BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Opinion | 10 DEC 19

Five Ways TV Shaped Our Decade (and Vice Versa)

From parafactual entertainment to teen TV and the ‘flood’ of content

BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Opinion | 10 DEC 19

Few art forms changed in the past decade like television did. The 2010s saw TV splinter into increasingly individual tastes: first through speciality networks like HBO, Fox or Sky tailoring their offerings to, say, sports fans, minority suburbanites, religious conservatives, teenage girls or sci-fi geeks. Later, this happened through the personalized algorithms of various streaming sites. The resulting diversification was global – and, more recently, judging from the range of Dutch and German shows offered to me on Netflix: glocal.

The 2010s also witnessed a proliferation of what is often called ‘complex’ or ‘quality’ television: serialised television that talks like literature and looks like art, made specifically for the demographic of 18- to 38-year-old higher-educated people who fancy themselves connoisseurs of said cultural capital – the programming the reader of this magazine certainly is likely to view, including shows like Friday Night Lights (2006–11) and The Wire (2002–08) in the noughties and, later, Mad Men (2007–15), Broad City (2014–18), Atlanta and Flea Bag (2017–19).

A third change was recently observed by James Poniewozik in his book Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America (2019). The critic observed a widening gap between ‘quality TV’ and what I guess we are supposed to call ‘non-quality television’, which is more or less everything else but especially reality TV, to the degree that they bear almost no semblance at all. This gap, he suggested, is as indicative of a deep rift in national politics as social media’s filter bubbles – or, in Zadie Smith’s terms, between the self-congratulatory ‘clever’ and the recalcitrantly ‘stupid’.

Chanti Relf in America to Me. Courtesy: Starz

I would argue that the shows I’ve mentioned above are amongst the very best the medium has produced. But then again, I would say as much, wouldn’t I, as a 36-year-old, higher-educated cis man? These shows were made with me in mind. It’s only fair to include a Real Housewives (2011–ongoing) for each Atlanta (2015–ongoing), and a This is us (2016–ongoing) for every America to Me (2018–ongoing), Steve James’s documentary about a high school, which, if I had to choose, would be my favourite programme all-round. What follows below is an account of television in the 2010s by way of genre or format: the typifying, most influential modes of the past ten years.

Quality TV in the Age of Identity Politics

Seen today, ‘quality’ television in the early 2000s is surprising in its focus on white, heterosexual men. But the shows that made many turn on our TVs, laptops and phones this past decade considered the lives of all the people who aren’t: women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+. Women-led shows have been particularly popular. Amongst my favourites have been the incredible The OA (2016–19), which was unlike anything else, most of Broad City (2014–19), Unbelievable (2019), the second season of Fleabag (2017–19), the first two seasons of The Good Wife (2009–16), the first season of The Mindy Project (2012–17), about half of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel (2018–19), the later seasons of Girls (2012–17), all of Veep (2012–19), some of Parks and Recreation (2009–14), some of Insecure (2016–ongoing), some of Transparent (2016–19). Other shows not led by women that I enjoyed the past decade: the consistently funny Catastrophe (2015–19), the first season of Master of None (2015–ongoing), the Curb Your Enthusiasm reboot (2017–ongoing), lots of Atlanta (2016–ongoing), all of Tatort Reiniger (2011–18), some of Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus (2017), much of Treme (2010–13), all of The Deuce (2017–19), and, of course, Mad Men (2007–15).

Der Tatortreiniger (The Crime Scene Cleaner). Courtesy: Norddeutscher Rundfunk; photograph: NDR/Thorsten Jander

Parafactual Entertainment

This was the most popular mode of the decade: television programming that explicitly treats reality as if it were a fiction, where what is real is only as real as it is fictional. I am thinking here of Real Housewives, where reality is emphatically modelled after melodrama, but also the dating show Love Island (2015–ongoing), where the contestants perform their own lives by recourse to the narrative tropes, gestures and idiosyncrasies they have internalized from watching previous instalments. In a different sense, the magnificent RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009–ongoing) is an example of this as well, with contestants’ deliberate movements dictating the framing and anticipating the editing.

What I also have in mind is that pervasive and frequently problematic mode called ‘true-crime’, in which people with no legal or police experience – that is to say, people like you and me – play out whodunits in real life, reopening closed crime scenes and closing current ones with tools taken from fiction: suspense, suggestive framing, confrontational reverse-cut editing, and ominous soundtracks. I have labelled all of this parafactual both with a nod to Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s superb account of the parafictional turn in contemporary art, with which I think there are many similarities; and to align this with those ‘alternative facts’ that have come to make up so much of our daily experience.

Teen TV After TV

Admittedly, teen TV is the mode I am least familiar with. But from what I have seen and what I have been told by colleagues studying this genre, such as Gry Cecilie Rustad, this mode is nothing short of revolutionary (in the good and the bad sense, I guess, radically overhauling both aesthetic output and capitalist input): moving televisual storytelling away from the 45-minute episode on television or even your laptop towards short, interrupted scenes, fragments and isolated images or social media updates on your phone, encouraging viewers to tune in across platforms whenever they receive a text message. Amongst the most important examples of this are SKAM (2015–17), a show about middle-class Norwegian teenagers falling in and out of love with others and themselves; and more recently Eva’s Stories (2019), where a 13-year-old Jewish girl living in 1940s Hungary keeps us updated of her increasingly tragic life via short Instagram posts. Neither American nor British, these shows may signal, I think, a shift away from one model of hegemony towards another, more glocalised one.

Isak Og and Even Kysser in SKAM. Courtesy: NRK P3

The Confirmation Bias Talk-Show

I don’t think this needs much explanation: these are talk shows – morning, afternoon or evening – to which you tune in order to be confirmed in your bias – which is to say, also, that these shows, more than they might have in previous decades, play up their ‘political’ game. If you are the kind of person who hates many things, I guess, you will look for Alex Jones; if you are the kind of person who hates one thing, you will zap to any of the night time hosts. I don’t know whether because of this bias these shows wield enormous power, as is frequently said of the former, or whether they are impotent, which is what you often hear about the latter; but what I do know is that they’ve silenced self-reflection in favour of loud, outward emotions (angry shouting, appreciative laughter) and I doubt that’s a very productive mode of engagement moving forward.

The Flood

From Raymond Williams’s brilliant discussion of ‘flow’ in the 1970s to today’s digital ‘streaming’, televisual discourse tends to consider the medium in terms of fluvial metaphors. I think it may well be time to add another: the flood. The flood is the non-stop outpouring of shows on streaming platforms which drowns contemporary viewers in a near indistinguishable mass. This flood is made up, in actuality, if you’d just have the time to figure it out, from surprisingly disparate stuff, including newly commissioned material (full seasons, in stark contrast to the pilots produced for networks) and recycled bits and bobs, often remakes, pre-network things you’d never thought still existed and stand-up comedy – lots of stand-up comedy. In many a sense, it is a surprise any of us get to see the shows mentioned above at all, for there have been quite a few floods, these past years. The Netflix flood of 2007, which has its grip on us today, has certainly been the most devastating. Ever had that sinking feeling, scrolling through the infinite content for hours on end? Sure you do. That’s the flood.

Main Image: Brit Marling in The OA, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Nicola Goode/Netflix

Timotheus Vermeulen is professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo.