The Mail Gaze

I started this blog to write about television, so you’d think I’d have a wealth of material to cover, given how much TV I watch. Still, I was plum stumped what to write about for my second post, so I asked my friends to email me TV-related questions. I thought this would be a nice way to ease myself into longform TV criticism. For starters, answering five questions is way easier than pulling an 1000-word plus essay on David Simon’s use of Bruce Springsteen in Show Me A Hero out of your a**. Second, some of my favorite TV writing comes in question-and-answer form, specifically Margaret Lyon’s weekly column Stay Tuned, and Andy Greenwald’s too-infrequent TV Mailbag. Why reinvent the wheel?  Finally, puns!

Thus, I give you The Mail Gaze, my not-very-original attempt to be like Dear Abby, but with something that won’t actually improve your life.

Let me warn you in advance, this is a series of unedited rants.

Should I give True Detective another chance with season 3? 

This won’t be a very satisfying answer, but it depends. I’ve asked this question myself, and the only conclusion I’ve come to is that I can’t call it either way at this point. There are several factors that will affect the quality of season three and my desire to watch it. For example, if there is a God, and she heard our prayers, Cary Fukunaga will bring his manbraids back to direct. One director (instead of seven) gave season one a singleness of vision that the season two lacked. Also, I blame a lot of season two’s problems on Nick Pizzolatto having too much power. Rumors of a creative dispute between Fuk and Piz during season one lead me to assume (with zero factual evidence) that the former did a good job of keeping the latter’s ego (and tendency to write stupid dialogue) in check. The director’s return would presumably solve all of our problems, but given the continued iciness between the two, it seems highlight unlikely Fukunaga will come back.

Still, #TrueDetectiveSeason3 isn’t yet doomed. Another problem with season two was the quickness with which it returned to screens. Season one was in development from 2011 on, which gave Pizzolatto years to perfect his final shooting script; season two started filming a mere ten months after he secured the deal with HBO. Piz is a novelist by trade; he needs time and many, many drafts. If season three doesn’t come out until at least 2017, it stands a chance of returning to form.

I will not only be willing, but excited to watch season three if Pizzolatto hires a female writer.  I think we can all agree that True Detective‘s female characters have been deplorable. Emily Nussbaum wrote that they were all “wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life.” Even Pizzolatto’s attempt to write a female character that didn’t fall into the above categories fell flat. Ani Bezzerides was an angry “feminist” whose problems all stemmed from her relationships to men as a sex object. Pizzolatto doesn’t know how to write women, and TDS3 would greatly benefit from bringing on someone who does.

The final piece in the “will I watch season three” puzzle is the cast. Like most viewers, I saw season two’s suckiness right from the start but kept watching. I  wanted to believe it could turn itself around, if not for the viewer then for the poor actors who signed onto the project believing they were working on something good. This is especially true of Taylor Kitsch, my dear Tim Riggins, whose career I am still invested in though I have been burned so many times. I’ll never forgive True Detective for forcing him to make this face and say these words. If Pizzolatto is able to secure a dynamite cast (or at least some actors I am obsessed with) for season three, I will surely get on board.

All that being said, I’ll probably still watch it even if none of these things come to pass. I still watch Nashville, so I’m in the habit of sticking with a terrible show far longer than I should. This is all speculative anyway. No official word has come down as to whether there will be a season three at all, though HBO has extended the offer. Who knows what Nick Pizzolatto is going to do. We don’t even know what he’s doing now, as he’s been pretty quiet since his sophomore season was universally panned. Wherever he is, I hope he’s watching Fargo and taking notes.

Are there any reality TV shows I can admit to watching?

Of course! I’m a big believer in not feeling shame, so I suggest you celebrate the shows you love, loud and proud, even if they start with a K.  I usually gravitate toward scripted television (or at least scripted television that doesn’t pretend to be unscripted television) so I tend to love shows like UnREAL and Burning Love more than their “real” life counterparts. That doesn’t mean I haven’t given an entire weekend to a season of Project Runway; or started a Bachelor email chain with my high school besties (eff you Juan Pablo); or had very strong opinions about the LC-Stephen-Kristen love triangle from Laguna Beach; or been seriously impressed by Jenni from Flipping Out‘s ability to handle Jeff (before the lawsuit); or purchased the first season of Real Housewives of Orange County on iTunes with actual money I can never get back. I also spend almost every lunch break watching HGTV with my coworkers, as there is nothing more fun than loudly criticizing affluent homeowners’ design choices over a Planet Sub wrap. In fact, when it comes to enjoying TV with others, I think reality TV is the best route. You can talk over it and it seems to inspire more audience participation–gasping, judging, yelling–so it’s most fun in a group setting (except for Nashville. It’s really easy to yell at the TV while watching Nashville). Thus, saying you like reality TV is just saying you like bonding with others, no matter how ridiculous the focus of your attention may be. Why wouldn’t you want to admit that?

