Hollywood in Chaos: No One Knows What Good TV Is Anymore

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Paramount/Max
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Paramount/Max

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The dystopian, suffocating, poisonous blanket of smoke that descended on New York this week shut down most of the city’s hallmark activities, save for at least one: the instinct to loudly complain. (Unlike the stagnant, hazardous air we were breathing, we rose to the occasion.)

Still, on Wednesday, I received devastating news. And thanks to the poor-quality air and abundance of toxins, I was only able to choke out a strained, muffled moan in response, when I had wanted to shriek in horror: After nearly a year in limbo, Showtime canceled the series I Love That for You after one season. To cancel a Molly Shannon series at all—let alone one this funny—is a travesty. But to do it during Pride Month?! I’m calling GLAAD, the ACLU, and Andy Cohen. This must not stand.

Listen, it stings whenever a person’s favorite series is canceled. It’s been happening in droves this last year, as the presumed gold rush that was the streaming boom has seemingly dried up. But there’s something about I Love That for You being canceled now, in this weird and uncertain time in the industry—a writers strike combined with a streaming existential crisis—that seems particularly doomsday-y for TV fans. (Or, at least, this TV fan.)

Have we completely lost the plot of what a good show is? More, will we ever find it again?

<div class="inline-image__credit">Showtime</div>

I Love That for You was special: a weird, ballsy dark comedy by way of absurdist morality tale. Vanessa Bayer plays an aspiring home shopping network personality who manufactures a cancer diagnosis to keep her job—yet somehow you still root for her. It was a series that was heartwarming and endearing, while being incredibly uncomfortable (again, fake cancer!).

The show was the kind of distinctive, unusual comedy that the age of #PeakTV was supposed to foster. That it might not be for everyone was the point; that the contingent who watched it became rabid fans, whatever size that viewership was, was supposed to be proof of its success.

The utopian ideal was that there would be many different versions of something great for every kind of taste to champion, rather than one thing that’s mediocre for everyone to merely tolerate. But misguided revenue models, unrealistic development practices, and an exhausting obsession with content that is “prestige” seems to have torpedoed what had been great about this era of television.

Unique series like I Love That for You (and so many more) are being canceled. The refusal to pay writers what they’re worth has led to a necessary work stoppage, and no one really knows when existing favorite series, like Abbott Elementary, Grey’s Anatomy, Ghosts, or Young Sheldon will return. Streaming services are in a tailspin over how to regroup after years of a failed experiment. And the biggest series we’re all supposed to be watching and loving right now is… The Idol. God help us.

‘The Idol’ Premiere Recap: How Much Sex, Nudity, and Offensive Dialogue Is There?

It’s all so bleak. The industry environment right now is one you might describe by comparing it to looking out a window and seeing a terrifying, apocalyptic orange haze where the charming, gratifying view of your street used to be. You couldn’t script a better backdrop. (Literally. Writers are on strike!)

This week, Josef Adalian and Lane Brown wrote a fascinating—which is to say depressing, unsettling, and instructive—piece for Vulture called “The Binge Purge,” about how “TV’s streaming model is broken.”

The article is full of telling interviews and anecdotes from TV creators, executives, and writers about how bad the situation is, and how clueless everybody seems to be when it comes to fixing the situation.

The ire has to do with how difficult it’s become to make any TV at all, let alone great TV: “This is the single worst time to be making anything in the history of the medium. It’s just as dark as it’s ever been,” one industry insider said. There’s bitterness over how streaming services operate and how the way pay is structured has decimated compensation, outside of the executive suites and highest-tier A-listers: “I think we may be in the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme,” another insider joked.

Why Should Anyone Care About Writers Anyway?

And there’s the observation that had me stand up from my computer desk, dance around the room in praise, and shout in agreement: “Where’s my Alias? Where’s my West Wing? Where’s my 24? Where’s my Ally McBeal, Once and Again, and Brothers & Sisters? I have a friend who works at Netflix, and for years I’ve been asking, ‘When are all of you streamers going to get your prestige heads out of your asses?’”

(Read more of the article here. It’s definitely worth it if you’re a TV fan trying to understand what in the world is going on right now.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about that last point this week, a week in which yet another bloated, stakes-less prestige drama series starring major celebrity award winners and Marvel superheroes premiered on a streaming service, and no one seems to know it exists.

Funnily enough, it’s also a week that featured the release of what may rank as the piece of entertainment I’ve been most excited to watch in years: original Grey’s Anatomy stars Katherine Heigl and Ellen Pompeo interviewing each other for Variety’s “Actors on Actors” series. (Watch it here.)

The conversation was loaded with more than a decade of baggage, stemming from all the tabloid gossip surrounding Heigl’s departure from the series in 2010, the industry’s misogynistic branding of her as difficult and ungrateful after candid comments she had made, and, now, the reconsideration of that period and a vindication: Not only was Heigl mistreated, she actually was right.

<div class="inline-image__credit">ABC</div>

The “Actors on Actors” installment is juicy, illuminating as to the pressures the two actresses faced, and nostalgic, when it comes to what seems now like a bygone era of TV.

I think about how influential that period was for me as a TV fan, and now as an entertainment journalist. “Obsessed” doesn’t even begin to describe my relationship to early Grey’s, Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives, The West Wing, Ugly Betty, The Office, Arrested Development, Scrubs, Will & Grace, Malcolm in the Middle…the list goes on.

Obviously TV is constantly changing, and that time seemed radical compared to ones before—just as today’s content seems to have evolved compared to those series. But there’s a spirit to those shows that I miss, as the industry sped ahead and metastasized.

Was it thrilling to watch as TV changed on the backs of Mad Men, House of Cards, and the streaming explosion? Of course! But in this age of #TooMuchTV and overwhelming options of what to watch, it’s striking to me that—just as the point was made in that Vulture piece—shows like those broadcast hits are missing.

Whether it’s a focus on streaming mediocrity (the Netflix shows you put on while folding laundry and scrolling through Instagram) or the pressure to make everything prestige, we’re missing what I think is a vital part of the television landscape: quality, mainstream series that people actually enjoy watching.

Now I gear up for a weekend of having to watch another episode of The Idol, the crowning achievement of empty provocation, false importance, and auteur narcissism. It’s a show wrought by the collision of the streaming rise and prestige pandemonium, like a garish sonic boom. This is what years of formulas, algorithms, production budgets, and changes in how TV is made and consumed have decided is the kind of TV we not only want, but would think is good. I hate it.

My favorite tweet of the week kind of relates to all of this. It offers a Sliding Doors scenario: What if instead of wondering how we got here, we just never even tried?

I guess basically what I’m saying is that we should all give up on new things and just watch reruns of The Golden Girls.

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