2017 Favorites: TV Shows

Next up on my 2017 Favorites: TV Shows. This is meant to be TV shows I watched in 2017, but they’re actually all shows that aired/became available on streaming this year, too, because my backlist watching is scattered over a lot of different shows right now (though I am enjoying Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica and Parks and Recreation…)

So here is my list, in approximate order of when I watched them.

A Series of Unfortunate Events (season 1)

asoueI feel like I’ve been waiting for this since sixth grade when I binged the book series (yes, I know, later than some…I refused to read popular books for a while), and it did NOT disappoint. I actually kind of like the movie, but the series of course is not designed for that format, and it tried to wrap it all up with a definite ending that just doesn’t fit.

From what I can remember, the Netflix show stays faithful to the book, taking its time with 2 episodes for each book/story, and so the first season comprises books 1-4. The old-timey style of the strange setting is rendered beautifully. Patrick Warburton (aka Puddy from Seinfeld) is great as Lemony Snicket, narrating and freeze-framing to point out his characteristic observations. Neil Patrick Harris’s Olaf is, yes, ridiculous–but that’s the point. He seems to be the only adults in on the joke, constantly breaking the fourth wall to comment on streaming TV. I also appreciated and caught the various literary references more, as well as the overall “adults are incompetent” theme. I knew the twist it was trying to pull because it was spoiled for me online (although not really a spoiler because, again, it follows the books), but I enjoyed how more overt references to the over-arching plot of series were weaved in compared to the books (as I remember!). And the kids, of course, I care about as they struggle through the absurd world.

Legion (season 1)

I watched this show quite a long time now, but it had me sold on “very strange experimental TV about an obscure X-Men character who is possibly struggling with mental illness or a superpower or both.” Okay, I actually hadn’t really been into the X-Men before this, but I’d been intrigued by how it can be seen as metaphorical for marginalized youth. Add that to the mental health themes, and I was hoping for something like Fringe (one of my favorite shows of all time), where sci-fi/supernatural elements help communicate the fear of what’s happening in your own head. And it didn’t disappoint on that front, while also being very entertaining with a mix of horror, mystery, action, romance, and surrealism. It even turned into a silent black-and-white horror movie once. Can’t wait to continue exploring the world in the second season!

Naturally, I have to close out with this clip. Aubrey Plaza deserves all the awards for being really creepy the whole season.

Doctor Who (series 10 +  Christmas special)

Doctor Who was my first proper TV love (like 6 and a half years ago now!) and I still continue to enjoy exploring whatever it throws at me each week it’s’ on. This year, I loved the unpredictable, funny, and groundbreaking Bill as the new companion, there were quite a few episodes with great ideas I enjoyed, and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was continued to delight. The most recent episode, the Christmas special, explored death and change in a very moving way. And I’m excited for the Thirteenth Doctor, too! (Though I’ll have to get used to her being a very different character than she played on Broadchurch…see below.)

Doctor Who S10 Ep1

The Good Place (season 1.5-2.5)

I’m so glad this show has gotten popular! I began watched it when there were only a few episodes out, but it’s certainly become more well-known and well-loved since arriving on Netflix in August. This year, there was the end of season 1 with THAT twist that I did not see coming, and the continuously unpredictable beginning (well, like 2/3) of season 2. I find myself laughing at all of the creative absurdity (and PUNS) it comes up with and I’m so happy there will be more!

Twin Peaks (season 2.5-3)

I debated whether to put this on the list or not. I finally went back to the second (and then final) season of Twin Peaks after several years…I think I was around episode 16 or 17? I’d already known the murderer and everything. Refreshingly, it seemed like I was throughout the slow patch of the season and I really enjoyed the last part of season 2, especially the introduction of Annie and that famous final episode.

