every tv show I have binge-watched so far in 2021

pretend it's a british game show

welcome to the weekly public-and-free-to-everyone post on griefbacon. just a tiny reminder that if you were previously a paying subscriber in the earlier incarnation of griefbacon, and want to subscribe again, you’ll need to create a whole new subscription, probably you already knew this, ignore this if it does not apply to you, ok anyway let’s talk about television.

this is part three of a series that will likely continue, here are parts one and two.

I am so sick of everything right now. Every single thing, large things, small things, stupid little walks, my house, all of it. I know I said I would write about love this month and I’m trying to do that but I am so sick of everything. This post is about television, which is not to say that it isn’t about love, because what could possibly be more like love than the thing I use to escape the reality of my own existence? Anyway, I have watched a lot of television so far this year and maybe so have you, and here are some of my feelings about it.

Call My Agent: Is this show good? Is it bad? Is it smart? Is it stupid? I don’t know, I literally have no idea, it has been the pandemic so long and I have been sitting on this same horrible couch for so many days and I have no idea anymore whether television is good or bad. I probably couldn’t tell you whether any piece of episodic narrative television you sat me down in front of was good right now but I can almost guarantee that whatever it was, I would be desperate to watch more of it. This show has a cast of attractive people dressed in shiny clothes doing roughly the same things from one episode to the next and going from offices to bars to streets to apartments and having tiny little consequences for their tiny little actions. All I want right now is to watch another episode of it and I genuinely have no idea if it is good at all. Here is a little glossy universe in which life progresses and things change and one thing moves forward to the next and absolutely nothing is important and absolutely everything is small and nobody even considers admitting that everything they are reacting to like it is very large is actually very small. It is so wonderful when people have no sense of perspective at all. It is so wonderful when people yell in French. People should always be yelling in French, all the French yelling on this show is very beautiful. I am absolutely convinced while watching it that I could fluently have a whole argument in French.

If “what if Don Draper but an angry French lesbian in the present day” is a literal fantasy you have also had then I wholeheartedly recommend this show to you. It is very horny and very silly. It definitely wants you to believe in the idea of a workplace as a family which is a repellant and dangerous idea but also such a built-in trope of this kind of television that it is likely part of what makes this show feel so recognizable and so familiar, in a chemically-soothing way, to me. There is a very ethereally beautiful tax assessor in the first season who says a lot of stuff about French tax law but who is important mainly because of kissing. Also Monica Bellucci is in more than one episode doing very broad comedy about being Monica Bellucci and how you react to that sentence is a pretty good indicator of whether or not you would enjoy watching this show. This article compares it to Succession but it’s sort of like Succession if someone sanded all the edges off of Succession at which point I’m not sure there would actually be anything of Succession left. I would be loyal to roughly three-quarters of the main characters on Call My Agent as though they were my own biological family but also who’s to say that right now I wouldn’t care just as much about any group of imaginary attractive people placed on a screen in front of me who represented an escape from my own life, I have been sitting on this one same couch in this one same room for so long, it’s been 84 years.

Taskmaster: A person who is not as tired as I am might write something, I guess, about how all of life is stupid little tasks and that’s part of why this show about people competing to do the best at stupid little tasks is so popular right now. They might write something about how this British game show has been going on for years and I had never heard of it and then suddenly in the last year a significant handful of people I know became obsessed with it totally independent from one another. They might consider how the show is a metaphor both for our current moment and our lives more generally: we are constantly having to complete a series of stupid and absurd tasks that make no sense at all, often within a highly pressurized time limit, and then being graded on those tasks by totally unpredictable criteria that are really just one large man’s whims. They might point out how the show’s winning formula is to combine a dead-serious sense of urgency with a task that does not matter at all, how desperately the contestants want to win even though there is no monetary prize or any kind of real advantage to winning, and how easy it is to get very invested in something like making a sandwich, choreographing a dance to an 00s flip-phone ringtone, getting certain number of dogs to stand in a certain place, making the best noise. The tension between the utter stupidity of the tasks and the urgency with which the contestants end up approaching them is part of what provides the humor of the show, the other part of it being how terrible the contestants are at these things, how the nerves and urgency and adrenaline of having to compete on the show seem to denude them instantly of any understanding of time, or physics, or objects, or space, any knowledge of how bodies or logic work. It would be possible to write something at once funny and serious about how all of this matches up with our experience of riding our stupid little frogs through our stupid little lives, that surviving in a society, and living in a body, is nothing more than a series of Taskmaster tasks, no more explicable or less absurd than trying to paint a picture of a horse while riding on a horse.

