EW's TV Critics discuss the smallscreen's new age of empty decadence.

By Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin
December 07, 2018 at 02:19 PM EST
Myles Aronowitz/Amazon Studios

This week, TV Critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich published their respective lists of the 10 best TV series from 2018. That also meant sifting back through twelve months of television shows that weren’t very good. A common theme emerged, leading to this discussion.

DARREN: There was a cultural moment barely just 12 zeitgeists ago when TV could be every kind of quality — great/good/bad/unmemorable/a transcendent work of human artistry/an offensive act of terror — but below it all, television was, well, cheap. Hollywood cheap, I mean: Episodes of what we now must refer to as “the original run of The X-Files” averaged a $2 million budget, which could’ve paid for one whole Sundance of indie movies. And the history of television in our own decade is steadily inflationary: More Ice Zombies on Game of Thrones, more spaceships on Star Trek: Discovery, more chances to watch Kaley Cuoco earn ten thousand bucks per breath on The Big Bang Theory. I should clarify that “cheap” never meant “bad”: There are medium shots from The Sopranos of James Gandolfini sitting on a chair that is worth more than any movie money from the 2000s.

There was a difference back then between movie money and TV money, a feeling you had even if you weren’t a budget wonk. It feels to me, Kristen, like 2018 was the year when big money became a kind of new normal on television. Netflix launched special-effectsy megashows like Altered Carbon and Lost in Space. Amazon countered by filming on location in what looked like nine continents for Jack Ryan and The Romanoffs. The long tail of True Detective’s influence meant this was the year when film directors and bigscreen stars invaded TV (Hello, Kevin Costner! Welcome, Julia Roberts! Don’t hurt me, Sean Penn!)

The big-wallet sensation that there were no rules anymore extended to the subject matter of TV shows, sometimes ambient in the feeling that you were watching something without any obvious structure or genre, and then sometimes very specifically because Succession, a kabillionaire show I would patiently describe as a less realistic DuckTales. I was talking to you about this feeling awhile ago, Kristen, and because you’re much smarter than I am, you came up with a term that perfectly sums it up! Can you explain your name for this trend?


KRISTEN: Behold the era of Blank Check TV, Darren! Not only is there more television than ever before, the television itself is more everything than ever — the episodes are longer, the budgets are bigger, the concepts are higher, the star wattage is brighter, the language is bluer. Bigger isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but bigger with no boundaries is. With countless networks and streaming platforms pumping out more and more content for our overtaxed eyeballs, it seems the industry’s latest strategy for breaking through the “clutter” is a) throwing money at a recognizable name, and b) getting out of the way.

For me, the purest case study of Blank Check TV in 2018 is The Romanoffs. Amazon was so eager to land the follow up series from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, they gave him $50 million dollars based on the mere wisp of an idea: What if some people were still named Romanoff? Weiner got to spend months traveling around Europe, and we got eight episodes of very expensive mediocrity. It seems that the people who greenlight TV have forgotten that even the most brilliant creative minds need an editor. Saying nothing but yes to a genius will not result in a work of art; more often than not, it will result in a mess that could have been brilliant had anyone bothered to challenge its weaknesses before they made it to air.

And sometimes the excess has nothing to do with money. There were shows this year that were clearly given the “be as controversial as you wanna be!” directive — and it ruined them. Just because you can write Alyssa Milano into a homoerotic threesome with Chris Gorham and Dallas Roberts doesn’t mean you should, Insatiable, especially when it seems like more time was spent on crafting “outrageous” “moments” than developing a core idea for the show itself. And the writers on Heathers clearly thought having a suicidal teen girl on roller skates bleeding out on the couch next to her oblivious parents would be the epitome of dark, oh-yeah-we’re-going-there comedy… but it felt emotionless and flat, a shock with no jolt.

As you mentioned, Darren, Netflix continues to be a prime offender in this space, whether they’re leafblowing money at comedians to make late-night shows they’ll immediately cancel, or boring us to tears with the big-budget bombast of Lost in Space. What are the shows that exemplify Blank Check TV for you, Darren?