Then I continued on to the new Showtime revival. I intended to binge it and avoid paying more than a month of the streaming service (through Hulu), but the season wasn’t all out like I thought it was at the time, and it turned out to be so. slow. There were a lot of intriguing parts, but I honestly missed the old characters together and, especially, Cooper. Who is there, but not really there, as you’ll know if you’ve seen it, which was disappointing as I remembered how much I loved his quirky character after returning to the show. When I did binge the last few episodes to avoid paying for another month, I didn’t really connect with it and was mostly just glad I was over. But it still had those surreal moments I still love, so…

twin peaks finale

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (season 2-3.5)

I honestly wasn’t a big fan of the second season…it seemed to lack something (Greg, honestly, and the realism he brought). But I did watch it this year, so it might as well be on this list, and there were some great moments and songs.

More significantly, season 3 so far has been FANTASTIC. I wasn’t sure where it was going to go and not terribly excited for it, but it has really impressed me by delving deeply into the mental health issues we all know Rebecca has had. The song “Diagnosis” was sadly rather relatable, and I’m so glad it’s gone in this direction. Plus, we’ve been graced with the song parodies “Let’s Generalize About Men” and “The First Penis I Saw.”‘

Star Trek: Discovery (“Chapter 1”)

star trek discovery cast.jpg

I know this might be controversial in the Star Trek fandom (for various reasons, some valid and some just plain racist and homophobic), but I LOVE Discovery! I’m finally glad I get to watch a Star Trek series as it airs (I grew up on reruns of The Next Generation), and it hasn’t disappointed. I love Michael and watching her and the other characters grow. It managed to preserve an episodic structure especially in later episodes that showed fun time on the ship as well as the problem-of-the-week, along with the over-arching plot. Anthony Rapp, who I already loved from musicals, plays one-half Star Trek‘s first gay characters and couple alongside Wilson Cruz, which makes me so happy and is so important. (I know some people are worried something will happen to them, but I’m hopeful, because they’re main Star Trek characters? I know that’s naive, but I think there’s plenty of story they want to tell there.) The finale was especially great–there were twists I didn’t see coming and I thought it explored PTSD well and from an angle you don’t usually see. I can’t wait for the rest in January!

Stranger Things (season 2)

eleven.jpgStranger Things was something I jumped early on the bandwagon last summer and I found it a lot of fun. The second season, which I watched with a couple friends over 3 days (3 episodes over 3 days over a week, basically), didn’t disappoint. Clearly, this was never a show I thought too much about, but I enjoyed this season quite a bit. I wish there was more for Nancy to do, but man can the kid playing Will ACT after we barely saw him last season, and I really liked Eleven looking into her past and coming into her own. And yes, I enjoyed episode 7 for that reason, but that seems to be more common amongst female viewers, too.

Broadchurch (season 3)

broadchurch season 3

I loved the first two seasons (especially the first) of Broadchurch when I watched them back in 2015. But I hadn’t followed the lead-up to the third and final season (first airing in the UK and on BBC America), so it was a pleasant surprise when it arrived on Netflix and I couldn’t stop watching, just like when I first saw the first season.

While references are still made to the initial murder and its fallout that kicked off the whole show, season 3 is about an entirely new case of the rape of a woman. (In fact, I found Mark’s storyline a little tedious…though I suppose that’s the point. He irrationally cannot get over his son’s murder.) It is handled VERY WELL and never explicitly shown on-screen, and much of the season scrutinizes various everyday examples of misogyny in addition to the serious ones. Naturally, it wouldn’t be there’s paranoia running rampant and improper uses of the press. Ellie Miller (who I still LOVE) is caring to the victim, calling out sexism and stressing how important it is to believe the victim and preserve confidentiality. In other words, a great antidote to 2017’s sexual harassment (and worse) allegations. Alec gets some character development as well with his daughter, though I wish Ellie called him out a couple of times he was being rude. Basically, FANTASTIC. Sad there won’t be more, but at least Chibnall and Whittaker are moving to Doctor Who (even though I haven’t been a big fan most of Chibnall’s past Who episodes, I love how he handles this show). Watch the whole series if you haven’t.

