TV Was Always Good #2

The last time we decided to shine a spotlight on some of the classic TV shows we’ve fallen in love with over the last few years, we were motivated in part to push back on the idea that TV only “got good” relatively recently, with The Sopranos, and then shows that lived up to its sophistication followed, mostly from HBO, other cable networks and then streaming services. But that’s a myth, one that HBO has been capitalising on for decades, and which the streaming giants are essentially trying to claim for themselves. Let’s hope they fail, because if not the recency bias people already have toward TV is gonna get dragged up to, like, Breaking Bad becoming a global hit on Netflix at the latest.

That would be tragic, because TV has literally always been good, from the very earliest days of the medium to the present moment. It can be hard to feel that at the present moment when there’s more television being made than ever, but less and less television that stands out enough to make you think it might not be focus-tested and algorithmed into a bland tasteless mush. We’ve almost a year left before we help you sift through the slurry of contemporary TV for the handful of precious shows worth watching in the next Sundae TV Awards. But we’ve both watched a lot of different TV shows, from a lot of different decades, in a lot of different genres since the last time we defended the honour of classic TV.

Here’s some you should check out, to remind you of what makes television great:

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The Best of The Sundae #5

Self-congratulation is gauche, but as long as we’re doing it anyway: it’s pretty unbelievable we managed to stick so rigidly to our “no hot takes” policy in a year that featured the most consistently hot topic of our lifetimes. Amazon literally released a show about a pandemic caused by a bat virus jumping to humans, seemingly as a result of a vast conspiracy by liberal elites, and we just had to be like, nah, not gonna write about that. Expect our frigid coronavirus takes circa 2030.

Instead, we wrote what we’ve always written: deep dives into movies and shows that stick in our brains for months or years, screeds against the state of the entertainment industry and essays about the way we understand and misunderstand art. We also published great pieces from guest contributors and started our very own podcast, The Sundae Presents, where we take turns showing each other favourite films of ours the other hasn’t seen.

For long-time readers, this is our year in review. For newer readers, this is our sizzle reel. And if you’re here for the first time, this is a pretty good look at what we’re all about, as are the previous four times we’ve done this, so check them out.

Here’s the best of The Sundae so far since last so far.

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The Sundae TV Awards 2021

We’ll not beat around the bush: watching TV was not as fun as usual for us this year. It can already be hard to get excited about the quantity-over-quality glut of Peak TV when there’s decades of classic TV to watch instead. But less new TV was released than usual due to the pandemic, so it was harder to just skim the cream off the top, and lots of ongoing shows we love didn’t release a new season, so we couldn’t even turn to our old reliables. Also, GLOW got cancelled in the middle of production on its fourth and final season for either no good reason or in retaliation for cast members criticising the producers for sidelining the show’s characters and actors of colour. Netflix said it was because COVID restrictions made filming a show about professional wrestling too logistically difficult, which was very hard to take seriously considering how many actual professional wrestling shows continued filming throughout lockdown. This has nothing to do with why TV was less fun this year, but it was a bullshit decision and we’ll be mad about it for at least a decade.

But life finds a way and there’s still been some fantastic television over the last TV season (June 2020 – May 2021). Enough that we decided to expand the awards to include two new categories this year. We’ve previously used special achievement awards to honour television that didn’t always fit neatly into drama or comedy categories. On reflection, the majority of that television comprises a general category of TV – the largest category of TV, in truth – contrasted with the narrative fiction of conventional TV drama and comedy. Our new categories will celebrate the best of reality, variety and documentary television, including game shows, professional wrestling and whatever Eric Andre is doing at any given minute. We picked our winners by consensus, so only shows we both watched were eligible to win, but we each picked a runner-up, regardless of whether the other has seen it.

You can find each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of the post. We recommend checking them out if you’re looking for recommendations. 

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Cancelled Too Soon: Mindhunter

This article is part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, Lodge 49.


Television has changed so drastically in the last decade that it’s hard to comprehend in hindsight. The history of television is full of drastic change, from the move to colour to the rise of cable and satellite channels, but the emergence of streaming has exploded the very concept of what television is. Something literally no longer has to appear on TV to be a TV show. We watch TV shows on computers and telephones, instantly available and on our own schedule. So much of what we call TV now would not be recognised as TV by time travellers from twenty years ago. Cable television was small fry by comparison: it was still recognisably television, there was just a lot more of it. A dozen new places to watch Murder She Wrote reruns. 

Streaming is different. It’s not just the rise of major new companies in the TV landscape, it’s the transformation of both how we watch TV and how TV gets made. In 2013, Netflix started pivoting in earnest to original programming with Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, and in the years since, basically every tech or media company has decided to launch its own subscription streaming service, each offering original, exclusive programming. Most of it is released a full season at a time, although Disney+ and Apple TV have tried (with varying degrees of success) to release episodes weekly. The season lengths are generally short: if the typical seasons of American television were twenty-two episodes or so on a network and around thirteen on cable, recent streaming shows tap out at about ten. While short seasons are typical of how TV is produced in a lot of countries – six episodes has been the consistent norm in the UK for decades – those old-fashioned long seasons are now at death’s door in the US, too. 

