Why Too Much TV Can Be a Good Thing (Column)

Making room for more ambitious shows from voices that have rarely gotten the chance has only made TV better.

Three episodes into the second season of “Vida,” there’s a wedding so gloriously and specifically queer that I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. After watching countless couples walk down the aisle onscreen before, Starz’s “Vida” takes care to show a ceremony quite unlike any other, featuring drag queens, a pair of Latinx grooms in bedazzled cowboy hats, and enough undercuts to make a Sleater Kinney crowd blush. And yet, perhaps the most unique aspect of the wedding comes during the reception at a moment when the guests are just giddy (and tipsy) enough to relax into freewheeling conversations about their own histories, sexualities, and eventually, prejudices.

Emma (Mishel Prada) is a queer woman who prefers to keep her private life as private as possible and is as nonchalant about her sexuality as she is confident in it. So when a couple guests assume she’s a “baby queer” just because she’s dressed relatively conservative and doesn’t like public displays of affection, it takes everything she has to not unleash hell. Instead, she seethes that’s she’s sorry she doesn’t “abide by [their] dated categories of queerness,” a deeply sarcastic sentiment that supportive stranger Nico (Roberta Colindrez) echoes with her own. “I guess you need to get an asymmetrical haircut…or maybe a rat tail, to telegraph it to the world,” Nico says. “How else are queers supposed to announce themselves if not through the confines of the binary?”

Maybe even more than the wedding itself, this scene completely floored me. It features an entire table of queer Latinx people, a demographic TV has so roundly ignored. It digs into the particular nuances of queer community and the latent hypocrisies that sometimes lurk there. It both requires advanced knowledge of the entrenched and sometimes combative butch versus femme dynamics of lesbian culture, making the conflict plain to any newcomers. To repeat a crucial word: it’s so extremely specific that it’s downright astonishing to see it on TV.

And yet: Stepping back from this particular scene made me realize how just many times I’ve had a gobsmacked “is this really happening on TV?” reaction like this recently. I’ve been so overwhelmed with the deluge of new TV shows that I’ve rarely been able to slow down and appreciate how many of the best simply would never have happened without the explosion of #content that Peak TV has made possible.

Take “Vida,” a dramedy about queer community and gentrification from an explicitly Mexican-American perspective. Or “Russian Doll,” a bizarre and blistering series about trauma that sheds layers of its own mythology with every episode. Or “Pen15,” a loving tribute to adolescent girls starring adult comedians. Or “Pose,” a joyful paean to ‘80s ballroom culture and the trans people of color who made it possible, fueled by a budget as big as any FX antihero drama. Or “Barry,” a comic noir tracing a lonely assassin’s ridiculous and devastating struggles to be a better person. Or “The Other Two,” an entertainment industry comedy packed with razor sharp jokes about the commodification of gay culture. Or “Tuca & Bertie,” a cartoon starring flawed and funny birdwomen that tackles sobriety and anxiety. Or “The Good Fight,” the bizarre cousin of “The Good Wife” that threads its Trump era commentary with hallucinatory soliloquies.  Or “Ramy,” a poignant comedy about growing up devoutly Muslim in suburban New Jersey. Or “The Good Place,” a wacky sitcom about the afterlife and moral philosophy. Or “Atlanta,” a show that takes on class and identity and social mores with such surreal turns that watching it can be downright dizzying.

Or — no, okay, you get it by now.

All of these shows have Peak TV to thank for their existence one way or another. There’s the undeniable streaming factor, which allows for more flexibility by erasing runtime concerns and kneecapping the established need for advertisers. And for more established producers like Mike Schur (“The Good Place”), Alex Berg and Bill Hader (“Barry”), and Robert and Michelle King (“The Good Fight”), networks being hungrier for content means that they can cash in their industry goodwill to swing for the fences creatively. They can take bigger risks and not worry about having to bring in tens of millions of viewers, because as long as they can find a niche audience that lives for their particular visions, they’re set. For creators at this level, Peak TV is about as close to a carte blanche as they’re gonna get.

All of that is well and good and encouraging. For as much as I love seeing smart people I’m already invested in flex their most ambitious muscles, though, I love hearing voices that traditionally haven’t had a chance to do the same even more. And while it would be nice to imagine that all these shows could exist in a parallel universe in which we’re not constantly drowning in TV, it’s highly unlikely that networks stuck in their ways would have made the room if the demand for distinct series hadn’t forced them to get more creative.

People like Tanya Saracho (“Vida”), Lisa Hanawalt (“Tuca and Bertie”), Ramy Youseff (“Ramy”), and Steven Canals (“Pose”) — technically less experienced showrunners who are female, queer, non-white — would undoubtedly have had a much harder time getting to steer their own shows even just five years ago. Now, they’ve gotten their chance and run with it to make dazzling series that once seemed impossible. They’re telling the kinds of frank and focused stories about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people that TV overwhelmingly ignored for decades, refusing to treat them like tokens and letting them exist within communities that actually reflect reality. And with every new greenlight, the likelihood that any one show has to represent an entire marginalized people decreases just that much more.

So, sure, sometimes I look at my perpetually enormous pile of television episodes and despair that I’ll die underneath it. But whenever I’m tempted to throw up my hands and declare that I’m done caring, some unforeseen gem of a show sneaks its way into my heart and makes stepping away impossible. As long as TV keeps revealing surprising layers and exhilarating new worlds, I’ll be right here, ready and more excited than ever to explore them.

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