Why are all network television shows so awful? 

Respectfully disagree! Cannot disagree respectfully enough. I’ll admit that network TV is full of stinkers, but I’d like to point out several Big Five programs that rule:

  • Fox has Bob’s Burgers, which in addition to being funny and well-acted, is the best at making fun of weird people while celebrating their weirdness in a really heartwarming way (see Tina/butts).
  • ABC has Empire, which is a sight to behold and such a hit I hope other network dramas start incorporating more head-to-toe leopard print just to stay relevant.
  • NBC, well, I don’t currently watch anything on NBC (except for SNL) but not long ago the network could count Hannibal among its critical successes.
  • CBS has The Good Wife, which may have jumped the shark with a boring state’s attorney race plot in season 6, but before that it had five exceptionally well-written and acted seasons. It has not received it’s due praise on the award show circuit, but is considered by more people than just me to be a prestige drama.
  • The CW has a killer Monday night bloc anchored by Jane the Virgin, which leans into the inherent soapiness of network prime time dramas in the cheekiest, funniest and sweetest way possible. It’s the sort of show some people might categorize as a guilty pleasure, but I wish they wouldn’t. Jane is a very thoughtfully-made program that has masterfully crafted it’s own distinct world and style. The makers of that show, from the writers to the set designers to the actors, should all be celebrated for their work. [Ed note: The CW also has iZombie, which I know the author of this question enjoys!]

These are just some of the network shows I find to be not-awful, and I don’t even consider them exceptions to a rule. As a long time lover of network TV shows (I heart ER), I do not relate to the idea that they are inherently worse than their cable counterparts. I think this attitude was born in the late nineties and  early aughts, when HBO ramped up it’s original programming. The channel had always used the slogan “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO,” but “not TV” for a channel that primarily shows old movies and stand-up specials means something different when that channel starts to show 30 minute comedies and hour-long dramas that looks a lot like TV. Thus “not TV” could be read as “it is TV, but not that TV” or “It’s not TV. It’s good.”

So was born an us-vs-them scenario, with clear markers identifying cable and network TV. Cable TV was gritter–more sex, more cursing–since it wasn’t a slave to the FCC, while network TV was too safe. Cable TV tended to offer up shorter seasons, while network TV stuck pretty closely to the standard 22-24 episodes. This allowed for cable TV to not only be more consistent in quality (it is surely easier to make 12 great episodes than 24), but also let them write, shoot and edit most of a season before it hit the air, so the final product could be a more cohesive unit. Also, HBO relied on subscriptions, so it wasn’t as dependent on advertisers as networks were. For HBO, the audience is the client and the programming the product. For networks, the advertiser is the client and the audience the product. HBO thus had the freedom to be experimental, which is certainly refreshing and definitely better for TV in the long run, but doesn’t need to discredit network TV that is still forced to play by old rules.

HBO’s commercial and critical success from The Sopranos onward has ushered in an era of cable TV domination. Now every major (and non-major) cable network puts money into original programming and the prestige HBO built-up gets to rub off on them too, since USA, Lifetime, FX, AMC, and many more can also claim to be “not TV” in some sense. I would like to point out, however, that there is some truly awful shit airing on cable TV that I think gets called good simply because it isn’t on a network, which I resent.

I’m surely generalizing here, but this is what I imagine to be the usual complaints against network TV: It’s safe, it’s formulaic, it’s soapy, it uses laugh tracks, it’s too long, it’s inconsistent, it’s not gritty enough, it’s too dependent on an antiquated ratings model, etc. These are all fair points, but many of the differences between the original cable TV model and network programming are no longer so clear cut. Take Hannibal for example, which aired on NBC. It had short seasons and was one of the most graphic shows on the air (so gross and so, so great). It eventually got cancelled, but HBO has also cancelled a ton of stuff that I wish it wouldn’t have (See Deadwood and Enlightened). That Hannibal got even three seasons is very promising for the future of network TV. Also, plenty of shows are still operating with the usual 22-episode network formula, but doing really experimental and meaningful work within those parameters (see Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Parks and RecreationFriday Night Lights and so many more).

Ok. Deep breath. Calm down, McCullar. That’s my two cents. I agree that network TV is very limited and full of crap, and I absolutely hate what advertisers and antiquated rating systems to do it. Nevertheless, I think network TV is as much a craft as its cable brethren, though the two have their differences. Whatever the case, I certainly don’t think network TV is all awful.

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