This is important because it’s transformed what TV is actually like. In the early days, the rise of streaming services was often discursively bundled in with the Golden Age of TV that was set off by The Sopranos: complex, serialised storytelling, the story goes, was now possible on television, usually in the form of dark antihero dramas. If the rhetoric about the Golden Age of TV was sometimes overblown – a strange form of backhanded snobbery that put television as a medium down in order to praise its programmes – it was describing something real and tangible and exciting. Watching Breaking Bad for the first time was one of the greatest thrills I’ve had with any piece of art. Although to this day Wikipedia frames this golden age as ongoing, there was a clear shift at a certain point. Bundling modern streaming television in with The Sopranos totally misses what streaming shows are actually like to watch. 

Television as a medium has traditionally been both short and long: you watch it for half an hour or so, but over months and years. Streaming television has effectively reversed this: episodes bloat and bleed into one another, which combined with the shorter seasons, gives the feeling of a stretched-out movie. And then it gets cancelled prematurely. So much of great old television is tight, short episodes churned out for the better part of a decade – an epic mosaic made from tiny, carefully crafted individual artworks – and so much of modern television is two bloated and sluggish seasons and then cancellation. The second season of Jessica Jones was such a bloated mess that didn’t even really feel like it had episodes, it just rolled credits at around the hour mark. Most people around me seem to have adjusted to the new television landscape fairly well, even if I am convinced they have forgotten exactly what they’re missing. When people talk about binging shows, too often it sounds to my ear less like they are enjoying the show so much they want to stay with it that bit longer and more like they’re racing to get it over with. 

If you love television – and I do, dearly, since I was a tiny tot sat in front of the box to watch cartoons – it’s easy to despair and retreat into old detective shows and classic sitcoms. Emily VanDerWerff captured my feelings perfectly

The things I love about older TV are precisely the things that are missing from TV right now. In the olden times, TV sprawled and took its time and unfolded over many episodes over many years. Even a show like Breaking Bad took several years to unspool its story, and when you look at something like Cheers, it’s impossible to imagine something with that level of depth and complexity getting that long to tell its story today. We are built not for the long haul, but for an endless assault of the new… That makes me sad, or maybe it just makes me old. But it does seem like whatever this medium I love is becoming, it’s not quite the thing that made me fall in love with it.

But it is possible for great shows to still get made. Great shows get made all the time, in fact. I Think You Should Leave is quite possibly the greatest sketch show of all time, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten made in any previous era of American television. But too many great shows feel like they were born too late, trapped in a time that can’t appreciate them the way they deserve. Shows like Mindhunter

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It’s Unnatural, Innit? Men in Cages

Most people don’t think about prisons very often. Unless you are forced to interact with the prison system in some way, it mostly just hums along in the background. It’s unquestioned. It’s unquestionable. There are some people who are actively into it – who comment “bring back hanging!” on every news article about literally any crime and think high rates of reoffending are due to prisons being too nice – and there are certainly lots of people who object to the criminalising of specific actions, from drug possession to sex work to digital piracy, but for most people, most of the time, prisons just… exist. Always have, always will.

Television as a medium has a long love affair with the criminal justice system, but for the most part, only up until you get to the prison gates. There are an unfathomable number of shows about cops investigating crimes and lawyers prosecuting crimes, that take place in police stations and courts and even jails where the defendant awaits trial, but a relatively tiny few set among convicts in prison. There’s Orange Is the New Black, obviously. Oz. Prison Break. That time Deirdre went to prison on Coronation Street. I could probably name ten if I really tried (whereas I’m pretty sure I could name fifty cop shows in half the time while standing on my head). Partially this is due to the nature of the medium: police procedurals and courtroom dramas are both ideally suited to the hour-long TV episode, telling a self-contained story with characters we know and care about, with twists and suspense ideally timed to the ad breaks. It’s both exciting and familiar, and they always get the bad guys in the end. Truly great police or legal procedurals are, in many ways, what TV does best.

But there’s still something odd about a medium so obsessed with retelling the story of how someone gets sent to prison having almost no interest in what happens when they get there. I don’t particularly buy into on-screen representation as any kind of be-all end-all, but when most people don’t think about prisons very often, and television doesn’t portray prisons very often, it’s hard not to see it as an endless feedback loop, each reinforcing the other. The incarceration system relies on this: on us turning away, choosing not to see, not to think, not to question. Cop shows function in large part as propaganda for the police, but the prison system is harder to propagandise for. Cop shows depict a kind of idealised police force, facing down unimaginable danger to catch the bad guys, but there is no similar idealised vision of prison, that makes the audience root for heroic prison officers and glad the bad guys are locked up there. Invisibility is about the best they can do. Television teaches us to root for hero cops, but when it comes to prisons, it asks us to turn away, avert our eyes, keep our heads down. Just don’t think about it at all.

