"Taste Hierarchies Like These Stink"
Talking TV with Phil Maciak
On a week like this, I find myself oscillating between two strategies: staring directly at the crisis, and seeking temporary and necessary reprieve from it. Yesterday, the subscriber thread was dedicated to staring directly at the crisis, and reminding ourselves of the myriad reasons abortion rights have and will continue to matter. So many of us have known this was coming, but that knowledge does little to lessen the blow — and the knowledge that we are taking a massive step backwards, following the will of minority.
Honestly, I feel like I am in a sort of extended mourning. Not because some cherished ideal of the American present has been shattered, but as I wrote back in March….I just think this feeling of loss is the way things are right now, the way we can expect them to be for the foreseeable future. It’s a sinking, hollow feeling, isn’t it? And while I know we will fight, I also know that the system is not currently set up to honor majority rule — and our faith in our institutions, like our faith in a collective future, has begun to falter.
After doomscrolling for most of yesterday, I need to regroup. And one way I regroup is by thinking about something totally different, even if just for awhile. I’ve been sitting on this interview with my friend Phil Maciak for awhile, for no reason other than the simple fact that I very rarely publish interviews with cis-white men on here (they have such ample representation elsewhere!) and when I do, I like to space them wayyyyyyy out. But Phil’s way of thinking (and thinking about television in particular) is so generous and generative, and re-reading the interview this morning felt, somehow, like a tonic, however temporary. I hope it will feel that way to you, too.
You can follow Phil on Twitter here — and read more about his current project on screen time, for NYU Press’s Avidly Reads, here.
I know you well from years of writing (sometimes with each other!) but I want others to know you too. You come from a background in English, which is sometimes ~controversial~ in larger media studies spheres, but I would love to hear about how that background prepared you to write about television the way you do (lovingly, interestingly, provocatively, insightfully, I could keep listing adjectives here but I can sense you blushing over there in Missouri)
When I started writing about television on the internet, I was a graduate student in English and Cinema and Media Studies. I’d just successfully proposed a dissertation topic on silent-era film, but I was finding it difficult to organize my time. Everybody has a different strategy for doing this, but I was really missing the structure of going to classes and writing on class deadlines. I like going to class! So, in the absence of that, what do you do? You buy a planner, maybe. You ask your advisor to give you rigid, unmissable deadlines. You mock up a big bulletin board with index cards like you’re in The Wire. Or, as was the case for me, you watch a lot of TV and talk about it to your partner — who’s busy trying to organize her own time — so much and so often and so exclusively that finally she says, “Why don’t you just write about TV for a little bit instead?”
So that’s what I did. I started out writing freelance TV reviews for Slant Magazine, which was exactly the kind of time-organizing, freeing writing I’d hoped it’d be — getting advance screeners, writing to premiere deadlines, working on year-end lists, and collaborating with an editor (which was its own kind of revelation).
My dissertation was about early cinema and religion, which, for obvious reasons, might seem far afield from twenty-first-century TV. Even outside of the historical period, the logistics of doing that kind of writing were dramatically different. That work was super-archival and obscure — lots of the films I wrote about, I had to watch alone in viewing rooms at the Library of Congress. So, turning to TV, I felt excited to use my critical training on ultra-accessible texts, to feel like I was in a big community of viewers rather than writing to the handful of people who were interested in what I was interested in.
But over time, I started to see connections between my research and my criticism that I think had been there all along. That project was about how early filmmakers and early film critics made sense of this massive technological shift that was happening right in front of their eyes. In retrospect, I think that, in the rise of streaming, I saw a kind of analogous situation, inasmuch as this was another big, generational media transition. And you could see that play out in the work on both sides. TV writers and TV critics were adapting on the fly to a pretty substantial shift in their medium — the way it was made, the way it was distributed, the way it was written about. And in both of those contexts — the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century alike — people became really self-reflective about what kind of relationship between the viewer and the screen might be possible. Who are we in relation to these images and these technologies that both reflect and integrate themselves into our daily lives?
