If television were a universe, it would be the Marvel universe: so large and loosely tied together, it’s kinda scary.
But within that universe lies more treasures than Thor has in all of Asgard. Comedy, drama, limited series, films, variety shows, talk shows — and those are just Emmy categories. Television provides challenging ongoing narratives like “The Leftovers” and momentary blips of brilliance (like this). Moreover, television opens doors to new worlds and provides revealing facts about the ones we already know. It’s a medium of great power and untapped potential. Television is very good, in many, many different ways.
So to celebrate the 100th episode of IndieWire’s Very Good Television Podcast, co-hosts Ben Travers (IndieWire TV Critic) and Liz Shannon Miller (IndieWire’s TV Editor) reached out to a few of their favorite influential people working in television today. The question sounds simple: What makes for “very good” TV in 2017 (or what their favorite thing about television was right now)? The answers, however, were excitingly complex.
“My favorite thing about TV is probably an answer you’re getting a lot, which is the diversity of television,” Aya Cash said, accurately summing up one of the most popular answers from our informal poll. “I think we can always do better. I think there’s more opportunity than is being used. But I do think that I really appreciate [what’s there].”
“The thing that jumps out in my mind about 2017 television is how I’m interested in stories by people of color,” Michaela Watkins added. “With streaming services and cable television, we’re getting all these new voices — like ‘Insecure,’ ‘Atlanta,’ and Aziz Ansari’s show ‘Master of None.’ I think 2017 is going to be about inclusion in the face of what’s happening on a national level. I’m just interested in hearing voices that are sort of on the fringe, and we haven’t been able to experience enough of.”
“The most exciting thing about television right now is that it’s so heterogeneous,” Carrie Coon said. “It’s filled with wildly dissimilar and diverse points of view, not just in voices but in form and in content. Most thrilling of all are the women’s voices coming through: female comedians, things like ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,’ ‘Fleabag’ and all these new voices being discovered. It’s a really exciting time to be a woman on TV — and watching TV.”
Fitting for all these fresh stories, TV is also seeing a rise in what “Casual’s” Tara Lynne Barr refers to as “its willingness to be weird.”
“You had ‘Twin Peaks’ in the ’90s, and that was totally ahead of its time,” Barr said. “Now, you’re seeing more risk-taking, genre-defying shows similar to it. Don’t get me wrong: I love ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Crown’ as much as the next person, but the shows that make me giddy and excited about the future of TV are ‘BoJack Horseman,’ ‘Documentary Now!’, ‘Atlanta,’ and “Rick & Morty.'”
Your TV Favorites’ Favorite TV
Barr is also excited that some of these shows have crossed over to the mainstream — and she’s not alone. Many of our panelists were quick to mention specific shows they consider “very good.”
“One such show, that’s a very recent discovery for me, is ‘Legion,'” Barr said. ‘It’s not ‘original’ since it’s based on a comic, but the fact that it’s shot, designed, and cut in a way that doesn’t feel rote or joyless — it’s kind of punk rock. You’re constantly on your toes and it feels like you’re watching this art house piece. It’s awesome. It makes the viewing experience so rewarding.”
“I absolutely love the quirkiness and irreverence [of ‘The Young Pope’],” Mimi Leder said. The director and producer of “The Leftovers” called the HBO series “beautiful, unique, smart storytelling from [Paolo] Sorrentino. I think he’s a great filmmaker — an heir to Fellini. I’m a huge fan. I’m going to binge the rest of it.”
Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of “The Leftovers” and “Lost,” also loves “The Young Pope,” and is trying to find the time to finish Season 1. He’s also wrapping up “Atlanta” before digging into “The Crown,” “Search Party,” “Big Little Lies,” “The OA,” and new episodes of “The Walking Dead.” (He’s also looking forward to the new season of “Fargo” co-starring Carrie Coon, which he calls a “must-watch.”)
“There are probably six shows right now I’m dying to commence my binge on that I haven’t been able to get to because so vast are the shows I’m currently binging,” he said.
