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The-Morning-Show-Reese-Witherspoon-Jennifer-Aniston-AppleTV-.jpeg

What’s Your Favorite Anti-Iconic Series?

By Chris Revelle | TV | July 5, 2024 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | July 5, 2024 |


The-Morning-Show-Reese-Witherspoon-Jennifer-Aniston-AppleTV-.jpeg

Ah, the media landscape of 2024; has there ever been a more depressing slag heap than this? Maybe it’s hyperbole, but it feels rarer than ever for a series to really work these days. The show that really pops, that really excites, might as well be a questing beast like a unicorn. Maybe it’s the indifferently crushing hand of vandals like David Zaslav, or maybe it’s the purgatorial limbo the televisual arts finds itself in, but the series offered by streaming platforms feels bloated. When media is a business, what once was art becomes a product and success becomes a question of imitation; quick, follow the formula of the last prestige series, and success is sure to follow! Into this inuring, embittering setting comes a brave new idea. What if, instead of reaching ever-higher for yet further heights of quality, a show were to be so earnestly, wildly terrible that it shot the moon and became awesome? What if, despite a big budget, high-wattage stars, and prestige pedigree, a show were to be so ludicrously, undeniably bad that it feels like a stealth parody? I would like to introduce the concept of anti-iconic television.

Anti-iconic television builds on the concept of so-bad-it’s-good and, I would argue, is a concept specific to this era of Peak TV. It’s rare enough for something to be so-bad-it’s-good (SBIG). Similar to the famous Notes on Camp, SBIG is strongest when it’s earnestly meant and like camp, SBIG is ideally something that cannot be taken seriously despite how seriously it takes itself. Anti-iconic tv builds on this concept by applying those ideas to the star-saturated, prestige-or-bust mentality of streaming today. Anti-iconic tv is not merely deeply bad, it’s deeply bad despite having every conceivable resource to be great. If anti-iconic shows weren’t taking themselves with the utmost seriousness, one might think they’re intentional parodies or elaborate jokes meant to point and laugh at the glut of exhausted/exhausting limited series and reenactment dramas. It feels wicked and sacrilegious to take blockbuster film money and create something so thoroughly, creatively awful that you can’t help but watch. To be truly anti-iconic however, a show must also be the sort of experience that’s better for being worse and that’s a hard thing to find.

Most things would follow a more natural path: a thing becomes better when it’s improved. Anti-iconic shows exist as an inverse of this; when something is hilarious for being so terrible, making it better can make it boring. Sure it might be more competent, but it’s less charming, less fun for cleaning up its mess. When I think of anti-iconic tv, I think of two ongoing series in particular as great current examples: The Gilded Age (Max) and The Morning Show (AppleTV+). These two series take what it means to fail utterly in telling a cogent story with human emotional stakes and find depths of bad beyond my imagination.

My love for The Gilded Age is well-documented on this site and it’s every inch a hot mess. What makes this series so anti-iconic is how full of Broadway stars and Tony-winning legends it is and yet these icons are given poorly written soap opera garbage to perform. The experience of seeing the likes of Christine Baranski, Debra Monk, Carrie Coon, Audra McDonald, and Deneé Benton deliver overcooked and yet underwritten dialogue with all their formidable talents on display is truly singular and sublime. Who needs a narrative that makes sense or is remotely compelling when you have Morgan Spector serving robber-baron villainy with a generous side dish of bedroom eyes? Who needs motivations and characters that feel real when you can have conniving social climber Turner stomp up a grand staircase screaming “BUT HE’S MYYYY DUKE”? Gilded Age is both entirely predictable in its failures and yet eternally surprising in its delights. It’s like a CW show with much higher production values and if it got its act together, I’d be bored by it. The draw is the lack of quality.

The Morning Show is much the same, albeit for its own special reasons. It’s a special kind of failure when a series means to be about inherently political things (the news, sexual harassment and violence, cultures of silence, etc), but is so resolutely insistent on being apolitical that it simply collapses. The Morning Show is one of the worst shows I have ever watched, but its failures are morbidly fascinating. A series that purports to be about the Matt Lauer scandal and the ethics of news media and is created by one of RFK Jr’s advisors could only be an absolute parfait of absurdity. Chaos reigns on the Morning Show. Jennifer Aniston is a powerhouse performer whose character Alex changes motivations and goals from episode to episode. Reese Witherspoon wears an all-time bad wig on par with the Fan4stic reshoots wig of yore to speak spineless both-sides platitudes as if centrism is some new radical position. Billy Crudup has gotten accolades for his performance as a conniving network executive, but I have never been able to take his diet Patrick Bateman shtick even remotely seriously. The show immediately worked against its premise in the first season by casting Martin Short as a Woody Allen-type predator as if to say by comparison to Steve Carrel’s Lauer-alike Mitch, well here’s a real monster. It’s beyond bizarre to present Mitch’s predatory machinations and even his rape of an employee and then insist we sympathize with and like him. When the show seemed to realize they had painted themselves into a corner with the character, they sent him careening off a cliff into Lake Como as a send-off.

My anticipation for the next seasons is not about seeing these characters continue to grow and change or seeing the resolution of any particular plotline. My anticipation lies in seeing what obviously bad choice these shows will make next or in how they’ll use the incredible star power they have access to.

What are your favorite anti-iconic shows?