Honorable Mentions

  • Class, the (sadly now-canceled) Doctor Who spinoff helmed by YA author Patrick Ness, because I still have only seen a couple of episodes. But what I saw I loved, so I’m sure it’ll make the 2018 list!
  • Big Mouth…I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did? But it also covered female puberty and consent and healthy relationships! And there were some great visual gags! And parodies of R.E.M. and Seinfeld! At the very least, it’s research for teaching middle school, right?
  • American Gods…I binged this in a week and so it wasn’t as memorable as the others, but I did enjoy it and it rendered quite a few wacky moments from the book well.
  • I didn’t love Atlanta as much as I expected, mostly because it wasn’t as surreal as I had been lead to believe, but I loved the very satiric episodes “B.A.N.” and “Juneteenth.”
  • I’m currently watching Mindhunter and may be close to finishing before the year’s up. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, but I’m enjoying the commentary on psychology, the 70s style, and everything Anna Torv.
  • I still haven’t watched the last of this year’s Sherlock batch, but I remember enjoying the second one of the bunch (“The Lying Detective”).

Fall TV Shows I’m Looking Forward To

It’s September, and the fall TV season is upon us. Honestly, I used to watch mostly older shows on streaming, I and I am STILL up to my ears in shows to watch on streaming (hello, Battlestar Galactica), but last year I started watching and following some more recent shows. So here’s what I’m looking forward to that’s

The Good Place S2 (Sept. 20)

This was my favorite new show of last year, although it’s difficult to explain why I’m especially excited for this new season because it involves spoiling quite a bit of the first. (it is on Netflix now, though, go watch it!) Nevertheless, this is a show that’s delightfully wacky and inventive with lots of twists. We’ve been given very little information about this season, too–most promo clips use footage from the first season. And one of the things we do have is a picture of a clam chowder fountain (see below). So.

good place clam chowder

Star Trek Discovery (Sept. 24)

star trek discoveryLook, yes, I’m a little frustrated this is only on CBS All Access, and I do like the episodic nature of the previous Trek series (okay, I admit I watched mostly Next Generation, which is close to my heart). But I am a fan of character-based stories, and THIS CAST. I can’t wait to follow Sonequa Martin-Green’s character’s journey, and one of the supporting characters is played by Anthony Rapp, who is one of my favorite performers (even if he won’t be singing). He and Wilson Cruz’s characters are also the first gay characters Star Trek has had and that makes me so happy. This will be the first Star Trek series I watch as it airs and I’m so excited to have one for this generation.

The Gifted (Oct. 2)

I’ve always been interested in the potential metaphors implicit in X-Men, although I admit I haven’t read the comics and the only movie I’ve seen is the first one, and that was just this year. But I did love Legion, and while this doesn’t seem similar at all, I love the idea of exploring adolescence through the X-Men.

The Mayor (Oct 3)

This is a comedy about a rapper who runs for mayor as a publicity stunt and wins.

Mindhunter (Oct. 13)

I don’t normally watch dark prestige TV shows on Netflix. This show is basically what my dad would watch if it was on network TV. But it has Anna Torv (who played my favorite character ever, Olivia Dunham on Fringe) and Jonathan Groff (Broadway) in it, so…

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend S3 (Oct. 13)

I don’t think I enjoyed the second season as much as the first, but there are sure to be great music parodies and shenanigans. I miss Greg, though.

Stranger Things S2 (Oct. 27)

Like everyone else, I watched Stranger Things last year. I’m usually not up on the current buzz, but it was the summer and I saw that it was only 8 episodes and rated TV-14, aka, “I can comfortably watch this in the living room in front of my family.” I love that the teen and child characters are treated seriously and are as developed as the adult characters, not to mention played wonderfully by skilled young actors. I’m exciting to see what’s up the writers’ sleeves this season.

stranger things season 2.jpg

What shows are you looking forward to?

13 Reasons Why & Prestige TV: Who’s the audience?

The following discusses graphic depictions of rape and suicide, including methods and details of the latter.