This is part of what makes Porridge such a special show. Originally airing on the BBC from 1974 to 1977, it’s a sitcom set in the fictional Slade Prison in Cumberland. The sitcom may seem like an unnatural format to set in a prison, but that format allows Porridge to depict prison life at a kind of mundane, everyday level. A lot of prison dramas portray the most fucked up, horrible stuff that happens in prison, like rape and violence, but Porridge depicts the thousand tiny dehumanisations that make up prison life even when things are running perfectly smoothly. The oppressiveness inherent to the system, and the tiny victories that make it bearable.

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Talking Nonce Sense: In Praise of Paedogeddon

You would think an episode of television that set a new record for most complaints to broadcasting authorities in British history – smashing the record previously set by The Last Temptation of Christ – would have been followed by a similarly voluminous body of critical writing. But nearly twenty years after Brass Eye’s 2001 special “Paedogeddon” aired on Channel 4 shortly after a rebroadcast of its first series, it is genuinely astonishing how little shows up in a web search, even on Google Scholar or in academic databases. Virtually all existing commentary on “Paedogeddon” was written within two years of its release, and the vast majority since has been retrospectives (usually pegged to a recent news item or anniversary) as much about the controversy surrounding it as the episode itself. Even though it’s easily one of the finest episodes of television ever made, the closest it’s come to ranking in a list of the best TV episodes, rather than just the most controversial, was when The Guardian bizarrely named it the 37th best TV show of the 21st century separately from the rest of the series. I know history isn’t meritocratic, and there’s no justice in what art gets remembered, let alone what art gets acclaimed. But “Paedogeddon” was a huge cultural event in the United Kingdom, as Sharon Lockyer and Feona Attwood recount in the only academic paper I can find written about it

“Complaints were made to the Metropolitan Police and there was ministerial intervention from Child Protection Minister Beverly Hughes (who did not see the mock-documentary), David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. The government alluded to the fact that it might strengthen the powers of the [Independent Television Commission] to censor offensive programs. Calls were made for Channel 4 to have its license to broadcast revoked and there were claims that Channel 4 could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act for taking, making, and showing indecent photographs of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarded the program deeply offensive and other campaign groups condemned the program. Channel 4 executives and the show’s producers received death threats and bomb scares were reported at the Channel 4 studios. The program also received a wealth of British media reportage from both tabloid and quality newspapers.” 

The first – and ultimately only – series of Brass Eye had already been hugely controversial when it aired in 1997. A parody of British current affairs programs (its name comes from the BBC shows Brass Tacks and Public Eye) hosted by creator and head writer Chris Morris, it viciously satirised their sensationalist tone, their propensity for whipping up moral panics to keep viewers too scared to turn off, and the willingness of public figures to lend credibility to awareness campaigns about issues they knew nothing about. The producers duped several celebrities and politicians, including sitting MPs, into recording public service announcements for fake issues, most famously a drug called Cake that was described as causing a young girl to vomit up her own pelvis and a young boy to cry all the water out of his body. 

Tricking people into making erroneous or embarrassing statements on TV like this was actually illegal in the UK at the time, and the subsequent amendment to the broadcasting standards that permitted such deceptions in future for entertainment purposes is commonly known as the Brass Eye clause. It not only inspired, but literally opened the legal gates to, a legion of imitators and successors, most famously Sacha Baron Cohen, who spun off his interview segments as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show into Da Ali G Show and four spin-off movies. Neither Brass Eye nor its predecessor series The Day Today are the sole ancestors of the alternate reality talk shows, mockumentaries and satirical current affairs programs that have followed: Reeves and Mortimer certainly deserve a bit of credit, and loads of British comics of that era, including several writers on Brass Eye, have cited The Larry Sanders Show as a huge influence. But it’s hard to imagine a world where The Office, let alone The Eric Andre Show, exists without Brass Eye

The series as a whole has fared a lot better in the critical memory than “Paedogeddon” in particular, and I suspect that’s in part because writing about the series as a whole lets you avoid talking about “Paedogeddon” in too much detail. I can understand being hesitant to touch such a controversial episode, especially when its ostensible topic – child sexual abuse – is and will always be one of the most sensitive issues in the world. Brass Eye definitely had a moral viewpoint, but it was first and foremost a comedy program with a pretty dark sense of humour, one of the indisputable peaks of the boom in surrealism, black comedy and shock humour that stretched from the mid-nineties through to the mid-noughties and launched the careers of people like Tom Green, Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman. In “a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive”, when there are multiple ongoing moral panics about paedophilia, including one that helped inspire a coup attempt in the United States, I get why people would be loath to discuss how much they love an episode of television whose most iconic joke is about a child getting trapped alone in a space shuttle with real child molester and serial killer Sidney Cooke. It’s not nice to be called a paedophile on Twitter because of your television opinions, like the time I said there was an incestuous subtext to the main romance in The Flash because the characters were adoptive siblings and several fans of that romance found my tweet and said I only thought that because I was a child molester. 