And thinking about the social aspect of TV in this way made me think about TV criticism socially, too. After writing around at different places, I eventually connected with a couple of friends — Jane Hu and Evan Kindley and Lili Loofbourow — who were all interested in TV in the same way I was. And we started Dear Television, our blog/column about TV. Because Twitter had become this go-to space for conversation about TV, and because places like Television Without Pity and the AV Club and The Awl and Slate had done so much to popularize conversational forms of criticism (message boards, really interactive comment sections, the yak, the TV club), we felt really drawn to writing TV criticism to each other. Framing our recaps and reviews as correspondence between friends gave the column a kind of writing group/support group vibe that certainly helped the four of us a lot. I’d imagine that’s what our readers liked about it, as well. After doing that for a little while, we got picked up by the Los Angeles Review of Books, we added correspondents like Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle and, of course, you(!), and the rest is (very very niche, possibly relevant only to me personally) history.
You begin one of your latest pieces — on the marvel of Reservation Dogs — with a mini-polemic on sitcoms and soaps. I’m going to quote a big chunk of it because I think it’s masterful.
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.
I want to talk more about the sitcom’s placement within this framework (as you do in the piece) but I also want to hear you pop off a bit more about the fetishization of prestige television. Why does it *matter* that we’ve valorized a particular form and aesthetic? Why does it matter that we refuse to call Game of Thrones a soap? What is lost — and what could be gained by actually acknowledging the roots and building blocks of the genre? When I taught television studies, I remember students saying “but this style of tv show is just better. The Wire is just better than, say, The Simpsons. But what taste hierarchies at work in that conceptualization?
I get into this in the piece, and it’s something I’ve written about lots before, but I think taste hierarchies like these stink. And they stink because they stand in the way of actually seeing the work on its own terms. Often, what this looks like is an artist or a viewer insisting on describing TV series by way of other media, praising a good show by calling it “cinematic” or “novelistic.” It’s a cliché by this point, but the early-aughts advertising tagline, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” has turned out to be a really influential rhetorical frame, not just for HBO but for all the premium cable and streaming series that followed HBO’s model. Decades of propaganda about television being bad for you in the twentieth century created this anxiety, but the promotional machine around those early twenty-first-century shows made it chronic: the bizarre need for artists to disavow the medium they work in, and for viewers to disavow the thing they enjoy.
Most TV critics, media scholars, and likely the balance of TV creators rarely buy into these frames, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t popular or that they can’t affect the production, promotion, and reception of new series. (Friend of Culture Study Kathryn Van Arendonk is virtually a full-time activist against this particular rhetorical turn on Twitter.) And the examples just keep coming constantly — you don’t have to look too hard to find them. Jeremy Renner and Patrick Stewart are only two of the most recent actors to refer to their respective TV series as “ten-hour movies” in interviews; Yellowstone and 1883 creator Taylor Sheridan has been doing a press tour repeatedly referring to his many successful television series as “longform films…in hour-long increments”; and, then, in probably the most-discussed recent instance, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, who’s a producer on HBO’s Euphoria, tweeted that the show was made for people “with an intellect for CINEMA not the impatience of TELEVISION.”
One of the central ironies of this discourse is that, often, the people most eager to denigrate TV are people who make TV themselves. And are really good at it! In this framing, the better a TV show is, the less like TV it is and the more like film or the novel or theater, or, I don’t know, bicycles. But the distinction Harris makes — between intellect and impatience — and the distinction that’s underneath all these types of claims, is a false one. It strikes me that “patience” is precisely an element of spectatorship that contemporary TV is designed to play with, frustrate, and ultimately try to reward. Sure, viewers and critics make snap judgments about individual episodes, and viewers’ patience can wear thin when they feel a show isn’t paying it back, but, to be a viewer watching serialized TV of any kind right now is to be patient, by definition. And the aesthetic movements in the recent history of the medium — from The Sopranos to Euphoria — have focused on modes of storytelling that are geared toward viewers who are willing to stretch their attention spans.
That’s even true of bad TV. Harris isn’t wrong that Euphoria works against its own viewers’ impatience, but he’s wrong to say that’s unique or even new to the past twenty years of television. The great media scholar Racquel Gates said it best in response to this, when she wrote that, “these evaluations are always about constructed (classed, gendered, raced) taste hierarchies rather than form.” People make claims about value using the language of form, and those kinds of moves might seem clarifying but they actually tend to obscure more than they reveal.
