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The Year in TV: It Was the Best of Times, It Was the W— Actually, the Best of Times. For the Most Part
December 27, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

It was a year in which Netflix, Amazon, and FX weathered in-house scandals few could have anticipated a year ago today, let alone predicted, and yet it was a very good year for TV, both for the quality of offerings and the sheer breadth of choices.

The broadcast networks continued to trot out the same tired parade of sequels, spinoffs, and prequels, but even that didn’t seem to matter anymore. The ascendancy of streaming services and premium cable is old news. It’s not a story anymore; it’s barely even news.

The business model continues to change and no one, least of all the major studios and corporate media giants, seems to know how it will all end. When in doubt, merge. The idea is to stifle the competition through sheer size — but as anyone who’s watched even one Star Wars movie knows, even big empires are no match for popular opinion and changes in habit. Even as the Disney’s and CBS’s of the world get bigger, the power has swung to the creators, the writers, actors, directors, and producers — the people who actually make the shows other people want to watch.

That couldn’t be better for the viewers watching at home. Despite media consolidation and corporate mergers on a scale unseen in our lifetimes, coupled with the slow but steady erosion of regulations guarding competition, there are more good shows — and more new ways to see them — than ever before.

If there’s a limit to the number of good shows binge-watchers are willing to watch — too much good TV, and not enough time to see it all — a phenomenon FX boss John Landgraf has warned against for several years, now — it shows no sign of reaching its peak yet.

Despite the inevitable clearing out of projects produced by men — nearly all men — accused of sexual harassment behind the scenes, proven and unproven, there seems to be no limit to the sheer amount of creative energy and talent driving even troubled shows like the now Kevin Spacey-free House of Cards. Cards, seemingly destined for the obscurity of quick cancellation, driven by scandal, will return with a new, albeit shortened final season, focusing on Robin Wright’s character. FX has pulled Louie, pending Louis CK’s reformation and repair to his reputation, but my guess — and it’s only a guess at this point — is that FX and Louis CK will find a way to revive one of TV’s sharpest-edged, most trenchant comedies.

At this time of year, everyone with a keyboard and a working Internet connection comes up with a “best of” list, and I’m no different. I try to make my list as personal to my own tastes as possible — I don’t mind too much whether other people agree or disagree — but I’m always surprised, when I look at other people’s lists, including those of the other writers in this parish, how much consensus there is, conscious or otherwise. I always tend to view a year-end list in terms of individual moments: Survivor: Game Changers, for example, made a strong impression on me, even though the founder of this very website admitted in his fall preview that he is fed up with just about every aspect of Survivor. I’ve always found the show to be deeply fascinating on a personal, sociological level — not to mention exceedingly well-filmed, edited, and presented — but when returning Survivor contestant Jeff Varner inexplicably and controversially outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith (above) as being transgender in the April 12 episode of Game Changers, the story was reported in the news pages of the UK Guardian newspaper, the European equivalent of the New York Times or Washington Post, in a market where few people watch Survivor, and Game Changers had yet to air. The Guardian is to newspapers what the BBC World Service is to TV news; both pride themselves on reporting social trends, wherever and whenever they develop around the world. To Guardian editors — and, judging from the response on Guardian message boards and online, more than a few of their readers — the idea that someone could be outed as being transgender, without first being asked if it was okay to reveal that publicly, in a reality-TV show, to a nationwide US TV audience numbering in the tens of millions, was beyond the pale.

TV has never been more important, or influential. It has even transcended the politics of the moment — you don’t need to read about the current state of politics here; there’s more than enough elsewhere — by showing the world as it could be and, in some cases, still is.

It’s worth noting, for example, that in a year that gave us The Handmaid’s Tale, Ken Burns’ generation-defining Vietnam War, and arguably Curb Your Enthusiasm’s finest season, the year began with David Attenborough’s all-encompassing, richly satisfying Planet Earth II and will end, more or less, with the similarly stirring, eye-opening Blue Planet II, revealing before us natural wonders few of us have been privileged to see with our own eyes.