Besides, it’s not like it still has vocal detractors anymore either: it has managed, without critical intervention, to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of British comedy among comedians, fans and enthusiasts anyway, so it’s not like there’s any particularly urgent reason to write about it. I understand all that, I do. But it’s still ridiculous that an episode not only this excellent, but so dense and rich with material to analyse, has prompted less cultural commentary in twenty years than the first episode of the next show arbitrarily deemed “important” by enough critics will generate in the twenty minutes after it premieres. 

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Swift as Jackass: The Forgotten Genius of Nathan Barley

Nathan Barley, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s 2005 satirical sitcom about the East London media scene and tech-saturated hipsterdom, was a flop when it first aired on Channel 4: by episode five of its six-episode run, its audience had dropped to just 500,000 (a 2% share). The title character, played by Nicholas Burns, was originally created for Brooker’s TV listings parody website TVGoHome as the star of a documentary called Cunt. Nathan is softened for the sitcom from an outright cunt into an insufferable twat: he’s a self-described “self-facilitating media node”, running a website called Trashbat.co.ck (registered in the Cook Islands) where he posts prank videos and assorted shite. “It’s an online urban culture dispatch,” he says. The sitcom puts Nathan in contrast with Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barratt), a frustrated cynic working at SugarApe magazine (stylised to emphasis “rape”), an obvious parody of Vice. In the first episode, Dan writes an article about the rise of the idiots, lambasting people like Nathan and his colleagues at SugarApe. Nathan and all the other idiots think it’s genius. It’s a brilliantly funny, weird little show, alternating between unabashed silliness and jet-black shock humour.  

A second season of the show was never commissioned. Morris and Brooker both went on to bigger things – Brooker created Black Mirror, and Morris continues to be an incomparable genius – as did much of the cast – a host of now big stars play bit parts, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Ben Whishaw – but it has not prompted much of a return to Nathan BarleyDigital Spy once claimed it became a cult hit on DVD, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Every retrospective on some flop no-one remembers claims it later became a cult hit. It’s not like people are going to Nathan Barley conventions dressed as Nikolai the Barber’s dead cat. 

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The Sundae TV Awards 2020

What a weird year for television. What a weird year to even be talking about television. Set aside the obviously extreme circumstances in which much of this TV season has occurred and still so much has changed. The finales of Orange is the New Black and BoJack Horseman were twin sunsets on the brief moment in time when it seemed like streaming television would be a brave new frontier of ambition, innovation and experimentation, just as the arrival of Disney+ and HBO Max confirmed it would just be another battleground for giant corporations. Disney put so much money behind their FYC campaigns that Ramy (Hulu), What We Do in the Shadows (FX) and even The Mandalorian (Disney+) racked up tons of Emmy nominations out of nowhere. And then, of course, there’s the situation we’re all in, the almost total shutdown of television production, the glut of Zoom episodes we’ve thankfully managed to avoid watching, the insane spectacle of John Krasinski making a good news aggregator YouTube show to raise people’s spirits and then selling the concept to CBS All Access without him attached. The finale of The Blacklist was only half-shot, so they animated the rest of the episode and aired it on actual television.

It feels kind of absurd to look back on this year and talk about how good the television was, but here we are. The Sundae TV Awards 2020. 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 2019 to May 2020), and we only cared about the seven major awards in drama and comedy, this is what you’d get. 

You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of the post. 

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Don’t Tell Mama: Women’s Body Horror in Sharp Objects

Body horror is a genre characterised by what Ronald Cruz calls the “manipulation and warping of the normal site of bodily form and function”. It is a genre which unsettles us through its disregard for the human body as it assaults audiences with distortions of the familiar sights, sounds, movements, and functions of the body. Throughout the eight episodes of HBO’s gothic thriller Sharp Objects (2018), there is a growing unease regarding the body which erupts in moments of supreme shock and disgust. The three central characters – Camille Preaker, her mother Adora and sister Amma – all display the genre’s “gruesome disregard for the human body” in various ways as they exist within the narrow confines of femininity permitted in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri. The female body in Sharp Objects is the site of the series’ most shocking moments of horror and the driving force of the entire mystery plot: the horror it endures and produces is the horror of the series.

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Patching the Zeitgeist

It all started with George Lucas.

The man who once wrote that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else in the era of home media had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)

In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.

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