I’ve avoided writing a post about 13 Reasons Why because there are SO MANY THINGS that can be said, so many that have covered it, and every time I think about it too much I kind of combust into a ball of frustration. But alas, with the ridiculous yet unfortunately unsurprising news that it’s coming back for a second season (I was glad they were using TV to adapt books, but with the renewal of this and The Handmaid’s Tale, my trust has been betrayed), I thought I’d give it a shot.

So, since I’m fascinated by the evolution of TV, I read Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised near the end of last year (and failed to blog about it), which covers the early 2000s rise of prestige TV and the changing landscape of television. And, well, I’d been running out of things to watch so I’ve actually been watching (American) shows from this century now–Mad Men, Legion, and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few. I also took a class this past semester about the intersection of business and the cultural industries, and we talked a lot about the changes in TV. Prestige TV has been on my brain, as well as on my newsfeeds and podcasts.

Because of that, 13 Reasons Why was suddenly everywhere. The TV critics I followed were covering it, which kind of surprised me because they usually don’t bother with teen TV shows. Of course, 13RW is a Netflix property–that at least gives it a status as “might as well watch” in many circles (though A Series of Unfortunate Events–which was SO GOOD, by the way, and very postmodern and smart–didn’t drum up as much critic-talk). I should note I’d been aware of the book, as I was a teen when it was popular, but never picked it up because my only real interest in it came from wanting to read YA staples, and I was skeptical of the concept of having concrete “reasons” to commit suicide.

darn poster
Poster says “Based on the bestselling mystery” and seems to place her in an enigmatic position very unlike “girl who committed suicide” should.

Prestige TV is kind of an arbitrary monkier. It’s usually for those shows produced with an eye on the critics rather than the commercial, and as such doesn’t cave as much to advertisers and is more likely to be found on subscription services or some cable channels–usually, HBO, FX, AMC, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, Amazon, Starz. It tends to take more narrative and content risks to challenge the audiences and show critics TV isn’t dumb and inferior to film like you used to think it was. A lot of these series are about white male antiheros and aimed toward the middle class white male demographic to boot–though they’ve been diversifying more recently. And because of the aforementioned outlets–particularly subscription services, which don’t rely on advertisers–these shows tend to tackle more mature themes and show more sex and violence. 13 Reasons Why certainly capture critiques, contained a lot of f-bombs and graphic content, and seemed to be marketed as a dark mystery/thriller.

Meanwhile, there’s young adult (YA) literature, the age market category that the novel 13 Reasons Why belongs to, and for good reason; “issue novels” and novels that contain and/or address various identities and struggles are common in YA. YA gets a bad rap, often seen as “silly vampire novels” or “dystopian novels” or love stories, which not only is a) part of our problem of looking down upon all things teenage girl, and b) completely discounts the range within YA, especially recently. (The 13 Reasons Why cast and crew has fallen into this trap, too.)  From someone who’s actively followed the YA community from the perspectives of a reader, teacher, and writer, I’ll certainly say that it’s not just teens who love YA, and hopefully good books are enjoyable to adults as well. But most authors I’ve read about or listened to keep their target audience in mind–not in a didactic way, but as in “I wish I had this book as a teen and I want to help teens understand themselves and the world in some way.” And, regardless of how it was executed (and I’m rather skeptical of it), 13 Reasons Why’s subject matter fits right in to that.

The dissonance? The Netflix adaptation carries a TV-MA rating, likely due to language and the graphic portrayal of rape and suicide in late episodes. That’s pretty consistent with prestige TV. But it’s also targeted at teenagers, with kids as young as 12 watching it–and while I’ll be the first to admit teens can watch above the recommended age level, one has to wonder if this is really for teens why it isn’t rated TV-14. The MA rating also makes it harder for it to be screened in teen spaces like schools, which seems so contradictory to the defense that this is a good show to be a “conversation starter.” Unfortunately, not all teens have trustworthy and knowledgeable adults in their lives to discuss this with.

The graphic sexual assault and suicide scenes (and the show’s overall revenge theme) have drawn criticism from mental health professionals who are concerned about is impact on suicidal teens and suicide contagion, prompting Netflix to recently add more specific trigger warnings. This is all within good reason–the concept of triggers originates from the mental health world, after all, and for those suffering trauma from sexual assault or experiencing thoughts of self harm or suicide, graphic scenes (especially without warning) can have a very adverse affect upon mental health. One of the show’s writers, Nick Sheff, explained in an op-ed why he fought to include the suicide scene: he once heard a woman explain the complications that resaulted from her suicide attempt (via pill-taking), the memory of which saved him later when he considered taking his own life. With all respect to Mr. Sheff, he’s not really comparing apples to apples: a suicide attempt is very different from showing a successful (for lack of a better term) suicide. And interestingly, in the book 13 Reasons Why, Hannah doesn’t slit her wrists and bleed out as shown in the show–she overdosed on pills. Why change that aspect if not to show something more graphic from an outside perspective?

Of course, the graphic scenes have also been well-received by critics for its artistic value, once again highlighting that dissonance between the critics’ value of graphic TV and its supposed target audience. (But, also, does all socially important content need to be graphic to be effective? I wonder sometimes.)

So, considering its viewer-unfriendliness to the suicidal and sexual assault surviors, is 13 Reasons Why really meant for the audience it claims to help: suffering teenagers who should reach out for help?

Or is it more for the “mainstream,” focused instead on the bullying issue and how you should be nice to people?

(Or may its storyline suggest that suicide can serve as successful revenge?)

The answer is, of course, varied upon the individual. I just think all of this should be considered, and it brings up some interesting commentary on where we sit with TV today.

One final note: I’ve been troubled by some of the discussions I’ve seen about whether the show shows that suicide is the right “choice” or not, the idea of people to blame and reasons why for committing suicide, and a recurring screencap/quote/gif I see that seems to suggest that Clay could have saved Hannah’s life if he’d told her he loved her. All of these seem to treat suicidal individuals as completely rational beings, which is contrary to how depression, trauma, and mental illness in general works. It’s no one’s fault, and every time I see the comment of “how could someone watch this and think suicide is the right choice?” I can’t help but feel they’re really saying it’s a choice and placing blame upon the suicidal for a decision they can’t possibly comprehend, and that isn’t helping. As humans, we like for things to make sense, but not all of our brains work the same way. You can tell someone you love them, but that doesn’t mean their brain will believe you. It isn’t your fault and it isn’t their fault.

Of course, 13 Reasons Why apparently never talks about mental health, whether it’s depression or PTSD (common in rape survivors). That’s a topic I’m not going to go into now, but let me just say that I don’t want to see this show (or the book, if it has the same omissions) referred to as “tackling mental health topics” or on a list of stories about mental health or suicide. It should not be the show/book about suicide, nevermind mental health.

And a couple sidenotes…

  • Naturally, the show became memefied (with even Netflix taking part), including as a promposal. I’ve found this extremely unsettling considering the cassette tapes represent a suicide notes with details of bullying and rape. That is not funny.
  • Brian Yorkey adapted the series, and I knew him previously as the book and lyric writer (with Tom Kitt composing) of Next to Normal (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and If/Then, two of my favorite musicals. Researching 13RW has made me reconsider Next to Normal a little bit, which is also about mental illness–although much more explicitly, focusing on a bipolar woman and her family. Apparently, the duo started it as a critique of mental health treatments of bipolar disorder (mostly electroshock therapy), which could be very frustrating if research with actual and various bipolar women was not conducted. However, I think the final version is much more concerned with the effect on the family and her relationship to them that it avoids these problems to have a lot of heart. Here’s the awesome Tony Awards performance, if you’re curious.
  • This article about teens’ experience was also worth listening to, although of course, your mileage may vary.