Peak TV can feel overwhelming, but it’s in fact an opportunity. Putting aside the economics of the medium for those who make it, there’s simply no better time for a consumer to craft a complete (and completely unique) set of shows to consume. The question then becomes: “Well, what the hell do I watch when I can watch just about anything?” In 2017, that question has less to do with quality and more to do with temperament. That’s not to say that the quality of the show is unimportant. Peak TV doesn’t involve the deconstruction of excellence. But perhaps it involves a reconfiguration of how we define it.
While it’s often difficult to see in the moment, it’s vital to contextualize art inside the era in which it’s made. This is an easier, albeit still difficult, task to do after the fact. The benefit of hindsight can allow one to connect the dots more easily. With President-elect Donald Trump’s impending inauguration, however, it will be important to see which television shows (however you define a “television show” in the age of decentralized, asynchronous streaming) react in more or less real-time to the seismic shift in global culture. After all, what happens on January 20th won’t just impact the United States, but the entire world.
Television will become even more important in 2017 than most major art forms due to the speed at which an episode can go from idea to reality. Many of the episodes we’ll all watch this spring and summer haven’t even been broken down in a writer’s room yet. These are not long-gestating films requiring years of post-production, but nimble chunks of content that are produced on a superhuman schedule by hundreds of dedicated people. And while not every show can easily tie into the current political climate, nor will every show choose to do so, those that embrace the opportunity to make a statement will be the ones that will have the greatest impact in this upcoming year.
All of this gets us back to the rethinking of “quality,” and what form that might take in these engaged shows. For far too long, programs that shed light on the darker side of humanity have received the most critical praise. The darker the worldview, the greater the supposed “authenticity” of the world within it. And to be fair, that’s an extremely valid and important thing to explore. Suggesting that we don’t have the capacity for evil would be false. But suggesting that’s ALL we have is equally false, and essentially morally repugnant.
The temptation, especially on the American political left, is to turn inward with relentless despair at the prospect of a post-Obama world. Things haven’t made sense for a while, and they continue to make less sense as the world refuses to reveal itself as a collective hallucination. So we (and I’ll include myself here) sink, Artax-like, into our own personal Swamps of Sadness, helplessly refreshing our Twitter feeds as we approach the impending kakistocracy. If you pick a certain slice of Peak TV to distract yourself from the real world, you don’t get escape but rather reconfirmation that there’s no hope, no chance of things getting better, and the assertion that people are fickle, cowardly, and cruel. It’s self-serving and self-defeating.
The “dark” dramas that find themselves atop many Year-End Top 10 lists are now something akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle in which sour human sentiment gets confirmed by the art produced within that culture, which gets praised, which then allows similar shows to be greenlit, which then further augments the angst. The underwatched (and admittedly flawed) 2015 film Tomorrowland had this concept at its core: A device built to show images from the past and future starts beaming images of the apocalypse into the collective unconscious of the Earth’s population, and since everyone on Earth assumes the apocalypse is inevitable, they act in ways that assure its arrival. If we assume in 2017 that cruelty is the norm, then art that depicts cruelty is the art that best reflects reality, which in turn lends it authenticity.
But there is, should be, and has to be another way to reflect reality, one that popular art is uniquely positioned to depict. My personal Year-End list tried to get at this alternate depiction, one in which life is indeed difficult but filled with pockets of benevolence, in which hard victories are earned, in which each day isn’t just a routine one performed before death. These are shows that stand out not just because they dare offer hope, but demonstrate how much fertile creative ground can be mined if one thinks about overcoming despair rather than giving into it.
Or, put another way: There are a finite number of ways we can be cruel to one another, but an infinite amount of ways in which we can show grace.
We have to put aside the idea that shows that don’t involve the apocalypse don’t have stakes. We have to erase the notion that shows that make us laugh aren’t critically vital. We have to embrace shows that are brave enough to depict hope in the face of misery. Again, that’s not to say that shows that demonstrate that side of humanity should be wiped off the small screen, nor should they be completely eradicated from your personal Peak TV consumption. But not unlike it is with cheesecake and Tiny House Hunters marathons, moderation is key. It’s tempting to simply tweet about HGTV greenlighting Tiny Fallout Shelter Hunters (complete with hashtag #ThanksTrump), but that isn’t really solving the problem.
Embracing and celebrating shows that offer the possibility, if not guarantee, of a better tomorrow won’t solve everything. But it’s a start, and we have to start somewhere. TV is the easiest place to start, since we’re all basically glued to it anyways. Adding in shows like Jane The Virgin, BoJack Horseman, and The Good Place into your watchlists won’t make Trump’s tweets any more coherent, but they may provide a more balanced context in which to consume them. It’s like Yoda once said: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to hatewatching Westworld.”
Television at its best isn’t an escape. It’s an opportunity to learn something about ourselves that we always knew but couldn’t articulate. We all know the world can be terrible. It’s time to be reminded that it can also be beautiful.
Ryan McGee currently covers SNL for Rolling Stone. He has previously written about television for Screencrush, The AV Club, and Hitfix, among others, and co-hosts a podcast with Maureen Ryan. Follow him on Twitter.