Stray Thoughts: The Emmys and the State of Television Today

If this year’s nominees for drama series are the pinnacle of television, I find myself terrified at the prospect of watching anything else on the small screen. Two—“Westworld” and the eventual winner, “The Handmaid’s Tale”—are paeans to squandered potential. Both are thoroughly good shows that could have, should have, and, under a defter touch, would have been truly fantastic. Two—“The Crown” and “Better Call Saul”—feel formulaically good, as if their respective show runners blithely applied some of the ideas behind Golden Age television but have little of their predecessors’ souls. “This Is Us” is emotional manipulation that belongs in the daytime slot next to soap opera reruns. “House of Cards” is shamelessly bad. “Stranger Things,” seems to unfortunately fetishize an unearned sense of ’80s nostalgia—although it is still a competent and occasionally compelling vehicle for exploring the wonder of childhood.

However, perhaps this should not be framed as a single-year decline in the quality of dramatic television. After all, Seasons Five and Six of “Game of Thrones”—hardly the show’s best work, and for that matter, hopefully not television’s best work—were the winners in this category in the last two years. Instead, this year’s winners and nominees are emblematic of some long-term trends in premium television: The best shows in drama are becoming more formulaic and less internally ambitious; the best shows in television are shifting towards short-form formats and comic genres.

Briefly, this year’s winner, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” exemplifies some of these unfortunate shifts in prestige television. It is helmed by a generally fantastic Elisabeth Moss—I genuinely wonder if she has ever turned in a bad performance—and a particularly good supporting cast, with the noted exception of Yvonne Strahovski, who gives a masterclass on overacting. The premise is particularly sharp. It depicts a dystopian America in which the government has been overthrown by Christian fundamentalists who eliminate most social, legal, and economic rights for women. In other news, infertility is rampant. Women who can bear children are forced to become “handmaids”—individuals who are legally forced to copulate with men married to women who are unable to bear children. Offred (Moss) is one of those handmaids.

However, despite the ambition of the premise—and the deep sense of dystopia that intellectually drives the show—“The Handmaid’s Tale” seems unwilling to engage fully with the overt horror of the world it has constructed. The world constructed, of course, is terrifying. Yet a sense of benevolence seems to protect its central characters. Each bad decision seems validated by the lack of appropriate response from the seemingly all-knowing totalitarian regime. Each tactical mistake in rebellion is rationalized through an improper reaction. It is Big Brother in name, not practice.

The show has, if I may be forgiven for being cold-hearted, too much love for its characters. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is marked by an ability to recognize the brutality of totalitarianism when it comes to nameless faces, and a relative inability to truly allow that brutality to affect its primary characters. If the Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States) were truly as repressive and dystopian as the premise implies, Offred and several of the other main characters, would have been tried, hung, and buried by midseason. (Stalin would say by the second episode.)

Yet perhaps this should not be viewed as an independent problem with “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Serialized television maintains its audience by creating consistency in form and content—consistency antithetical to the cruel randomness of real life. Moreover, if we are to say one thing about television, it can often serve as escapism from reality—a certain random reality that “The Handmaid’s Tale” lacks.

So perhaps Moss’s drama serves as a certain halfway point between ambitious art and the formulaic. It is ambitious in its premise and well-acted (similar to other prestige shows), yet the sitcom-like sense that “everything will be all right” seems to prevail. The same could be said about the winner of the last two Emmys, “Game of Thrones,” in its later seasons.

Perhaps the problems of “The Handmaid’s Tale” explains some of the major shifts in the distribution of quality television. As shows become more consumed with maintaining week-to-week emotional consistency across several seasons, the shows with the most creative freedom are those that are limited to a one-season run—where the randomness of life and death is not restricted by the emotional demands of a yearly audience.

Outstanding Limited Series: ‘Big Little Lies’ and Outstanding Limited Series: ‘San Junipero’

As detailed in our season-long episode recaps of “Big Little Lies,” the show is a fascinating depiction of physical and emotional abuse, a subtle depiction of womanhood, and a case study in acting. Nicole Kidman is spellbinding. As is Alexander Skarsgård. Even Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley are impressive—it is Woodley’s first truly compelling performance since the 2011 film, “The Descendants.” A similar level of praise can be lavished on “Fargo” and “The Night Of,” two richly compelling series that, quite frankly, are in another league of television compared to the nominees for Outstanding Drama Series.

It is not just that each of these series is able to create a cohesive series of episodes by limiting the scope of their respective stories to one season—although much of the wonder derived from all three limited series is seeing a narrative as it is stretched out to the longer length of television programs while simultaneously maintaining a sense of narrative unity. In “Big Little Lies” the narrative conceit is the investigation into an individual’s death that carries on throughout the season. By no means is it the best part of “Big Little Lies”—but it does provide a certain sense of narrative circularity, a certain sense that the creators had premeditatively fashioned the world of the series—a certain sense of artistic wholeness that is difficult to produce with an open-ended series (such as “The Handmaid’s Tale”).

Perhaps because these series are self-contained, they are able to be a bit more ambitious in the way that they treat their characters in the world that they craft for them. There is no demand for a year-to-year audience and thus, the shows are able to be a bit more cruel—a bit more realistic—to their characters. And perhaps a depiction of abuse requires exactly that—an embodiment of the cruel hopelessness that an abuser attempts to instill in the abused.

The same cannot be said for “Black Mirror: San Junipero” (Outstanding Television Movie). There is a certain disunity between the ethos of the premise—the consciousnesses of the elderly are uploaded into an ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s party-world that serves as a transitory afterlife—and the world actually artistically depicted on screen. There is a certain glib treatment of potent themes. The relationship between the individual and the afterlife is bizarrely understood—for an episode defined by a philosophy of unrelenting positivity, the nostalgic party-world crafted paints a rather dystopian picture of human demands for the afterlife. (This would be fine if the episode had seriously explored some of these auxiliary themes.) There is no treatment of the meaning of aging and the mental effects of physical paralysis. Most problematically, “San Junipero” peddles in the ever-present television trope that every woman is secretly charismatic and secretly loves to dance. She just need to find the right person to bring it out of her!

With that said, “San Junipero” is the best of the nominated bunch.

The television movie is restricted by many of the limitations of form in a movie—most obviously a quicker runtime—while not having many of the luxuries that big screen films are afforded (a budget and time). “San Junipero,” for example, was filmed over a three-week period. Moreover, they lose some of the impressive wonder of a cohesive miniseries structure—there are no disparate episodes to mold into a coherent whole.

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