About a decade ago, I took part in a panel discussion at Frieze Art Fair that centred on what television scholars call the ‘qualitative turn’, that which is more popularly referred to as ‘the golden age of television’. In short, TV that behaves like ‘art’, which is to say: TV that showcases the bourgeois socio-aesthetic gestures and postures that once set the novel apart from the fable, pictorialism apart from photography as mere recording, Italian neorealism from Hollywood, and so on. I was joined by the philosopher Aaron Schuster, the artist Melanie Gilligan and the BBC producer Jonty Claypole and, in spite of our individual disciplines, we all acknowledged this trend. We did not, however, see eye-to-eye on what it entailed: mode of narration, visual register, character study, tone, production values, politics?
In the years since, three critical developments have taken place within televisual culture. The first is that the golden age is behind us. Somewhat counterintuitively, the second is that its idiosyncratic gestures and postures have now become ubiquitous – formularized templates for just about every other show. The third pertains to quantity: there is so much new content, nowadays, that it is hard to keep track of televisual culture. (If you think you have a sense of where it’s at, just have a look at The Guardian’s top 50 best TV shows of 2018 and admit how much of it you haven’t seen.) The cause, of course, is capitalism: the innovative impulse has become exhausted by a need to consolidate through acceleration and multiplication – and increase profit. If you ask me, Game of Thrones (or as Stewart Lee put it earlier this year: ‘Peter Stringfellow’s Lord of the Rings’) and House of Cards (red-top sensationalism masquerading as the voice of reason) are exemplary cases of this process.
I realize that this is a cynical preface to what is a celebration of the best in television of 2018. Yet, every person who has recently turned on their television or opened the Netflix, Prime, HULU or HBO app on their laptop to a teaser-trailer of yet another new quasi-political stand-up, whodunit true-crime drama, protagonist-with-flaws thriller, ‘format-pushing’ sitcom, teen dramedy remake or generation Reddit cartoon will have noted the inverse correlation between the originality and quantity of what is on offer. You will also be aware that, if there is indeed an original new programme, the chances are you will have missed it.
In light of these developments, we should celebrate one of two televisual qualities: exceptional execution of the golden age formula and integrity. If the former pertains to the superior manner in which a story is told, regardless of formal innovation (i.e. craft), then the latter entails the confident, consistent development of a tone or world that sets a series apart from all others. In stark opposition to the dwindling attention spans of our contemporary time, what both of these qualities require from us, as viewers, is time, devotion and care. Whether this should be understood as a form of utopian opposition or neoliberal escapism remains to be seen.
Series that I have found to be superbly convincing and/or confident, self-possessed storytellers this year are Atlanta, The Deuce, Mozart in the Jungle, Tales from the Tour Bus and Sharp Objects. Others that have rewarded dedicated time are The Americans, Barry, Black-ish, The Crown, Easy, Glow, The Good Fight, The Good Place, The Handmaid’s Tale, Killing Eve, Pose, A Very English Scandal and even certain moments in the cry-time drama This Is Us. The Deuce was gripping like no other show this year, while The Good Place was lovely but notably less special than it has been made out to be. Atlanta remains the smartest show around (it knows it, of course), while the now cancelled Mozart in the Jungle demonstrated that comedy can rely entirely and exclusively on tone as opposed to, say, gags. Black-ish, one of the few network shows in my list, has been consistently funny while appealing to a broad audience, something that is impressive especially in our times, while The Good Fight and The Americans are conventional but absolutely expert storytellers.
By some distance, my favourite show of 2018 was The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, a dramedy about a divorcee – Midge, formerly known as Mrs. Maisel – who pursues a career in stand-up in spite of the repressive expectations of her bourgeois family and the prohibitions of 1950s patriarchy. The show combines the energetic warmth and frivolity of the small-town Gilmore Girls with an urban grit and the rebellious ethos of the women’s liberation movement, which makes for an important political statement, even if it is dressed up in fantastical technicolour: empathy, toughness and revolution can go hand in hand. Granted, not all of Midge’s moving hit-and-miss stand-up will receive applause from professional comedians, while the show’s portrayal of art and artists will no doubt make readers of this magazine cringe and there remain a number of political debates still to be had. But, in spite of that, The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel was one of the few series this year that opened up a spot of colourful joy on the bleak horizon and, in that, the reminder that change can occur.
Main image: The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, 2018. Courtesy: Amazon Studios
Timotheus Vermeulen is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo and a regular contributor to frieze. His latest book, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, co-edited with Robin van den Akker and Alison Gibbons, is published with Rowman and Littlefield.