Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What current show (airing in the past year through now) do you find the most difficult to watch?
Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote
I’m sure I’m not alone, but “Handmaid’s Tale” is really, really, really rough to watch. It’s not that it’s bad — it’s very well done—but the outside world makes it painful to sit through. I have to be in a very specific mindset to get through an episode.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby
This will probably be a popular answer, but I have no desire to finish Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Is it still impeccably shot? Yes. Is the acting still aces? Yes. (Yvonne!) Is it a chore to sit through? YES. It’s not just the relentless torture porn, but its refusal/inability to commit to anything and take the story anywhere interesting now that it’s operating without the book’s blueprint. Every time the show starts flirting with something, it would retreat (yeah, I know what happens in the finale) and spin its wheels until it indulges in the next rape or torture or murder sequence. It feels weird to say, but there are no stakes anymore because nothing really happens except bad stuff and more bad stuff. So if they really want this to run for 10 years, put me out of my misery now.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
Weirdly, my answer isn’t “The Handmaid’s Tale.” For some reason, I find it at times kind of soothing to immerse myself in that world, one just at least slightly worse than our current situation?
Honestly, on a basic logistical level, it’s subtitles that are always a trial for me, just because it involves a big shift in my viewing habits. I enjoy foreign language shows, but it does require a different level of commitment and that’s hard and that’s what she said and then I feel guilty for many, many reasons.
That said, can’t wait for the new season of “Narcos”! Love those guys!
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
During a panel at the TV Critics summer press tour last week, a panelist spoke derisively about television that felt like homework while watching it and I sympathized. Certainly, it can be fun to keep track of complex storylines, and it’s wonderful to experience a piece of television that is so dense that you find new insights on repeated viewing. But I think shows like HBO’s “Westworld” and FX’s “Legion” fall into the trap of being too clever for their own good at times, making it so difficult for audiences to follow the evolution of their stories that many people check out.
I had similar issues with Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” revival, which was often so surreal I couldn’t tell if David Lynch was creating something brilliant or pulling off the biggest con in the history of scripted television. Ultimately, I decided for myself, that however artistically elevated his work might be, it wasn’t speaking to me as a viewer and felt too isolated by its own aggressively weird and purposefully unpredictable vision.
But as annoying as some of these works can be, their saving grace is that they are striving for excellence and they don’t talk down to their audience. So my ultimate pick for the most difficult watch, are shows that land at the opposite end of that spectrum – so-called reality TV series that are highly contrived, rooted in simple stereotypes and completely lying to their audiences about how things happen on their shows. Among these, “The Bachelor” is the highest profile and most egregious – though its low-rent cousin “The Proposal” is also making my nose hairs burn during the summer. These shows are tough to watch because they’re not only complete nonsense, but they encourage a unique hypocrisy among viewers, who pretend they’re in on the contrived nature of the show while completely reacting to the storylines, characters and outcomes as if they were genuine. These shows are tough for me to watch because I’m constantly reminding myself to be critical of their messaging and meaning, even as they lull me into getting involved emotionally in the scenarios they present.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I would have to say “Roseanne.” It was hard to watch on several layers: I deeply disagree with her views and didn’t want to reward her antics and allies with ratings that would generate her more money and therefore influence. That created so much discomfort. As a professional, I should watch, and as a human, I should resist!
But then, the show itself was wonderfully funny at times and so much of the cast was tremendous. I mean, Laurie Metcalf on a weekly basis is Manna from heaven and who would be crazy enough to deny themselves that joy? Was I going to let the problematic star steal away the pleasure of watching other, enjoyable actors do their thing?
It was also a major TV news story, the reboot that came back bigger than anyone expected despite all of the baggage, past and present, that it brought with it. People flocked to it, perhaps just to see what Roseanne Barr would say under the guise of “Roseanne Conner.” In the end, I found myself voting with my remote and left “Roseanne” behind mid-season. Then she showed her true colors (again) and solved any issues I would have had about giving the show a second chance for Season 2.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone
There’s different kinds of difficult. There are a lot of sluggishly paced dramas that take me at least twice as long to watch as their running time because my patience ebbs frequently enough for me to take a Twitter break, in the hopes that they will somehow move more quickly when I return. (Spoiler: they never do.) The increasingly bleak and angry state of the world inspired me to stop watching most of the late-night comedy shows, which once upon a time felt cathartic and are now just a new thing to fill me with rage at their targets. (This is not a knock on John Oliver, Sam Bee, et al, who were still doing great work when I stopped; just my desire to limit how much time each week I’m exposed to certain subjects in the news.)
