We watch a lot of television. Most of the time, our job descriptions are a dream come true. Sometimes, though, television is very bad – and as the people responsible for covering it, we can’t look away.
We’ve seen all the rebooted franchises and rehashed talk-show formats; the streaming bloat and the prestige fatigue. We watch the football games and the 24-hour news, the awards shows and the special reports.
Peak TV means there’s more TV to watch than ever – but along with great programming comes predictable duds, riding the wave of buzz and media to stink, with passive-aggressive insistence, on our always-on screens.
The Variety TV staff went through this year’s programming to come up with the frustrations, disappointments, and atrocities that dotted the television landscape. Some are grand ideas that flopped in execution; others are moments of failure within larger shows. There are many different ways to make terrible television, as it turns out, but what all of these things have in common is a kind of bad faith with the audience – lazy storytelling, self-indulgent production, exploitative foundations, or shameless pandering.
Television reflects our collective unconsciousness, and lately, it’s been widespread and splintered – niches upon niches, creating bubbles of conversation that never intersect. But perhaps, if we can’t agree on what’s good – or even what’s tolerable – we can agree on what sucked.
Here’s an edited list of Variety’s worst TV of 2016, ranked.
Yes, of course, there was one pretty good dish set out with this batch of moldy, overheated leftovers. Darin Morgan’s silly but sweet werewolf episode approached the quality levels of early-era X-Files, but the rest of this six-episode outing was, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. And not even a hot mess: The storytelling was simply bewildering when it wasn’t padded or meandering. None of the conspiracy stuff made any sense, and it was hard not to wonder if most episodes had been put together with the help of an X-Files Scene Randomiser.
No matter what you thought of the rest of the mini-season, the truth is out there: Babylon, the fifth episode, is one of the worst and most incomprehensible episodes of television to air this year or any other. Let’s hope Fox doesn’t revive this artifact again until it has a better set of scripts to give the stars, who are still great at being Mulder and Scully. (But for the love of Scully, get Gillian Anderson a better wig.)
Talk shows are hard. Late-night talk-show hosts, in particular, have to balance being topical, likable, and just different enough from the other schmucks on the guide to give people a reason to tune in – but not so different that you induce further wakefulness in your audience. Which is why Chelsea Handler’s ostensible late-night show on Netflix feels so inessential.
She still doesn’t seem completely at ease in front of the camera, and the show’s aimlessness even manifests, synecdoche-esque, in the form of Handler’s dog Chunk wandering the set and poking into interviews that are inconsequential at best, and enervating at worst.
Not every non-traditional talker has to have the crazed deconstructionist bend of an anti-talk show, but Chelsea also lacks all of the hallmarks that make a late-night show worth watching: There are no bits to go viral, no especially sharp points of view. Chelsea is, at its core, a soulless viewing exercise.
4. Top Gear
The BBC was put in something of an impossible spot when a host of one of its most popular shows worldwide hauled off and hit a producer during a location shoot. It had little choice but to discipline Jeremy Clarkson, but in pushing him out the door along with his co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond, the BBC poured sand into the engine of the global Top Gear phenomenon. Successor host Chris Evans had no shot at re-creating the fun that the show delivered with the bro-mantic adventures of Clarkson, Hammond and May. And tapping Friends star Matt LeBlanc as Harris’ sidekick was a nonsensical choice that was awkward on-air from the first minute.
HBO’s 1970s rock ‘n’ roll fever-dream drama was a disappointment in large part because its auspices were so impressive: The Boardwalk Empire duo of Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, the electric Bobby Cannavale and Mick Jagger thrown in to boot. You couldn’t take your eyes off Cannavale’s Richie Finestra, and his backing band was full of great players (Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde, Juno Temple, Paul Ben-Victor).
But the show overall never gelled, and the story took off on too many self-indulgent flights of fancy to make sense of what should have been an intriguing look at a dynamic time in the cultural life of this country. Plus, for a show that claimed so much intimacy with the music industry, its depiction of cocaine use was… imaginative… at best.
2. The Walking Dead
To be fair, life in a post-apocalyptic zombie world should indeed have stakes, and blood will get spilled. But chopping off heads just for sport is a lazy substitute for true narrative or character development. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Our merry band of survivors happens on a new community, which is run by a cruel leader with a vicious streak, who picks them off one by one.
Pick a season, any season. We’re stuck in a narrative loop straight out of Westworld. And after a sixth season cliffhanger that left viewers grumbling about which fan favourite character faced the wrong end of Negan’s barbed-wire wrapped bat, the seventh season opened with an episode that was so gory it was clear that standards-and-practices had fallen asleep at the switch.
If the sight of blood spattered on the ground didn’t shock you, the squishing sound certainly did. As the cartoonish Negan continues to toy ever more cruelly with his victims, the show toys with its viewers – who deserve better.
1. Donald Trump
Donald Trump is the television show we wished we could have stopped watching. With his easy confabulation and commercial-length attention span – his carefully maintained pompadour and fake tan – he is the embodiment of television’s most pandering, superficial, and morally bankrupt tendencies.
Perhaps it sounds reductive to refer to the US president-elect as a work of television. But Trump is television – the worst kind of television, which is commercial, nonsensical, and image-obsessed. Every flaw and hypocrisy that television has, Trump discovered and then exploited. This golden age of television has been about raising the bar for what television can be – and raising the estimation that the industry has for the audience at home, who have become voracious for excellent, high-quality programming.
Trump, meanwhile, built an entire political platform on the dehumanising logic of ratings –that playing to our basest fears with bullying, racism, and untruth is guaranteed to be a hit.
It may be successful, but it is the opposite of quality. Indeed: Without fail, everything that Trump has touched over the last year has turned to crap. Television news fell apart in trying to cover him – caught between playing every minute of his rallies with dropped jaws and fighting ineffectively with his surrogates who claimed how white supremacy wasn’t really white supremacy. His appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon demonstrated just how spineless its host really is.
Sometimes it seems as if Trump believes we are idiots for watching him – no better than mindless drones plugged into the screen. But we are not idiots. Donald Trump was the worst television of the year – partly because he showed us how television’s worst impulses were getting the better of us. Now it just remains to be seen if he is – already – the worst TV of 2017, too. – Reuters