I am giddy.
I love being able to write that sentence. But it’s the only way to convey my mindset after the week I’ve had.
In the past week or so, I watched the complete, six-episode seasons of Amazon Prime’s “One Mississippi” and “Fleabag.” I also sampled or continued to watch advance episodes of three other series: HBO’s “Insecure” and FX’s “Better Things” and “Atlanta.”
Hot damn, they’re all so good.
More detailed assessments will be in my upcoming review of the two Amazon shows, and Variety critic Sonia Saraiya has already written about “Better Things” and “Atlanta”; her positive thoughts largely echo mine. You’ll have to wait a few more weeks for Variety’s review of “Insecure,” but at this stage, I feel confident in calling it one of the best new shows of the year.
A week like this — in which each new show I watched was more exciting and impressive than the last — is something to savor, not least because I’ve had far less pleasant stretches in this gig. People often say, “I wish I had your job,” and mentally, I always respond, “Nooope, you really don’t.”
Yes, I know I’m lucky to write about TV for a living, I really do. But having to think up 600 to 800 words of cogent thoughts on a dumb, cliched, condescending or offensive show is not fun. Now try doing that four times in two days. Trust me, it’s even less fun than you might imagine.
But the good stuff makes it worth it, and there has been so much good stuff this week. I can’t wait for you to see these shows (and their debut dates are below). I do this job to be shocked, surprised and challenged in entertaining and thrilling ways — and to laugh, too. All five of these shows are funny — hooray! — but I’m not giddy just because of that.
No, it’s because these shows bring into sharper focus some of the biggest and best trends in television, the majority of which are cause for celebration (and I’ll get to my caveats in a bit).
They are all half-hour shows, which are now the dominant art form in TV, for a whole bunch of reasons. In the first decade of the century, dramas were king, but for the past few years, the half-hour realm is where TV has been at its most fertile, adventurous and fresh. I wrote about the rise of the half-hour a few months ago, and my colleague Cynthia Littleton just wrote a cover story on their dominance, which will only gain steam with the launch of the splendid shows mentioned here.
These five programs all take on matters of race, sex, class, sexual orientation and other charged topics, but within the context of personal tales that have a hand-crafted, artisanal feel. Their tones, settings and worldviews vary, but we may have to officially retire our notions about comedy that “punches up” or “punches down.” These shows find a ton of fruitful dramatic and comedic potential in every direction. The artfully handled, unpredictable collisions are so often what make these shows outstanding.
As the musical “Avenue Q” taught us, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (and sexist, and class-ist, and so on). These comedies retain a compassionate curiosity about everyday life, but they also assume that everyone gets it wrong at least some of the time — or a lot of the time. And yet they retain a sense of wonder and an ability to laugh at the weird grace, goofy tedium and strange coincidences that litter everyday life. These deft shows know that the exposure of bias, self-absorption and stupidity — as well all kinds of halting attempts to do better and just be better — can lead to both high and low comedy, and also offer chances to tell stories that have palpable relevance to the world we live in.
What’s it like to be a black woman in a mostly white workplace, where some co-workers exclude you and others are overly invested in having a black friend? What’s it like to be an actress who has to deal with Hollywood’s consistent buffoonery and obliviousness when it comes to matters of gender? What’s it like to be a struggling young father whose is not sure of his direction in life, in a world that seems hostile to not just his ambitions but his very existence? What’s it like to process grief? These shows ask an almost dizzying array of smart and piercing questions, all of which generate genuine conflict and cringe-inducing laughs. And these shows don’t try to supply answers to these knotty, layered collisions and conundrums; they just offer fully realized characters and sharp, concise stories that brim with specificity, bemusement and loving attention to detail.
Of course, another thing these five shows have in common is that they were created by white women, women of color and men of color. For years, critics who’ve advocated for greater diversity and inclusion in the television realm have done so in part because we believed that it would make TV better. Going to the same wells over and over again leads to creative stagnation, and nobody wants that — though of course, an even more pressing motivation is the fact that opening the doors to those who have been excluded is just the right thing to do.