DARREN: I share your frustration with The Romanoffs, Kristen, though I find it very difficult to hate that show, and I’ve seen all 97 hours.

My personal pick for “Creator Given Too Much Creative License” would be Sacha Baron Cohen, called back into shock-comedy service by Showtime for Who Is America? The show required five new Cohen characters, a lengthy production cycle, and enough successful espionage to fool Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Ted Koppel. And it was all just so pointless, familiar decade-old stunts resurrected in a miserable new context.

If I had to pick a single totem for the style of Blank Check television, it would be the Unnecessary Helicopter: picking up the Roys for a family baseball game in the Succession pilot, disrupting a fancy DC party to ferry John Krasinski’s Jack Ryan to his destiny as an American hero, flying Kevin Costner’s cattle patriarch all around Yellowstone’s Montana, getting blown up by a climactic bazooka in the Sense8 finale, carrying billionaire James Delos (Peter Mullan) to the town of Sweetwater in one of Westworld’s billion flashbacks.

Not all excess is created equal; I kinda liked the Sense8 finale. But two scenes from this year stand out to me as representative of the dull instincts behind Blank Check TV. There was a lot of chatter about the Big Fight Scene this year on Daredevil, a single-take corridor romp wherein Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) punched a lot of people while being himself punched by a lot of people. This was also the farewell tour of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who spent his final Walking Dead episode slowly walking away from several hundred zombies. All the technical prowess that went into these scenes couldn’t hide the fact that you’d seen sequences like this a hundred times before, Daredevil Fighting People, Rick Killing Undead. And the last time we saw Rick he was… in a helicopter!

Can we get heavy here, Kristen? Last month, Amazon announced that its cyborg hivemind was terraforming Long Island City into a new headquarters, a construction project allegedly involving at least one taxpayer-funded helipad. Vanity helicopters everywhere! The rise of tech-giant FAANGcore as a genre of streaming decadence left cable and broadcast scrambling, to familiar creators or revived brands. New iterations of The X-Files and American Horror Story refracted hysterical visions into post-coherent pulp. (People always died on American Horror Story, but on Apocalypse, every actor seemed to play two characters who died three times.)

But I know I’m part of the problem, since I kinda liked one-fifth of the X-Files reboot. Were there TV series that stood out to you as GOOD examples of Blank Check television, Kristen?

KRISTEN: It’s a smart idea to focus on the positive here, Darren, because Blank Check TV looks to be the norm for now. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but Apple’s entire original programming philosophy seems to be built on this model: If you hire big stars (Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon! Chris Evans! Octavia Spencer!), the viewers will come. (Won’t they?)

As you pointed out to me via Slack, Darren, many of the shows on our Best of 2018 list wouldn’t have been possible if the TV industry wasn’t willing to Go Big. (See: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Deuce.) The Blank Check ethos can work, when applied with discipline. The good folks at Apple and any other provider with money and creative license to burn would be wise to look at some of these shows for guidance: Amazon’s Homecoming starred the world’s most famous woman (Julia Roberts) and had an unlimited budget for crane shots, but it also proved that gripping, timeline-hopping conspiracy drama can be told in half-hour installments.

And while Ryan Murphy’s tendency toward overindulgence has crippled more than one season of American Horror Story, he reined it in with my favorite drama of 2018, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Yes, it had A-list stars and a lavish production — they built a replica of the houseboat where Andrew Cunanan killed himself! — but it was all deployed with careful precision, in service to highlighting the humanity behind a series of sensational murders.

Who knows what TV exorbitance 2019 will bring, but if it ever gets to be too much — that is, when it gets to be too much — you can always find the perfect antidote to Blank Check TV on Netflix, of all places. Fire up The Great British Baking Show, any season, and settle in for the simple pleasures of 12 people in a crisp white tent in the middle of the English countryside, quietly crafting beautiful pastries, breads, and other tasty concoctions. ‘Tis a gift, pure and simple.

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