But look, I’m tired from doing all my stupid little tasks in real life and Taskmaster is just incredibly fucking good. Somebody once told me that Jim Henson used to call things “stupid” when he really liked them, and I’ve been calling things stupid as a compliment ever since. Taskmaster is stupid. I love it, It’s like candy. Its two hosts are Greg Davies, an unreasonably large and charming man who is the perfect combination of nice and mean and whose charm mainly derives from how he seems to always be in on the joke that is himself, and Alex Horne, a slightly less large but still large man, who provides one of the main repeating jokes of the show, in which Greg calls Alex (again, a six-foot-two man) “little Alex Horne.” Does this sound stupid? It is. Have I laughed at anything else as much as this anytime in recent memory? Absolutely not. Alex and Greg shepherd a group of five vaguely famous British comedians through a series of gloriously stupid little tasks. The contestants being not just celebrities (for some definition of the word) but specifically comedians is part of what gives the show its oddly joyous tenor; while the things they do are objectively embarrassing, none of the contestants are ever themselves embarrassed. An unlikely and crucial aspect of Taskmaster is that, while the contestants get momentarily frustrated or annoyed trying to stack toilet paper tubes or catapult a shoe into a bathtub, nobody on Taskmaster is ever fundamentally having a bad time. The point of the show is to watch people do things they enjoy doing, and all of these things are profoundly ridiculous.

The tasks always start with one in which each contestant brings in an item in a deeply stupid category (“boldest belt” “most awkward item to get home” “the most cash”), and always end with a live, timed onstage task such as throwing an egg through a basketball hoop, building the highest can tower, or making the longest continuous noise. If you ever pointlessly set up some kind of water balloon-obstacle-course-relay-race-drinking-game with your friends when you were younger and then attempted to play said game and as soon as you attempted to play it realized it was absolutely unplayable and then kept playing it anyway, that’s sort of what Taskmaster is like, which is to say it is perfect. “What if The Great British Bake-Off took place in a tiny car being driven very fast while chased by a bear and also there were even more dick jokes,” is also accurate. Everyone I know who watches Taskmaster wants to bang Greg Davies and we are all miserable about this fact, but, like, miserable in a fun way. Take your brain out of your head and put it in the warm soapy bath of this show until it is smooth. 

Phoebe Bridgers on SNL: When I say that Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher album made me cry, I rarely mean that I am or even was actually crying. Instead, I am trying to gesture at an emotion, to explain the whole thing of this music and the little internal experiences that I and other people I know have built around it. When a famous musician smashes a guitar onstage, they did not suddenly decide to smash their guitar in the moment it happened. Phoebe Bridgers smashing her guitar is not an act of sudden unpremeditated rage but rather her trying to communicate the idea of the emotion, putting a frame around it. Probably somewhere on several excel spreadsheets there is a note about Bridgers’s plan to smash the guitar, written in advance of the event. The best part about it is that it’s calculated; the most interesting thing about it is that she failed. Saturday Night Live is by definition embarrassing and terrible but I loved this performance, the obviousness of it, the formal translation of Bridgers’s familiar skeleton costume into jewels, the co-opting of the boomer-dad-rock trope of guitar-smashing that confirms my feelings that sad girl music is the new dad rock, and most of all the part where she attempts to smash the guitar and can’t, and tries awhile and then gives up and walks offstage, leaving the guitar mostly intact, which is how most things, including crying, have felt lately, and feel a lot of the time. It also just so happens to be the emotion that so much of Bridgers’s music is about, and the thing I am trying to talk about when I use “crying” as a shorthand for a relationship to it. I did not watch any of the sketches but that doesn’t stop me from being able to tell you with total accuracy that the best ones were mediocre. Dan Levy seems nice and looked nice and it seems like doing this probably made him happy and it’s nice when people get to do things that make them happy.