“I also appreciate that the onset of binge-watching has allowed for viewers to find more easter eggs in shows,” Cash said. “If it’s a good show, there are lots of little things you notice all at once that you don’t when you’re watching week-to-week or with huge hiatuses between [seasons]. I like the binge aspect of things, even though we should all be going outdoors and living lives, as well. [laughs]”
Too Much TV?
So how do decide what’s worth your allocated TV time? Amy Brenneman provided keen insight into how viewers can choose, as well as a good way to distinguish what’s driving their choices.
“As a creator and a consumer, one thing that’s really exciting is that all the natural rhythms are shaken up. In the traditional procedural, if you have a cast of seven, no matter what happens in that hour you pretty much know your series regulars are going to remain intact. It’s a very big deal if you lose a series regular. And there’s something lovely about that, and there’s something very predictable. If you want predictability that’s probably what you’re going to go for, but it’s a little numbing and a little boring because it never gets too risky.”
“I think what you’re finding, especially with the onset of cable, that all bets are off,” Brenneman continued. “It really keeps you engaged. So, especially on the show I work on, “The Leftovers,” you never know. Obviously, with it being “The Leftovers,” even if somebody dies they could still be a presence — even with the death of Ann Dowd’s character. That unpredictability makes things very exciting for viewers and creators.”
“We’ve gotten to a time where honesty is favored over schtick or predictability,” Tommy Dewey said. “You look at some comedies from 10 years ago — not that some of them weren’t good — but where jokiness was of the utmost importance and shows might have talked down to the audience a bit.”
“Now, a show like ‘Atlanta’ can do a broader episode that satirizes talk shows one week and the next week do a really long two-handed scene that plays mostly for drama. On our show, ‘Casual,’ this year we’re doing an episode that’s kind of a two-hander; a walk-and-talk through the streets that’s basically just me and Michaela Watkins. And then we’re doing a bigger, broader episode the next week.”
Such ambition ties into what Leder loves about TV from a production standout.
“We, the storytellers, have the freedom and ability to tell stories with our own unique voice, on our own terms,” she said. “There’s this liberation in the choices we make today, and there’s a deep commitment to the artfulness and craft to the work we do — especially on ‘The Leftovers’ — that is infectious, life-changing, and deeply satisfying.”
And One Final (Lengthy) Thought from Damon Lindelof
To frame the question of “too much TV” in a different light and sum up where we stand in 2017, Lindelof started by admitting there is too much television. It’s just that in this case, “too much” isn’t a bad thing.
“I’ll use the completely worn-out metaphor of Lollapalooza, which was sort of founded on the ideology that it was [an event for] indie bands. But they were indie mainstream bands. Jane’s Addiction — who would be mortified by the very idea they’d gone mainstream — were mainstream at Lollapalooza. All the action was basically in the smaller tents: the bands you’d never heard of or your favorite bands you thought no one had ever heard of. It was kind of a pre-internet culture [where] you’d show up in the smaller tent and find a thousand other people who were just like you, and this was their favorite band.”
“I think that’s what TV is now. Whereas five years ago, a show like ‘The Leftovers’ never makes it to a third season, let alone a second season, there are [now] enough people where ‘The Leftovers’ is their favorite band, so it’s allowed to continue existing. Back in the day, a show like ‘The Wire’ was fighting season-to-season just to make it into the next year. But ‘The Wire’ is widely accepted as one of the greatest if not the greatest television show ever, in hindsight. So all these shows are going to have a real legacy value. You don’t need to aggregate the same amount of audience around them. You just need to aggregate the same amount of passion.”
“I assume that the bubble is going to burst at some point, in terms of production, but it doesn’t feel like the quality has been affected. Yes, there’s more TV, but there’s more great television on now than ever before.”
For more thoughts on very good TV, listen to Lindelof’s full response as well as all our other gracious guests, on the 100th episode of Very Good TV Podcast. Thanks to all our loyal listeners, and don’t forget to subscribe via Soundcloud or iTunes, and follow IndieWire on Twitter and Facebook for all your pertinent TV news. Check out Liz and Ben’s Twitter feeds for more, more, more. Plus, don’t forget to listen to IndieWire’s other podcasts: Screen Talk with Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson, as well as Michael Schneider’s new podcast, Turn It On, which spotlights the most important TV of each week.