But for sheer “Why am I still watching this?” discomfort, the easy winner has to be “The Handmaid’s Tale.” On a technical level and on a performance level, it’s one of the very best shows on TV, but it is by design an absolutely grueling and miserable place to visit once a week. (Or more: at one point I had to watch five episodes in a day to meet a magazine deadline. I strongly advise against trying this at home.) With almost any other show as well-crafted as “Handmaid’s” usually is, the thing that happens at the end of Season 2 has been frustrating but not enough to chase me away permanently. With this one, it was enough to provide license to walk away from a show that makes me miserable, despite how great so much of it is.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
I finally found time (thanks summer!) to tear through the fourth season of “Bojack Horseman,” and HOOBOY that was hard to watch. Not in the “UGH why is this a TV show?” sense, but the “Why is a cartoon horse leaving me quaking on the floor like I have PTSD?” sense. When it isn’t bombarding viewers with puns, “Bojack” excels at pulling all the dirty stuff up and airing it out for all to see, and the arc about Bojack’s mother, grandmother, and grandfather went as deep as anything on TV has. We now expect each season of “Bojack” to go dark, but it still doesn’t make it easier to watch knowing that it’s coming.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
A few months ago my answer to this question would have been “The Americans,” a show I loved deeply but always found myself struggling to watch because I needed to be in the right frame of mind to do it. Once there I could easily binge five episodes in a row without breaking a sweat. But “The Americans” is over, and now my answer is “The Bold Type,” and it’s for a completely different reason: it’s bad.
After a solid freshman season that gave many twentysomething women the opportunity to see themselves thoughtfully portrayed on TV, the show’s second season has struggled in the wake of a showrunner change. Each episode feels like an after-school special; one week it’s an episode all about gun ownership, another week it painfully tackles white privilege. This is all good in theory, but in execution, it’s all told through the lens of a frustrating character who’s become less and less interesting as the show has progressed. It’s not even that I hate Jane or think Katie Stevens’ portrayal of the character is lacking — I actually really like Katie Stevens (RIP “Faking It”) — it’s that the storylines are so tired and preachy that they’re adding nothing new to the conversation. And to tell them all through Jane’s perspective is hella tiring. This is no longer a charming show that offers positive role models for women and it’s a chore to watch. And it bums me the F out.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
A good show, even with tough subject matter, is always easier to watch than a bad show, even if it’s pretending to have fun or exciting subject matter. Ergo, even if “The Handmaid’s Tale” hits too close to home sometimes, I find it easier to watch 10 “Handmaid’s Tale” episodes than one, padded and pretentious “Westworld” episode. The answer to this question is always probably “Criminal Minds,” one of the worst shows ever made and 40 minutes of weekly pain, but mostly I avoid doing that. “Westworld” I still watch for no good reason, and a 90-minute episode of that? Good lord. So many absurd, whispered monologues about the nature of identity and free will.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
Difficult to watch from an “it’s so boring” perspective: NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” because really, it might as well be “Chicago Med”, “Chicago Fire” or Chicago deep dish pizza because it’s doughy, thick-as-a-brick Dick Wolf-created overhyped empty calorie viewing that puts me in an instant coma. The series is a churn of “been there seen that” formulaic arcs so overdone and quite frankly as far from “riveting” (as NBC describes it) as a TV show can get. You want riveting? Tune into BBC America’s “Killing Eve” or Netflix’s “Ozark.”
Difficult to watch because of the depth of “how many things are so wrong right now” perspective: HBO’s ”Vice News’” boots on the ground reporting (especially the in-depth reports turned in by Gianna Toboni and Isobel Yeung) on the frustrating and gutting environmental, social, cultural and political subjects that seem to have little to no solution to fix anytime soon.
Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance
For me, it’s a tie between “Who Is America?” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Sacha Baron Cohen is hard at work satirizing America’s variety of messes but the show is hardly a comedy. I know that’s the point but the overall effect of the show is that it’s tedious to watch. Each episode feels like the longest half-hour ever.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” became torture porn in Season 2, yet managed to include a strong performance from Yvonne Strahovski as Commander Waterford’s wife. I’m still at a loss as to how they did that as the writing was uneven. June/Offred’s intentions and motives became increasingly muddy as the season progressed, and her actions at the end of the season seemed out of character. It made for an unsatisfying ending to a painful-to-watch season. I still think the show’s themes are important but the next season has to find some kind of balance.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
I find all current TV shows difficult to watch. The endless onslaught of new programs that I’m supposed to care about for professional or personal reasons has reached a sheer level of overwhelmingness that I can hardly comprehend. I would like to request that Hollywood stop making new TV shows, so I can maybe have a couple of seconds to watch this cool new Hungarian series some guy was telling me about. Thank you, Hollywood.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
Setting aside shows I have to cover but otherwise would never, ever watch, as well as the many I enjoy watching but would prefer to skip in favor of books, movies, hiking, travel, and reruns of “Friday Night Lights,” I’d have to go with “Better Call Saul.” I’m not a naysayer in terms of the AMC prequel’s quality, and time has proven my ability to not just admire, but enjoy programs others find relentlessly sad. Yet the image presented right at the start — of Gene sitting alone and terrified in his home — is unshakable. That’s the future “Better Call Saul” is approaching, and witnessing a good man’s rise and fall when we know everything he’ll lose is simply too much for me. Investing in his fate as well as the fate of other characters whose endings are known isn’t rewarding enough, or perhaps I’m too scared, as well.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Sharp Objects” (five votes)
Other contenders: “Animal Kingdom,” “Big Brother,” “Castle Rock,” “Casual,” “Detroiters,” “GLOW,” “Somebody Feed Phil,” “Succession” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.