas use this technique as well. We’re meant, I think, to understand that the characters, like us, experience their turmoil within themselves, in their own heads and guts. Thus, no matter how mystical the show’s premise or fantastical its themes, they all claim a kind of realism for themselves by portraying characters silently reflecting on their own experiences and sense of selves as we silently watch them reflecting and ponder what it is they’re pondering while recognizing that we, too, ponder our own nature and experience it in just that way. It’s here, in silence, where characters’ three-dimensionality emerges, where they become “realistic,” and where these shows often implicitly makes their claims for art, depth, and all of that. In other words, “quality.” (The other source of TV’s “realism” is, of course, its violence, especially its sexual violence, but that’s a topic for another time.)
There are different kinds of silence, with different qualities. The locus classicus for silent staring on TV is, of course, Mad Men, and I think that show exemplifies uses of good silence. Nary an episode went by where Don Draper wasn’t staring at some damn thing: a wall, a car, a window or whatever was outside it, himself in the mirror or maybe just the mirror itself. Sometimes the staring occasions an expository flashback, like the one where Don gets lost in a saucepan of boiling milk because it reminds him of his traumatic, depression-era childhood. Usually, though, it’s staring that seems to serve no narrative purpose, nor is its cause or outcome clearly defined. But I want to praise Don Draper’s staring, because it is organically bound to the subject matter of Mad Men itself, and to Draper’s character, and to how other characters and we as an audience are meant to perceive him. Don is an enigma both to himself and to those around him. I think, at the series’s end, he remains enigmatic. We don’t know what he’s thinking, nobody around him knows what he’s thinking and, most importantly, he might not even know what he’s thinking or why he’s thinking it. He remains cut off from himself, and his silence marks an impasse between his past and his present, one he repeatedly tries and fails to cross.
This marks another problem for silence, and really for many forms of ambiguity these serial dramas trade on. If these moments of silence, nonaction, and ambiguity do finally coalesce into something meaningful, it happens over a long stretch of time. Mad Men had seven seasons to do it, which is far longer than most series last. But Mad Men also had unusually high production values, a famous obsession with historical accuracy, and very good dialogue that was often genuinely funny. (It also liked to play cat and mouse games with its die hard viewers, as when the creators seemed to leave clues hinting that Megan Draper would be murdered by the Manson family in season six. She wasn’t.) All of that made the show worth watching week to week, even if you weren’t convinced that its narrative would pay off. Now it’s common to hear something like, “It starts off boring, but it starts to get really good in episode six when everything starts coming together.” Episode six??? Art sometimes demands great patience of its audience, but after absorbing six hours of anything, I may start convincing myself that it was worth it just so I don’t feel like a sucker. Stockholm Syndrome works in mysterious ways.
Which, I think, is why I often can’t tell whether or not these shows are actually good. They’ve gotten so good at engaging their audience’s capacity for ambiguity, postponement, and silence. There is a sense in which we are always waiting for a show to “get good” because these shows always hint toward the idea that they might, that the boredom and listlessness you’re experiencing are just the necessary prelude to a revelation that will recast the hours and hours and hours you’ve already invested as crucial steps in a satisfying aesthetic experience. It’s no surprise that so many of these shows take divine, mystical, or otherwise supernatural revelation as their explicit subject-matter: The Path, The Leftovers, The OA, The Young Pope, and, importantly, two shows that set the template for modern serial drama, Twin Peaks and Lost. Mr. Robot, a show that is in some sense about two very worldly concerns, technology and wealth, is also about revealing the hidden reality beneath ordinary perception. It is also absolutely full of staring, a fact not unrelated to how superlatively bad its second season was. Even Mad Men (which, if it’s not clear by now, I love) ends with Don attaining enlightenment in lotus position.
Part of me wants to say the seemingly endless stream of series that promise noumenal contact with some transcendent Truth as a narrative payoff (and then don’t or can’t deliver) is a product of the auteurism in television that followed on the success of The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad (three of which actively resisted that kind of narrative trajectory, btw). Great television, the theory goes, like great cinema, literature, and visual art, comes from the mind of one great author, or “showrunner” if you insist on using the faux insider industry term. Our current fetish for “creators” (or **shudder** “creatives”) insists that great art is produced when great minds are given as much freedom as possible to do whatever they want. (This is, of course, true only in a few famous but anomalous cases.)
I think what our current TV situation shows us, though, is that when many, many people are given the chance to do what they want with an incredibly powerful medium, they simply end up reproducing tropes and themes that happen to signify “depth” rather than being deep, that orchestrate pre-digested narratives, pre-circulated tropes, and shopworn techniques that read as “arty” without actually saying much. Their shows are often beautifully shot and develop a “signature” visual style: Kubrickian one point perspective in House of Cards, the simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic Vatican in The Young Pope, whatever that thing is in Mr. Robot where the characters’ heads sort of pop in from the bottom of the frame.
But in most cases these signatures devolve into cliché, and visual style becomes a way of suggesting, like the religious iconography they so often reference, an encounter with meaning that transcends the material of the object itself. They remind me of “creative writing,” the sort of pieces know that a man looking in a cracked mirror signifies “crisis of self” without needing to understand or communicate what such a crisis might actually feel like, or that suggesting someone is a “Christ-figure” confers, through some arcane transitive property, the weight of martyrdom but without any actual suffering to support it. Such a technique relies on a reader’s willingness to “put in the work,” but often the “work” the diligent reader (or viewer) puts in is work the writer has failed to do himself, or perhaps doesn’t think it’s his job to do.
Such a predicament doesn’t mean that all of this television is “bad” rather than “good.” I think it suggests that the terms by which we judge quality have become obscure, that much of the new television we see, intentionally or not, works to evade the kind of judgments that could pin it down and find it wanting. The formal vocabulary of the new Golden Age of Television draws attention to itself as important, or potentially important, art, but it does so by relying on our receptiveness to its ambiguities, deferrals, and silences. In that sense, there can be no final judgment of good or bad, there can be no real evaluation of the work. In the ’70s, Norman Lear’s “quality television” involved making the social issues of the day part of the explicit subject-matter of the shows he produced. In that sense, most serial dramas are also “quality television.” But in another sense, we are post-quality, because judgment has become not so much a matter of exercising your critical faculties, but of deciding how long you will “stick with” a show before it either completes its run or you bail on it. Since there is always a possibility that a show will “pay off,” it can always claim a kind of importance for itself, one confirmed by the very fact that you, the diligent viewer, have sat and watched 10 hours of it already in expectation that “something” will happen.
I sound like someone who hates TV, but I don’t. I, for one, welcome our post-quality world. While I don’t think it necessarily makes for good art, it may serve another function, which is to offer a kind of therapeutic critical no-space. No value judgments necessary, no critical renderings possible, just the amniotic warmth of a narrative environment promising a final act we can take comfort in knowing will never come. If you ignore its need to be meaningful, television offers a zen-like retreat for people like me who lack the discipline for an actual zen retreat, or the interest in attending one. But this, you’ll say, is how we used to talk about television: empty calories, vapidity, it’ll rot your brain, the vast wasteland, and so on. Fine. Good. If you’re at all concerned about our current political environment, you feel as though your brain is in a vice, and every Times news alert that rattles your phone turns the screw a little tighter. They call you to engage, get outraged, resist, and so on. But these demands are unsustainable. I want to flee from them, too. Between submitting to irrational authoritarianism on the one hand and the warring puritanisms of the “resistance” on the other, I’ll take the vast wasteland.