Yes, we could all have done without The Orville, Wisdom of the Crowd, The Great Indoors, and Me, Myself & I, but that’s not the point. My suspicion is that the broadcast networks will slowly but surely move away from taking a flyer on costly-to-make, hit-or-miss comedies and dramas like Imaginary Mary and Time After Time and focus more on what they do best, and what pulls in the most coveted advertiser demographics: reality TV and live sports, with breakfast TV, late-night comedy talk shows, and live, breaking news on the side.

As with last year, when I favored Westworld (left) more than many others — judging from other reviewers’ Top Ten lists, anyway — this year I appreciated Game of Thrones (top) more than many others if for no other reason than showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pulled off the seemingly impossible.

They took an inanimate, not-real object — a dragon — and made us, the viewers, think the dragon was not only actual, alive, and real, but caused us — spoiler alert — to choke up when one of them was brought down and annihilated.

Something remarkable has happened with Game of Thrones. It’s been mounted on such a grand, magisterial scale that some viewers — judging from some of the media reviews, anyway — have become jaded over the eye-filling set pieces and epic battle scenes. It’s as if it’s now a given that Game of Thrones is mounted on a cinematic scale, so hardly anyone gives it credit for taking on David Lean anymore.

I found A Handmaid’s Tale to be harrowing and deeply moving, though hard to watch and not something I’m eager to see again. It deservedly won attention — at the Emmys, and from the Television Critics Association — but I was irked, again, to see some reviewers complain in their year-end reviews that the story wandered a little in the later episodes, “like Westworld did.” In the case of all three of those epic, masterful dramas — Game of Thrones, Westworld, and A Handmaid’s Tale — I’m willing to give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt and see where they’re going to take us, the audience, next. I think they’ve earned that right.

I could not say the same, though, about what many other reviewers found to be the year’s most intriguing, cinematic piece of television. In that, I’m in the minority, and I accept that. I cannot help but think I’m onto something, though: I found Twin Peaks: The Return to be obtuse, lazy, self-indulgent, tedious, shallow, violent, cruel, devoid of humanity and, worst of all, utterly pointless. We all, from time to time, see heavily-hyped, eagerly anticipated TV dramas that disappoint us or let us down on some level. Twin Peaks: The Return made me angry.

And yet I watched every minute. I suppose that says something, though it may say more about my lingering affection for the 1991 original as anything else.

Besides, not all retreads disappoint. At first, I didn’t quite know what to make of Larry David’s decision to revive Curb Your Enthusiasm after a six-year absence, but I needn’t have worried. David managed to make Curb’s ninth season as topical as Seinfeld was in its day — Lin-Manuel Miranda (left) and Hamilton? — and found time for a parade of guests stars and cameo appearances that was both original and inspired: Bryan Cranston as a therapist with a thing for chairs, Steven Weber as an oyster shucker with a thing for free tickets to the theater (but only if it’s Hamilton), F. Murray Abraham as a stage actor with a thing for “outfit tracking,” and in a moment of divine inspiration, Salman Rushdie as himself, warbling on and on about “fatwa sex.” Seriously now, when was the last time you saw Salman Rushdie in anything? Exactly.

Twin Peaks: The Return ended with a cliffhanger — after all that, after 18 hours of . . . that — but if any returning series earned the right of return with a cliffhanger, it was Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And yet the Dec. finale, “Fatwa,” finished with a proper ending — not a series finale, exactly, but certainly, a fine way to end the season.

Curb Your Enthusiasm may return; it might not. No one, not even Bryan Cranston’s headshrinker, can get inside Larry David’s head. There are not many series — drama or comedy — that can disappear for six years and then return as if they’d never left.

It was that kind of year, though. The real world may have had a tough time, but TV had a very good year indeed.

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You've convinced me, I'll try Curb Your Enthusiasm one more time. I didn't care for it the first time I first watched it but maybe I've changed or just wasn't in the right mood. But, I wouldn't want to miss something that sounds this good.
Dec 30, 2017   |  Reply
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