Death in popular culture is meaningless. There’s too much death and not enough. More than ever, TV shows and films are obsessed with the omnipresence of death, but blind to death having any meaning. “Why is no-one allowed die?” (e.g. the Marvel films) or “Why must everyone be killed off for shock value?” (e.g. Game of Thrones) seem like not only distinct but contradictory problems, but they’re two sides of the same coin: anybody might die – but probably not anybody you care about, and if it is, they’ll come back to life in the end.
The Sundae launched seven and a half months ago with a history of the decline of multi-cam sitcoms and a counterpoint to the 89th Academy Awards. Since then, we’ve published a piece a week every week for thirty-two weeks, and this week will be no different, except that it’s completely different, because we’re not publishing a new piece of criticism, analysis or opinion.
We’re taking a week off because, well, we don’t get paid to do this, and we’re both in full-time education, and we both have coursework to do, and we’d rather not write something this week than write something half-assed, rushed or forced. So, instead, we’ve looked back over the past seven and a half months of writing we’ve published and picked our favourite pieces. If you’re a long-time reader, revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. If you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.
Here’s the best of The Sundae so far.
Two weeks ago, I sat down to start writing an article about one of my favourite TV shows, The Booth at the End, for a new recurring feature called Cancelled Too Soon. Just like every other article I write for this blog, my first stop was Wikipedia, to refresh myself on the basics: the names of all the actors, writers and directors; who produced and distributed it; how high were its ratings or box office; what was the general timbre of contemporary critical reception. I always check this stuff first because it’s the stuff I’d be most embarrassed to get wrong, especially since I routinely see professional writers get them wrong, and my second-hand embarrassment on their behalf is so intense that I’d probably throw up if I experienced it first-hand.
Most of this information does not exist on the Wikipedia page for The Booth at the End.
The very first line of the article says it was “originally produced for the US cable channel FX”.
That’s not true. Very little of the information in the article is true, and some of it is contradictory – it claims that it first aired on Canada’s City TV network in one part of the article, and that it first aired on FX in another. I spent hours searching for contemporary reporting on The Booth at the End and it was even more contradictory and confused. So, I decided to do some primary research of my own.
Two weeks later, I have a pretty good grasp of the true story of The Booth at the End. Most of it came from a Twitter conversation with its creator and writer, Christopher Kubasik, and an email exchange with Doug Miller, the media contact for the show’s production company, Vuguru. I don’t have all the fine details, but I’m reasonably satisfied I know enough to tell you the mysterious tale of this strange, ground-breaking and now tragically-forgotten show, cancelled before its time, its history rendered opaque thanks to shoddy reporting by contemporary news sources.
The Booth at the End is the best TV show you never knew existed.
We can’t really claim these are what we think should have been nominated at the Emmys, or should win, since there’s an impossible amount of television to watch in the world. But if we were the only two members of the Television Academy and we could nominate any TV that aired in the most recent television season (from June 2016 to May 2017 — which is why Twin Peaks didn’t sweep), and we only cared about the seven major awards in drama and comedy, this is what you’d get.
We didn’t distinguish between limited series and other drama series, since supposed miniseries get second seasons if they’re popular enough, and regular drama series turn out to be miniseries when they get prematurely cancelled, while modern anthologies are just regular series that replace narrative continuity with thematic continuity (and some don’t even shed their narrative continuity completely, e.g. American Horror Story, Fargo and Black Mirror). Each of us filled out our personal nominees and then selected the winner by consensus, so the winners only came from shows we’d both nominated, but we’ve each picked a personal runner-up regardless of whether the other has seen or nominated it. We also each gave a Special Achievement Award for something not covered in the major categories – Dean gave the award for Drama, and Ciara gave the award for Comedy.
You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of the post.
“HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF): An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained.”
Halt and Catch Fire has never been subtle about its view of capitalism. The very first thing that appears on screen at the start of the pilot is a definition of its title, worded to produce a clear double meaning: this is a story about how endless competition causes a system to implode.
To love a TV show is to set yourself up for disappointment.
There are exceptions, obviously – Breaking Bad had a pretty much perfect run – but the serialised nature of television means it has infinitely more chances to let you down. Maybe it’ll be cancelled before it’s time. Or worse, maybe it will destroy itself from the inside out. The Simpsons is the greatest TV show ever made, but that fact is obscured now that there are more bad seasons than good. “Classic Simpsons” and “new Simpsons” are fully compartmentalised in my head. It hurts too much otherwise.
But The Simpsons was allowed be good – be great – for nine years. The greatest tragedy, one that seems to be constantly getting worse and puts me off watching new shows, is for a once great show to destroy itself within a year or two, the length of time it used to take a show to figure itself out. There’s more TV than ever now, and the whole cycle moves at double-speed: a show has to find its feet faster to survive, but it also burns out quicker. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had one my favourite seasons of television ever and then immediately fell apart in season two, True Detective revealed itself to be a bloated pretentious corpse in season two after an acclaimed first season, and Westworld didn’t even make it to the end of its first season before people stopped caring. There are fifteen shows currently on air with eight or more seasons, six of which are procedurals and another four of which are Fox’s animated comedy slate. A show can be long-running and soulless, but it’s telling how few long-running shows there are – how hard it is to sustain a show for that long now.
You’d think the rise of shorter seasons would allow shows to continue on for years longer without burning through as much material – and yet, again and again, once-great shows collapse in what is, to the binge-watcher, a few short hours. The Simpsons had nine great years, but more and more, a show has to be exceptionally sturdy to be good for three or four. It becomes harder and harder to remember the shape of the show you once loved, because every time you think you catch a glimpse of it, another wave of crap comes along to drown it once and for all.
I really hate Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
It’s the golden age of TV.
455 scripted television shows aired in America in 2016 – that’s compared to 192 in 2006. There’s been years of back and forth about whether current TV is the best thing ever – quite possibly the central cultural output of our time – or actually not very good at all, because so-called prestige TV is so often shallow self-serious bullshit. The obvious fact that TV has always been good, and that the “golden age of TV” corresponds only to the rise of paid subscription services (HBO, Netflix, Amazon) and cinematography that made TV look like movies, might be mentioned, but is never of concern. We’ll talk about the fracturing of the television audience – how three of the last five TV seasons had football at the highest rating, because sport is the only thing diverse audiences watch live anymore – but we’ll pretend that it fractures more or less at random, and its only implications are for advertisers.