An Asshole Theory of Prestige TV
Emily Nussbaum’s TV writing stands out especially for its ambivalence about the purpose of TV writing:
A show doesn’t need to be perfect to have a powerful allure for viewers who just want to hang out in the world it invokes. (I’ve watched every episode of “Nashville.”) But TV is triage these days. While it used to be possible to catch up with every ambitious drama — during that golden era of TV efficiency, when there were only five of them — that’s no longer true. At this year’s Television Critics Association meetings, FX’s C.E.O., John Landgraf, a prolific producer himself, presented a report that was highly alarming, at least to television critics. Last year, according to FX’s data, three hundred and fifty-two scripted first-run prime-time and late-night programs aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming networks in the U.S., not including PBS. Joe Adalian, crunching the stats at New York’s Vulture, wrote that the number of new prime-time scripted cable shows had “doubled in just the past five years, tripled since 2007 (the year Mad Men premiered), and grown a staggering 683 percent since the turn of the century.” When people angrily tweet at me that some show is the best thing on TV, I know they’re lying: they haven’t watched most of the other ones, and neither have I.
She is absolutely right. TV is triage! A lot of media consumption is triage. There is no way for an honest viewer — or listener, or moviegoer — to feel caught up, and there is likewise no way for a critic to write as someone who does. This has been true for a few years now, and it’s had odd effects on criticism. Movie reviewing has been reduced, largely, to data production for Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Song and album reviews rarely precede the actual release of the music, so they’re treated as broad cultural writing prompts. Five or so years ago TV writing split into reviewing and recapping, which in the last couple years have merged into a strange hybrid, one which talks casually about what has happened, and which signals fandom along the way just enough to let the reader know that he has tastes in common with the writer (and that whatever recommendations might follow are worth hearing). People seem to want to read about why their favorite shows are good, or could be better, or aren’t as good as people say, as argued by someone more persuasive than themselves. This means lots of talking about things the viewer has already seen, and not much room for things they have not.
This can make reading about prestige drama itself feel like triage, or at least work. Which dysfunctional family do you want to eavesdrop on for eight to twelve hours? To which period of history do you want to apply modern anxieties?? How are we supposed to know which tragedy and which community deserves our tense but cathartic attention? Which middle-aged white antihero can we stand this year???
This will remain a problem until pop culture collapses into a billion personalized memes and shared media experience becomes inconceivable and people can review and read about “TV” and “movies” and “albums” like books, which is to say rarely. But that’s a few years off! Until then: what if we had a different way? What if we had a critical framework for prestige television that treats it as a genre (it absolutely is — and a specific one) instead of quality tier (a lot of it is bad)? An approach to not-fun-but-still-good television that acknowledges that it is mostly just about difficult people? And which calls them what they are? (They are assholes.)
This is not meant to be a simplification. There are many types of assholes. There are many types of representations of assholes. There are many degrees of quality and care in the representation of assholes; there are various intentions and inferences to be read into representations of assholes. There are assholes that remind you of yourself! There are assholes that remind you of people you know. There are assholes that speak to you, through their behavior as assholes, in such ways that enrich or clarify or pleasantly complicate your life.*
The quality of a show’s assholes might be the best clue we have as to its time-worthiness. Mad Men’s egregious assholes are, as time goes on, less interesting than they once seemed. The assholes of Togetherness are redeemable (not as people, but as watchable assholes) but why bother??? Better Call Saul is relitigating the motivations of assholes that viewers already know, which explains why it’s not sitting so well yet. True Detective’s disappointing assholes were all ass, no hole. Asshole Theory helps untangle feelings about a show like Nurse Jackie, which was full of things to dislike but which was absolutely compelling because it was centered around an extremely well-rendered and tragic asshole. Asshole Theory also helps explain the problem with CERTAIN OTHER Showtime shows, particularly the ones about families. They are shows populated with assholes of convenience — people who are assholes in a way that helps provide forward motion and script material, but that do not, and could not, exist anywhere outside of the Showtime-verse.
Asshole Theory has utility. Shows worth watching are full of the types of assholes that you know and are forced to tolerate, either by circumstances out of your control or personal weakness, and tell us more about them; shows worth skipping are populated with dime-a-dozen assholes dressed up as something more. A good, timeless asshole can buoy a series: Rectify is occasionally wonderful but also frustrating, and the presence and Teddy — an archetypal asshole the likes of which is rarely depicted accurately anywhere — makes it memorable. Asshole Theory helps us see straight past increasingly obvious PRESTIGE genre signifiers and into a show’s soul, which is actually located in its ass.
Anyway, this is just a long way of saying that Bloodline, which may not seem like a great show at first, and which is over-the-top in its Prestige-ness, is worth watching for its excellent multigenerational ensemble of assholes. The best on TV right now, maybe! Not that I could possibly know.
*Update: Awl pal Johanna Johannah King-Slutzky points out: “I get the sense that “asshole” is demotic + supposed to be intuitive but for me it’s not.” This is true, so: assholes, here, are a subset of difficult people as narrowed (considerably) by Prestige TV genre conventions, which I realize are also not well-defined. They brood, they are explicitly concerned with power, they are often men and even more often older, and they are preoccupied with age. They belong to nuclear-ish families on the constant brink of cataclysm. What else?