I Can’t Handle Prestige TV
I’ve always been sensitive to film. Too much horror or suspense and I have nightmares; too much sweetness or sadness and I can’t hold back tears. I can handle (and frequently enjoy) challenging art, comics, prose, music or games… they require my participation to pace or visualize. But when I witness an upsetting scene in film, I don’t feel, as Martin Scorsese put it, “an aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation.” I feel I’ve internalized a stranger’s unfiltered trauma, now my burden to process.
This shaped what some might consider a pretty pedestrian taste in movies. I like screwball comedies (to laugh), documentaries (to learn), stylish or cartoony animated films (to see the artist’s hand) and genre films (to have a sense of familiarity).
(My partner, Mallory, might defend me on this a bit, pointing out my fondness for Diabolique, World on a Wire or Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. But I only discovered those exceptions thanks to her deep knowledge of cinema and skill as a curator.)
Television used to be easier. Episodes were shorter. Commercial breaks made the rise and fall of tension rhythmic and familiar. The typical week-long delay between episodes and desire to syndicate them out of order encouraged a judicious approach to suspenseful cliffhangers. And budgets were lower, which restricted complexity and special effects.
But those qualities fell out of fashion with the golden age of television, at least in the dominant critical and cultural conversation. And logically, that evolution makes sense: Given the chance, what artist wouldn’t consider shedding some constraints of their medium? What viewer wouldn’t want a higher-quality, better-produced show?
Hello, yes, that would be me. 👋
I didn’t realize this immediately. I loved The Office as soon as I saw “Diversity Day,” and Battlestar Galactica successfully filled the void left by Firefly without stressing me out.
But gradually, the intensity grew, and I started abandoning shows. The psychological torture inflicted by Jessica Jones’ villain gave me a tension headache. The continual escalation of Breaking Bad kept me awake at night. I felt depressed for days after the third season finale of The Good Place.
I realized that I’ve become as sensitive to this style of long-form, big-budget, single-camera “prestige” television as I am to film… probably moreso, given how long it takes to watch a whole season or series.
So what do I watch instead?
Well, I liked The Mandalorian, but I thought Andor was a little overrated apart from episodes 8 through 10. Dropout shows like Game Changer, Make Some Noise and Dimension 20 consistently deliver laughs. My brother, Tim, recommended Jury Duty, which was an effortlessly fun watch. I love the hyper-specific satire of Documentary Now. I’m astounded that a twisted puppet show like Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared made it to television intact. I enjoyed Our Flag Means Death up to its excruciating season finale. I revisit old favorites, especially cartoons, sitcoms and sketch comedy shows. I have a bunch of YouTube subscriptions.
But mostly, video games occupy the space in my life that a lot of people reserve for TV. Of the hundreds of games I’ve played and finished, many have moved me, but I’ve only found one or two genuinely upsetting. They seem to be a better fit for my psyche: I feel more relaxed playing a game than I do watching a show.
Accepting that television isn’t really my thing has been the first step toward relaxing my TV FOMO. The next is to stop interpreting conversations about a show as attempts to sell me on it, and instead as opportunities to learn about someone else’s taste and experience.