It’s worth mentioning that that door has only been opened a crack (if that). The worst thing that the TV industry could engage in right now is a frenzy of self-congratulation over its track record in front of and behind the camera, which is not so much “good” as “starting to get less terrible.” So many networks are just beginning the process of changing how they operate — those that are changing at all, that is. And that leads to my caveat.
Let’s get real: Part of the reason that those who’ve historically been excluded from TV have gotten half-hour shows is because they’re cheaper to make. A smaller budget means less of chance is being taken. The fact that those who received that smaller investment often made a virtue of necessity doesn’t change the fact that the budgets of all my favorite comedies put together wouldn’t pay for one season of a high-end prestige drama.
Of course, a few new one-hour shows are being created, shepherded and often directed by men and women of color. Just this year, we saw the debuts of “Underground” and “Greenleaf” (both of which were quite successful), and “Queen Sugar” and “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” both of whom have largely African-American casts and creative teams, are on the horizon. But those one-hours represent a drop in TV’s bucket, which, by the time this year is over, will hold more than 430 scripted programs. So there’s much work to be done, still. But the fresh perspectives and exhilarating creativity on display in the shows I’ve named here means that they stand out in a very packed crowd — and in this tough marketplace, every network needs more of that, not less.
So let’s hope 2017 brings more of the same. And by “the same,” I mean different.
Issa Rae is not necessarily speaking for all late-20s women or all African-American women in “Insecure,” nor is Tig Notaro generalizing about all lesbians with painful family secrets in “One Mississippi.” Most human beings possessed of hearts and working brains will be able to relate to Earn’s frustrations in “Atlanta” and even to the bitterly funny self-hatred on display in “Fleabag.” “Better Things” is terrific on the subjects of parenting and middle-aged dating, but about so many other things as well. If you’ve ever felt loving, angry, stupid, hopeful or lost, you’re likely to see yourself in these shows.
Through these very personal tales, this array of writers and actors get at universal truths, without resorting to sentiment, superficiality or cliches. All these shows wisely and wittily ponder the human condition, even as they remind us what it’s like to be an outsider, or an “insider” with a tenuous hold on some unstable slice of privilege. Their short running times don’t make these comic and tragicomic distillations of life’s big questions any less admirable, or any easier to make. They’re so often beautifully sad, wondrous and hilarious.
All these statements also apply, by the way, to an incredibly varied array of precursors, such as “Girls,” “Black-ish,” “Master of None,” “Lady Dynamite,” “Catastrophe,” “Broad City,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “You’re the Worst,” “Survivor’s Remorse,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Superstore” — some of which were created or co-created by white guys.
An aside: My favorite story from TCA press tour (aside from this radical turnabout) involves a story that was told by a black female director, Victoria Mahoney. Mike O’Malley, the white creator of “Survivor’s Remorse,” wanted a black woman to direct an episode of the show that dealt with colorism within the African-American community, but the lists he got from talent agencies were no help, so he went on social media, put out a request for names, and was connected with Mahoney, whom he hired. A few months ago, I wrote a column about how 2006 was an incredible year for TV, but 10 years ago, I would have never have watched five shows in a row like the ones I named at the top of this column, nor would I have had the opportunity to write the previous sentence. Progress.
Anyway, it’s Friday, and we’re all looking forward to the holiday weekend. There’s so much TV to watch! No, but seriously, go outside once or twice also.
I just wanted to take a moment to share my giddy optimism with you. There may come a day when the kind of half-hour storytelling I’ve talked about here — the kind that manages to knit together anger and aspiration, the kind that somehow transitions seamlessly from frustration to wry sympathy to surreal confusion, the kind that fuses desperation and unexpected kindness and slapstick comedy, the kind that provokes both recognition and sobs — will start to feel boring and old hat. One day, I may get tired of it.
Right now, that day seems pretty far off.
“Atlanta” premieres Sept. 6 and “Better Things” premieres Sept. 8; both air on FX. “One Mississippi” arrives on Amazon Prime Sept. 9 and “Fleabag” on Sept. 16. “Insecure” debuts on HBO on Oct. 9. Update: For a Talking TV podcast on four of the shows mentioned here, go here; for a podcast on “Atlanta” and “You’re the Worst,” go here.