Criticism, to me, is ultimately a practice of paying attention. And I think sweeping, hierarchical value judgments about TV — especially when they involve this kind of medium confusion between TV and film — get in the way of paying attention to the actual shows themselves. When we’re attentive to these series, to their form, their narrative structure, their genre, their history, their cultural context, the dynamics of their production, they reveal themselves to us. (This is, of course, what television studies, as an academic discipline, has always done.) It means we can see concretely what’s unique about a given show, but it also means we can see more clearly the way these series relate to complex histories of influence. Sure, film and the novel are among those influences, but so are less valorized forms like, in this particular case, the sitcom and the soap. I can’t think of a less interesting way to talk about a show like Yellowstone or Euphoria than to spend all this time adjudicating how “cinematic” it is.
Can say more about how this particular style of valorization makes it harder to appreciate the particular skill of a show like Reservation Dogs?
I feel a little bit like I’m running out of ways to praise this show, so, before I go on, I’ll just say that I encourage people to read the love letter I wrote to it.
One of the things I love about Reservation Dogs is that it’s unembarrassed. As a viewer, you just don’t feel any anxiety about what the show is. It’s very personal, and you can really feel the writers — led by creator Sterlin Harjo — using the flexibility of the medium to tell these idiosyncratic stories. There’s an artistic freedom in that, a willingness to slow things way down, to take advantage of an episode break to radically shift narrative perspective, to explore weird corners of the televisual world. It’s taking things from the sitcom, from the prime-time serial, and it’s borrowing too from lots of other TV shows working in this mode: the vignette structure we recognize from shows like Louie and Better Things, the surrealist bottle episodes and set-pieces we associate with Atlanta, even the hangout format of nineties sitcoms like Friends or Living Single or Seinfeld.
But it’s also loaded with film references — the title and the pilot lean on winks to Reservoir Dogs — and literary references. (One of the show’s writers is a poet — Tommy Pico, whose Nature Poem is unbelievably good — with no real background in TV.) But those references aren’t there to authorize what we’re watching. The show understands that people, especially teenagers, have their worldviews built, in large part, through stories other people tell them about themselves. Whether those are stories they encounter on TV or in movies or in rap lyrics, or whether those are stories they hear from their teachers or their family elders or the federal government — the show’s form mirrors that omnivorousness.
But, especially for your readers who may not have seen the show yet, I don’t want to make it seem like Reservation Dogs is some code to be cracked or that you need to be immersed in this discourse to understand it. The point is that it’s easy to love a show like this. And its brilliant, playful management of all these different influences — televisual and otherwise — should be just as impressive to us as a show that perceives itself to be transcending the medium of television.
I’ve been noticing a growing hunger for aspects of a pre-streaming, pre-on-demand television experience: the celebration of appointment television, praise for the actual mini-series (as opposed to series that will just be renewed for another season if it’s popular), even the love of the truly half-hour show (instead of the sprawling 77 minute mini-movie-as-episode). What’s going on here, do you think? Or am I just picking up on that because those are television attributes I’m hungry for as well?
I have thought this on occasion too, though I realize that whenever I notice a TV trend, I immediately encounter something that flips it over. In other words, I think that lots of TV series and their platforms — particularly the streamers — are just trying things out right now. As soon as you think Netflix binge-dumping whole seasons of TV — as it did with hits like Squid Game or Ozark — is taking over as a distribution model, shows like Succession and 1883 remind you that appointment TV is still here. Then, there are weekly release shows that have really taken off, but part of their success has been about growing viewership through word of mouth. So, amazing series like Showtime’s Yellowjackets or ABC’s Abbott Elementary are appointment TV hits, but a lot of their viewers are experiencing them through catch-up binges midseason. And then there’s the episode length question, which is a real mess outside of the broadcast networks. It’s an underrated detail beneath the Che Diaz of it all, but I think And Just Like That… ballooning to nearly 40 minutes an episode is one of the reasons why that show went so reliably and spectacularly off the rails every week. You take a show that used to thrive on the organized chaos and speed of the sitcom shape, step outside that constraint, and things can get nuts.
I’m a late adopter of Ted Lasso, but I think it’s a great example of this confusing moment for TV structure, both nostalgic for the time before streaming and unhinged from pre-streaming forms. Whatever you think about that series — I think season one is really solid, and season two is kind of scattershot — there’s a huge shift in its style and focus and even structure in the second season. Season one was a pretty straightforward, single-cam, half-hour-ish sitcom; most of the episodes in season two play more like episodes of a 45-minute drama series. And that’s fine, but I wonder a little bit how much the unexpected success of the first season gave the writers a weird idea about what worked.
