The Best TV Of 2017 Had No Use For Morality
I have a friend who holds a theory about why we currently find ourselves in the age of infinite TV (i.e. more shows than anyone can possibly watch, seemingly endless hours of entertainment). His theory is that all of this television is being made now so that when the time comes that the only safe place to live is in a bunker, due to climate change, nuclear fallout, the rise of the robots, etc., whoever is left will have enough entertainment to keep them occupied for years and years. The bunker people won't be overwhelmed by the inherent hopelessness of their situation, because they will be too busy watching American Vandal, which they just hadn't gotten around to seeing until then; the fact that there will be so many shows to binge-watch will reduce the anxiety attendant with living through the apocalypse, thus ensuring a docile remainder of the human population. Television, then, won't be the opiate of the masses, but rather more like Klonopin.
I like this theory. There's even a little part of me that hopes it's true because it would mean that someone, somewhere, was actually trying to prepare for the end of the world, in some small way. And then, also, it's made me think about what I would want to watch if everything was crumbling around me. Which... isn't so hard to do, actually, since that's exactly what 2017 has felt like anyway. Do we live in bunkers? No, not yet. But there persists a feeling of imprisonment and impending doom. So, it's sort of bunker-like? Sort of. All to say, if I consider the shows to which I've been drawn in the last year as the sort of shows to which I'll be drawn once I'm hunkered down in my bunker, then it would seem like I will be drawn to one thing in particular: women who have no use for morality and its limitations.
Where to start? I guess with The Good Place, a show which in its very title suggests a clearly defined moral universe, but which subverts any reductive ideas of what good or bad even mean by (spoiiillllerrr) eventually revealing that the "good place" is actually the "bad place," and that all these "bad" people who ended up in the "bad place" are actually also capable of being, you know, "good"! A lot of people really, really love The Good Place, and I... like it, okay? It's the kind of show I watch when I can't sleep at night, and it usually helps me go to sleep, which is good, but also maybe not a sign of traditionally "good" TV. However! There is one episode, "Dance Dance Revolution"—in which the so-called "good place" on the show repeatedly gets blown up, again and again, as the demon in charge of it attempts to make a perfect "bad place" and fails, again and again—that I actually like quite a bit, because it serves as a necessary reminder for right now: No matter how hard some dude is trying to make everything around you a living hell (ahem, Donald Trump), and even when he has a whole fleet of demons willing to help (ahem, all Republicans), it is still actually quite hard to vanquish things like pleasure and friendship and kindness and even the kind of critical thinking that leads to imperfect people calling out the demon in charge for trying to make everything hellish. So, yeah, I liked that episode, and I like that it's a morally ambiguous woman, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), and her morally ambiguous friends, who keep this demon in check.
And then for a show I actually adored, there's Netflix's Alias Grace, one of the best literary adaptations I've ever seen. It centers around a protagonist, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), who is the ultimate unreliable narrator. How unreliable? We'll never really know, but, in a sense, that shouldn't really matter. Truth is a troubling concept and is all the more slippery when it attempts to exist in a corrupt space, already full of lies from powerful people, who manipulate the truth (or "truth") to serve their own purposes and preserve their own power. So while Grace might or might not be a murderer, it hardly matters, because what Alias Grace reminds us is that sometimes amorality is not a function of a person's character, but rather is a signifier of the lengths to which the oppressed must go in order to save their own lives. For Grace, this means telling stories she presents as truth in the hopes that some of the darker realities she's endured will be forever relegated to her past.
Speaking of women telling stories, also on TV this year was The Center Will Not Hold, the Joan Didion documentary, airing on Netflix. Okay, so, I guess this is a movie and, in fact, I actually saw it in a movie theatre (!), but, also, this is definitely TV. It feels like TV. And it is about a woman who removes her moral judgment from her experiences, all the better to record them and share those experiences with us, her readers. But this is a tricky endeavor! Because it leads to things like being able to observe while reporting on the '60s counterculture in Haight-Ashbury, a 5-year-old on acid, and remaining detached. This is an experience Didion recalls in the documentary; she is questioned by her nephew Griffin Dunne (who made the film), who asks what it felt like to see such a thing. Didion's response: "It was gold."
Nothing was more golden on television this year than the return of Twin Peaks. And no show better resists attempts to assign to it a moral lesson, much as it pretends to traffic in things that are easily—too easily—identifiable as good or bad. It's all an illusion, a joke. That's the magic of jokes, anyway, that they're magic. But if you want to exit this year on a high note, and think a little bit more about the dirty pleasures of being amoral in a morally bankrupt society, take a minute and watch the scene from Twin Peaks in which Becky (Amanda Seyfried) takes a bump of cocaine, listens to the gentle '60s ballad "I Love How You Love Me," and throws her head back; eyes open, then closed; mouth wider than seems possible, like she'd eat the whole world up if it meant she'd feel good for just a little bit longer.
After you're done watching, get up and go outside. Who knows how much longer we have till bunker life is a reality?