THE RELUCTANT FANATIC
Nicholas Hunebrown on the insidious way television commentary is often better than television itself.
How offbeat television commentary became its own form of entertainment
BY THE 53RD EPISODE OF BINGE MODE: GAME OF THRONES — the podcast/feat of stamina from sports and pop culture site The Ringer — hosts Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion are feeling punchy. After a gruelling trek through six seasons of the HBO show, the yelling is slightly louder, the impressions of Qyburn more unhinged. “We are rewatching all 60 episodes of Game of Thrones,” Rubin reminds listeners. “We are deep diving one at a time, and we are getting close. Spoiler warning: we’ve lost our minds.” The podcast is a mixture of undergrad seminar–style analysis — with lectures on the importance of guest rights in the North and the history of Iron Bank lending policy — and smart aleck riffing on the size of Hodor’s member. It’s at once a friendly chat between friends and a cynical land grab for precious GOT fan real estate. It’s a couple of smart people spending a stupid amount of time talking about dragons. It is, in other words, the voice of contemporary TV fandom.
The podcast is a small part of the vast GOT cultural economy. A new season of the HBO show doesn’t just bring countless previews, recaps, podcasts, and aftershows, but also adventurous, borderline ridiculous trips into the distant corners of the show’s universe. There are interviews with the show’s “horse mistress.” A psychologist analyzes every fictional character and diagnoses them with various personality disorders. Amid the deluge of commentary, the show itself begins to feel secondary — the arbitrary centre around which a whirling maelstrom of content pivots.
This flood-the-zone strategy of TV coverage is hardly limited to Thrones. On websites like AV Club and Vulture you can catch episode-by-episode recaps of Speechless or Shameless or Timeless (a show about a “ragtag gang of do-gooder time travellers who must track down a rogue gang of baddie time travellers before they manipulate history and end life as we know it,” according to the poor young writer assigned to it). The venerable New York Times pays someone to recap episodes of Billions. Podcast listeners can subscribe to Holler Back and hear expert analysis of every episode of Justified, a show that ended in 2015. Fans of ABC’S fairytale-based melodra-
ma Once Upon a Time can tune into Once Uponth a Time, Once Upon a Podcast, Greetings from Storybrooke, or any of the other twenty-odd podcasts devoted to relentlessly analyzing a show in which a bisexual Mulan has the hots for Sleeping Beauty. An outgrowth from the era of Peak TV is the era of Peak TV commentary.
It’s an era that began innocently enough. TV has always been derided as an anti-social medium. Cinephiles talk in hushed tones about the magic of entering the sanctum of the theatre and feeling the collective energy of an audience of like-minded souls sharing a screening of Transformers 12: Shrug of Ubiquity. TV watchers, in contrast, were stay-at-home loners content to replace real friends with the cast of an NBC sitcom. The truth, of course, is that TV is an art form that demands sociability. The so-called “golden age” of serialized TV shows was built for conversation, designed to ignite fevered discussions among co-workers and friends who followed a growing narrative in real time. With new episodes of The Sopranos or Mad Men generating Monday morning conversations around the water cooler, it just made sense to have a few intelligent people discuss it online.
Today, that media conversation has all but replaced the real-life discussion. Last year, 455 scripted programs were aired. TV shows that, 10 years ago, would have dominated the culture come and go without creating a ripple. In this era of fractured viewing — with everyone watching different things at different times on different platforms — the chances of finding someone who happens to have seen the same episode of Fleabag or Legion on a random Wednesday grows increasingly minuscule. Conversations about TV today begin with a catalogue of new shows — “Have you seen American Gods? What about I Love Dick?” — followed by demands that you avoid spoilers or questions about where to stream it. At a moment when television is built for conversation, the medium has been decoupled from real-world community.
Instead, if you’re a viewer of Preacher or Catastrophe, your community is online. This kind of TV talk is, of course, often embarrassing. The hosts of Binge Mode are fully committed to Thrones fandom. They call the final episode of Season 6 an “incomparable season finale that is jam-packed with intrigue and goodness and majestic wonders and is basically perfect.” There’s no room for skepticism in this world. Like Fox News viewers tuning into Sean Hannity, the audience is there for a reason, and that reason is not a thoughtful dissenting opinion. The era of Peak TV commentary is about servicing true believers — flattering our taste, indulging our theories, reliving favourite moments in the company of media professionals paid to provide good company.
This is, among other things, a fundamentally depressing fact about the loneliness of modern life. Today we don’t just watch “our stories”; we outsource discussion of our stories to a second tier of strangers, fictional friends chatting about fictional friends. But the ubiquity of this kind of content speaks to its popularity.
A few weeks ago, I finished the final episode of the Australian show Please Like Me. The show is brilliant — a dramedy written by a young comedian that opens with his mother’s suicide attempt and continues from there, travelling through difficult subjects with shocking sure-footedness and honest humour. It’s funny and lovable, smart and fresh. In the era of Peak TV, it’s also impossibly fringe — a curious import brought to an obscure American channel and then quietly placed on Netflix, invisible to all but those whose particular algorithm somehow intuits that they might enjoy quirky coming-of-age comedies about gay Australians with suicidal parents. When the final credits rolled, I realized there was no one I could talk to about it. Like the best TV shows, it had left me with a desire to live with it a little longer, to talk through some of my questions, to find communion with like-minded individuals. So I opened my laptop.
“The so-called ‘golden age’ of serialized TV shows was designed to ignite fevered discussions among co-workers and friends who followed a growing narrative in real time. Now, media conversation has all but replaced the real-life discussion.”