Los Angeles Review of Books
Reservation Dogs, which debuted this fall on FX, was the best show on TV this year. That’s me. It’s strange and beautiful, hard-pivots from farce to tragedy on a dime, proceeds with a pace and confidence and formal derring-do befitting a show that’s been around for a lot longer. It’s lyrical, generous, angry, and extremely funny. It’s precisely the type of surprising show FX produces, navigating the bloated excesses of Peak TV — a phrase coined by FX president John Landgraf — by filling its margins and absences. It isn’t like the other great shows that’ve come before it on the roster: Better Things, Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows. Except that those shows are also, notably, lyrical, generous, angry, and extremely funny. They’re also all free, mobile, unencumbered. And they’re all a half hour long.
Briefly, a polemic:
Sitcoms and soaps. The base units. The particles of form. Joe Reid, now of PrimeTimer, but, historically, of Television Without Pity — the mothership — said it, half-jokingly, but correctly a few days ago: “TV has never transcended the soap opera or the sitcom, and every ‘great’ TV show is just polishing up one or the other.” This isn’t a particularly controversial point, but it’s one that often gets covered over in prestige papier mache. The Sopranos isn’t a soap, it’s a ten-hour movie. The Wire isn’t a soap, it’s a Dickens novel. There’s got to be some sort of illuminati contract provision forcing prestige TV creators to call their episodes “chapters” — anything to avoid imagining that the genealogy of a great work of television art begins in television. It’s fine, who cares, whatever. But the much-heralded innovations of twenty-first century TV and streaming, the ones that begat all the recaps and multiplied all the televisions without pity, these were innovations in genre, not inventions of form. These hour-long, prime-time serials owe their existence to all sorts of forebears, but their greatest formal debt is often to the lowly soap. Its plotting, its melodrama, its feel for viewer engagement, its sense of time.
The age of prestige TV has buried that influence deep. The blanket denial of the televisuality of these television shows has turned this ancestor into a shameful secret. So much so that, often, when a prestige TV series is perceived as too much, too excessive, (too female), (too queer), it’s criticized for being too soapy. The collected works of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy have borne this criticism for years, despite the fact that the visible soapiness of their shows is less about a qualitative difference than a different willingness to publicly embrace their own genre history. Game of Thrones is the soapiest soap to ever soap on HBO.
But it’s precisely by disavowing the soap that the discourse of TV in this century has come into being. These shows were different, they were better, they were exceptions to the rule. They were allowed to have a legitimacy that their parents couldn’t, expectations greater than those of their genetic, generic aunts. But only by hiding where they came from. What’s more Dickensian than that?
And it’s worked. Not only has this decades-long construction of prestige brought television criticism into the mainstream, brought TV series into back-of-the-book relevance in nice magazines, and allowed for people to use the words “art” and “television” in the same sentence, it’s also given these hourlong prodigal soaps a kind of hierarchical supremacy even amongst other TV shows. When the BBC published its “100 Greatest TV Series of the Twenty-First Century” this past October, seven of the top ten were hourlong serials, and it’s not surprising. The soaps in wolves’ clothing have won the day.
The sitcoms, on the other hand, get left behind. Without the nuclear inferiority complex fueling the rise of the prime-time soap, the twenty-first century descendants of the sitcom are far less frequently noted in conversations about televisual Greatness. The three half-hour series in the BBC list’s top ten — Fleabag, I May Destroy You, and the UK Office — alongside maybe Curb Your Enthusiasm, tend to be the only ones that break through in debates like these. And, even among that elite group, none of them are ever invited to the Thunderdome to compete with The Sopranos or The Wire or even Breaking Bad for the GOAT honors.
The twenty-first century half-hour comedy series has suffered in critical estimation from its obvious, and largely unembarrassed, family resemblance to the sitcom. The easy way to say this, I think, is that these shows — however strange they have become — still feel like TV in a way that the prestige hour-longs have worked tirelessly to avoid. Their sitcomminess (sitcommunism?) is unavoidable. But the variations that writers have run on that genre, the innovations creators have made with the sitcom as the base unit, have been as extraordinary if not more so than their peers in the hour-long serial drama. (Dear TV’s own Lili Loofbourow recently argued that critical darling Succession is so good, in part, because it’s secretly a sitcom itself.) Instead of laboring to hide this generic debt, comedy writers have been freer to deconstruct and even transcend the structure they’ve been bequeathed.
Fleabag, I May Destroy You, The Office! Better Things, Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows! Girls, Insecure, Enlightened, Doll and Em, BoJack Horseman, Tuca and Bertie, WandaVision, Getting On, Dickinson, Pen15, Detroiters, Search Party, Los Espookys, South Side, High Maintenance, Rick and Morty, How To with John Wilson, Ramy, Master of None, Dear White People, Undone, Transparent, Random Acts of Flyness. I love a lot of the hour-long dramas of this now-aging century, but the half-hours are where the real magic happens.
Reservation Dogs feels like a dream. I mean that conceptually as well as aesthetically. Co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, the show is nominally an ensemble comedy about four indigenous teenagers on an unnamed reservation in rural Oklahoma. But the first season spends just about half of its eight episodes on alternately bracing and hallucinatory point-of-view side-quests with each of the four leads individually. Our characters barely leave the space of the reservation, but, even so, the season has a loose picaresque style to it — the gang spends the day at the local Indian Health Service clinic, they drive out to visit a reclusive stoner-mystic, one kid does a ride-along with a cop, one goes hunting with her father, one spends the day in flashback with her best friend Daniel, whose suicide is the inciting incident of the series. Daniel dreams of leaving the reservation for LA, and, while the season follows the friends he left behind as they try to rob and scam and scheme their way to California in his honor, it’s the vastness and narrative complexity of the reservation itself…
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