2020 Changed What TV Is For

Viewers didn’t care about “good” or “bad” television this year. Maybe the distinction never mattered.

Soomin Jung

“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.”

Nearly 60 years ago, the FCC chair Newton Minow delivered an excoriation of television that was officially titled “Television and the Public Interest” but would be remembered, among the broader American public, as the “vast wasteland” speech. Minow’s indictment of TV—its perky game shows, its formulaic sitcoms, its violent dramas—was cutting (one of his accusations against the newish medium was that it channeled “sadism”). And the radiant impact of his criticism helped shape the conventional wisdom that was dominant as I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s: the notion that television was something to be a little bit embarrassed about. It was the “boob tube.” It was the “idiot box.” It was the vast wasteland. It was, in ways both specific and sweeping, wrong. It was also hugely popular—an anxious omen, the criticism went, of how happy Americans were to interact with fictions rather than fellow humans. TV, for a long time, operated as a paradox: a medium so intimate that it kept people separate from one another.

Those fusty ideas have been in decline for a while; 2020 proved how wrong they were all along. For me, during this dark year, television was a lifeline to other people: friends, family, strangers. It was valuable to me not just in the way it’s always been valuable, as a source of entertainment and education, but also as, simply, a source of connection. Minow, in his “wasteland” speech, made a point of distinguishing between “good” TV and “bad,” and you can see echoes of those divisions in terms such as prestige TV and junk TV. But when I think about my own year of television watching, what strikes me is how little those distinctions mattered. Was a given show “good”? Was it “bad”? I didn’t care, really. Instead, I craved a slightly different definition of quality. I wanted shows that made me feel just a bit better about the world, through their kindness or their zaniness or their offering of nostalgia—shows that made me, physically isolated from so many of the people I love, feel a little less alone.

In that desire, I think, I had company. This year’s best-of TV lists are awash with the language of comfort. “These aren’t just very good TV shows. These were our escapes from despair,” Vulture noted in its overview of its selections. It was one of several outlets to talk about its list in such a way. Many of this year’s most laudable TV shows, whether Selling Sunset or Ted Lasso or The Great British Baking Show, were good, the critics suggested, precisely because they provided distraction and escapism—a kind of soothing forgetfulness, rendered in real time. TV doubled as a balm. In the process, “good” TV took on a slightly different valence. Prestige implies a certain antagonism between a show’s creators and its viewers: a challenge, a provocation, a Red Wedding–style shock to entertainment’s typical transactions. But that kind of defiance reads differently when reality is so shocking on its own. When the world is providing all the antagonism people can bear, TV that demands little is TV that offers a lot. That’s how the familiar old criticisms of TV—its vacuity, its low stakes, its familiar formulas—can work, now, as terms of critical praise.

Americans tend to be a bit suspicious of pleasure. In 2018, the philosopher Julian Baggini wrote an essay for the magazine Aeon. “Is there any real distinction,” its title asked, “between ‘high’ and ‘low’ pleasures?” In answering the question, Baggini explored the history of mind-body dualism: the idea, inherited from Plato and Descartes and Mill and many others, that the human body can be meaningfully distinguished from the human mind. Dualism this blunt is a fallacy, and widely derided now as such. Still, the Aeon essay efficiently explains how dualism’s myths continue to resurface: in ideas about food, sex, and pleasure itself. Dualism, Baggini wrote,

betrays a false view of human nature, which sees our intellectual or spiritual aspects as being what truly makes us human, and our bodies as embarrassing vehicles to carry them. When we learn how to take pleasure in bodily things in ways that engage our hearts and minds as well as our five senses, we give up the illusion that we are souls trapped in mortal coils, and we learn how to be fully human. We are neither angels above bodily pleasures nor crude beasts slavishly following them, but psychosomatic wholes who bring heart, mind, body and soul to everything we do.

You could apply that observation to the universe of entertainment too—and, in particular, to television and its garden of earthly delights. The ghosts of dualism are there in imposed divisions between “quality” television and less worthy fare. They’re there when I find myself, watching the latest episode of Below Deck, beset mostly with delight but also a bit of shame.

But the ghosts float away when I remember how many other people—people I know, people I don’t—are watching, and delighting in, the same show. The “vast wasteland” paradigm didn’t quite foresee how TV might help people to bind and bond. My colleague Hannah Giorgis observed that 2020, for her and for many others, was the year of the project-watch: the visiting or revisiting of shows with huge back catalogs. The watching was an accomplishment. It was also, however, a social event: something to talk about with others, to share with fellow viewers. It was distraction that doubled as communion—escapism, made all the more meaningful because it is experienced with other people.

Pain has a way of cutting through pretense. And in a year of heartache, distinctions of “good” and “bad,” always arbitrary, seem even less like the point. I watched and loved new shows this year, definitely; but I’ll remember 2020 as the year that I sought the warm familiarity of The Office and Friends. I’ll remember it as the year I got really, really into Love It or List It and the other offerings of the HGTV Cinematic Universe. Those shows asked so little of me. But they gave so much in return.

One weekend early on in the pandemic, my sister and I discovered that we’d both been bingeing the same show on Amazon Prime Video (Making the Cut, the Project Runway pseudo-reboot). Was this particular series good, in a critical sense? I mean, sure! It was well produced and compelling, and does what any decent show of the Project Runway genre will do: It celebrates the magic that can happen when talent and hard work collide. But I didn’t really need Making the Cut to be good. I just needed it to be there. For me, the value of the show—its goodness, big and small—was that it connected my sister and me, over the distance. We were watching the same thing, reacting to the same thing. We were together, that way, even though we weren’t. This year, even more than in others, that was enough.