The Americans: I wrote about The Americans in the last one of these, but I’m still watching it because it turns out binge-watching something in a group-effort social way with friends when you do not ever actually see those friends because you can’t be inside of an enclosed room with them because it’s a health risk because we live in hell means that it takes a lot longer to watch a show. People have lives and schedules and appointments and families and obstacles and bad moods even now, even in all the monotony of the year of the couch. It’s actually reassuring somehow that we don’t all manage to power through three to four emotionally devastating episodes about the uselessness of the Cold War every evening. Not just because because the emotional tenor of The Americans renders it a terrible show for binge-watching (as I discovered in 2016 when I watched all of the existing seasons in something like a month and a half), but also because watching it more slowly gives all of us a chance to appreciate all the gorgeous details of it, like how Frank Langella’s character is in his own little John le Carré novel with his perfect cardigans and his elegant hats and his chess set and his nice little meals and his sad fatherly resignation and his total amorality in the guise of compassion and when will someone make me a Margo Martindale/Frank Langella Americans prequel show about both of these characters being young in Russia in World War Two, when, give it to me, put it in my veins, this is the only thing I want. Anyway we’re watching The Americans very slowly and we’re still only in season three. I am slightly less claw-my-way-through-a-wall attracted to Matthew Rhys this time around, which might mean I’ve grown as a person or maybe it just means that when I first binge-watched this show, I lived in a different and more innocent world. Or maybe it means I am one million years older than I was in 2016 or even 2018, which seems likely. Our groupchat during the episodes alternates between us yelling in capslock about the incredible 1980s costumes— mainly just “SWEATER”— and exclaiming wordlessly “aaaaaaaaaggghh,” one after another as the characters do horrible things. It’s a nice way to watch television, and a nice way to have friends, even if it’s forced by circumstance. Paige Jennings is the protagonist and the hero of The Americans.  

Pretend It’s A City: I didn’t watch Pretend It’s A City soon enough and now I probably can’t ever watch it because I’ve seen too many people’s takes on it. Here’s what I know about Pretend It’s A City without having watched it: Whenever I manage to leave the house, which is less and less lately, being in New York immediately comforts me because I feel like I have escaped myself and am in someone else’s movie. Sometimes it’s all right to love something for a very stupid and un-interrogated and unflattering reason. In fact, I don’t know that there’s any other way to love a city, which is an inescapably stupid thing to do. 

I have literally no idea if I like Fran Lebowitz or not and I want to know if this is other people’s experience of listening to a lot of other people talk loudly about a single topic before you yourself have felt strongly about it and, if not, I want to know what it is like not to live this way, to be built stronger and less porous than this, to not dissolve into a panicked amoebic ooze in a crowd full of other people confidently yelling their opinions. This is why I can’t have fun on twitter anymore, but I want to be clear that it’s my fault, not anyone else’s. Pretend It’s A City is somehow my fault, too. 

I walked home last night after I took my stupid little walk to nowhere, and the snow had gotten hideous already, greying and ugly in huge chunks along the sidewalks like road barriers. Every time I decide to go for a walk to soak in the beauty of the city it turns out it’s trash night and the streets are piled with stacks of trash bags sometimes up nearly to my waist. Last night the trash bags had accumulated a dusting of light snow, sparkling in the cold air. I still love New York a lot, but I also love museums, and sometimes on all my stupid little walks what it feels like here more than anything else is that big wish of all obnoxious lonely children, which is to spend the night in a museum. When some people talk about gentrification they are talking about something very real and dire and material, and when some other people talk about gentrification, they are talking about how they don’t like that they are getting old. This would be easier if it were one thing but it’s not. 

I have spent all of my adult life in a state of acute panic about money, real material panic not Fran Lebowitz-saying-she-hates-money panic, and conventional wisdom says that one way to fix this might be to leave New York but I don’t know, I suspect the problem is just me.

Most of the time I think the correct way to love something is to roast the hell out of it and out of yourself for loving it, from friends and loved ones to a partner or a spouse, to a band, or an author, or a philosophical system, or a city. But this doesn’t excuse any of us from the fact that love is stupid and embarrassing, that loving anything is a way of showing one’s ass. Love is walking out of a public bathroom with a huge wad of toilet paper stuck to your shoe and going through the day like that, oblivious, and all the roasting in the world, of oneself or of the thing one loves, isn’t going to change this fact. There is no way to get out ahead of it. 

One of the uses of loving a city is that it obscures myself, allows me to pretend that things are about a place instead of just about my own problems, my own pretensions and grandiosities and embarrassing little hopes and dreams. But then again, that’s true of loving anything, people especially. Every relationship with another person into which I have poured my focus is a way of avoiding the facts of myself, of putting the bare truths of who I am into a container where it is bearable to access them; it’s always a museum at night, pretending that time can be forgiven, pretending a painting of a house is a real house in which I can live. 

I miss Dean and Deluca and am gutted by photos of the empty storefront even though I only ever went in there to buy cheese to bring to parties on which I spent too much money because I was trying to impress the host and I always regretted it later and I guess this is as good an example as any why loving a city is an indefensible position. Knowing this changes nothing about how I feel about this place, though. Through the window in front of me the view stretches out north and the water-towers are capped in snow like they’re wearing little hats and from somewhere, steam belches out of an old building and stains gray against the grayer sky. 

Going to Bed Early and Then Getting Up at Five AM: The only good TV show, ten out of five stars, god I am so old but listen did you know about going to bed at 9pm?

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