That first season is, like Reservation Dogs, unembarrassed about itself. In fact, I’d say that being unembarrassed — as a practice, a life philosophy, an ethical quagmire, a stressor in romantic relationships, a profoundly dad-ly virtue — is kind of the show’s subject. But the second season, while emboldened to take more risks, feels self-conscious in an almost defensive way. It’s trying to do more, which is great, but it seems to think that doing more entails moving away from the sitcom form that made it what it was. Sometimes it works. The episode about romantic comedies is terrific and funny and structurally brilliant. But there’s an episode in that season — the standalone episode in which Coach Beard wanders through London nightlife — that I disliked about as much as any episode of television I’ve ever seen. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the episode is a full-length homage to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. I love it when series experiment, and some of the best episodes of TV I can think of are standalone episodes of this sort (Atlanta’s “Teddy Perkins,” Watchmen’s “This Extraordinary Being,” etc). But imagining that “ambition” on TV is something that you have to move outside of TV to attain — I think that’s pretty wrong. It’s not the only thing wrong with that second season, but, going back to your question, I think Ted Lasso is a show that’s a bit confused about whether it represents a return to the classic sitcom on a streaming platform or an opportunity to move past that form into something different and more shapeless.
To me, the really interesting stuff right now is happening in weekly serialization. (Again, Kathryn Van Arendonk and Allison Willmore have been talking about this, as well.) Just a little over a year ago, Amazon released Barry Jenkins’ genius, ten-hour miniseries adaptation of The Underground Railroad. They did a huge disservice to that work by dumping all the episodes at once. It’s a difficult series, but I have to imagine it would have had much more viewership, more buzz over time, even more awards consideration, if they’d taken the time to release it weekly.
I don’t know if there’s a correlation here, but HBO Max seems to have learned a lesson from that. When they released their miniseries adaptation of Station Eleven — another difficult, genius literary adaptation — they serialized it in clusters. Three episodes the first week, then two, then two, then two, then the finale. It was a brilliant move. It understood that this wasn’t an easy show to plow through all at once, and it gave viewers time to catch up, to build excitement. But the clustering also gave respect to the unique structure and pace of the show, which would often go on digressions or leave main characters behind for episodes at a time. I wonder what would have happened if Amazon had taken that kind of time to devise a release strategy that understood Underground Railroad the same way that HBO Max understood Station Eleven.
What television, other than Reservation Dogs, makes you excited for TV time these days? What makes you want to write a love letter?
Starstruck! Rose Matafeo! The first season of this half-hour rom-com series is already up on HBO Max, and the second season — currently airing on BBC One — recently went up as well. I can’t say enough about how charming and smart and, I’ll say it one more time, unembarrassed this show is. Matafeo, a New Zealand comedian, stars in it and co-wrote all the episodes with her collaborator Alice Snedden. I think it’s gone a bit under the radar in part because, to American viewers, it comes across as the normie cousin of the other big, formally daring half-hour British dramedy imports like Fleabag or I May Destroy You or I Hate Suzie. But this show is just so precise and so funny and such a pitch-perfect execution of the genre it’s working in. It’s also, not for nothing, a perfect show for recommendations. It’s not so popular that everyone’s seen it; it’s not so niche that it feels like a useless suggestion when somebody asks what you’re watching. And it’s a show that works really hard to win over viewers right away. Its primary genre is “romantic comedy,” but its secondary genre is “show you’re probably going to like immediately.”
Other than that, Atlanta — and Better Things is back on FX/Hulu for its fifth and final season. Every minute of Better Things is magic. But I already wrote my love letter to that.
You can follow Phil on Twitter here — and read more about his current project on screen time, for NYU Press’s Avidly Reads, here.
I find that I've gone from being allergic to prestige television (there is no better way to ensure I will never watch a show than to use that whole language to describe it) to just not really watching television. Other than Top Chef and GBBO. But I keep meaning to give Abbott Elementary a shot and now I'll put Starstruck and Reservation Dogs on my maybe-someday-possibly-when-I-have-the-energy list. And see, that's what the rise of prestige television has done: watching TV feels like *work* and I don't have the energy for it.
To me, "prestige television" seems to be a term primarily used to describe what I think of as male-focused "antihero" shows -- "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad," etc. Personally, I'm just glad there's such a large streaming universe nowadays that there are plenty of very entertaining programs with strong female characters, like "Bridgerton," "Girls5Eva," "The Gilded Age," "For All Mankind," "The Afterparty" and (the late, lamented) "Glow."