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The TV Year
What I watched, and what mattered
I made the decision, at the beginning of 2021, to make sure to write down all the (new to me) TV shows and movies I watched this year. It was a deliberate choice, to take note of my culture intake on screen because 2020 had been such a dismal book-reading year for me, and I did not want to be the cause of my own depression when I took the tally for this year. It’s still only the first week of December but I’m sure there won’t be that much more added before the clock runs out on 2021. As of today, I can say that I watched 20 TV things — documentary miniseries included — and 40 movie things (including two short films) this year. Lemme tell you about some of them.
Before we begin: Succession is not among the 20 things. Somehow, I am still stuck on season 1 episode 5. It makes Sunday nights on Twitter unbearable for me, but the plus side of that is I get to remove myself from the internet and do something else when it’s on. I know I will catch up at some point in 2022 but I simply don’t have a solid timeline on that. I was completely blown away by The Assistant, which I watched on a plane and I recommend that you do too if it comes up on your entertainment menu. I reckon I’ll never watch Black Bear again but I think I’ll not stop thinking about it for years. Pixar’s Luca made me sob myself into dehydration. I cannot explain how, or why.
TV-wise, WandaVision was the first series I watched this year, and consequently almost everything thereafter felt a little less fun and shiny. I enjoyed Starstruck so much, and wished only for a touch more fizzy ~sexual~ chemistry between the leads, because the jokes were great and now I have a crush on Nikesh Patel who is properly hot, especially with a beard. I watched Fosse/Verdon much later than everybody and yes, the consensus was correct: Michelle Williams is one of our best, as any Jen Lindley fan could’ve told you in 1999.
There is one show this newsletter is actually really about, the show that made me feel a lot of things, the show that made me think love is possible in New York, the show I wish I had written on, and want to write for in the future. Love Life. Specifically season 2.
First of all: imagine my surprise when I realised that it turns out I do fancy William Jackson Harper… but only when I see him next to a Black woman love interest. Thank you for that assist, Jessica Williams (and also Thuso Mbedu, previously). The second season of Love Life is about Marcus (WJH) and his steps and missteps. And o, there are so many missteps. Here’s what I like so much about this season: it’s so familiar. And you would think that would make it boring, or I dunno, sort of rote, but no. The writing is so often so sharp and incisive and completely without the cheap scent of beneficial hindsight — the pandemic onset episode is perhaps a masterpiece of subtlety and attention to viewers’ psyches, especially for those of us who are Black, and were in New York City in Q1 2020, and have remained here, through all the societal ‘reckonings’ and ructions that have taken place since. But all the episodes felt good like that: it was rare to have a moment in which I sat bolt upright having been yanked out of a scene by a Bad Writing Choice. I so love it when human beings act like human beings.
The season felt really Black in a way that was baked in from the get-go, and not as a sort of garnish. Other things I like: the casting is exquisite. The fullness of the supporting characters is a real boon: Marcus’s friends and family come in and do the two things they’re supposed to: be themselves and also flesh out the main character even more. The costume design? Spectacular. WJH (and the rest of the cast) was put in colours and shapes that delighted the eyes and told the story of Marcus so eloquently. Production design? CLEAN. The whole world of the show felt deliberate and cohesive. The music was also a highlight: complementary and focused. I liked the way Marcus continued to mess up, even when he knew better, and sometimes when he didn’t. Because growth is not always linear, and sometimes our worst, most destructive or most basic urges simply will not be denied. Oh, and I loved that they gave a short king like WJH a stallion love interest like Jessica Williams. Every time she towered over him in a shot, I chuckled and said, yes bitch out loud to my empty apartment. Sometimes you don’t know what you want to see until you see it.
I have given a lot to what made Love Life S2 work, and I ended up thinking about one of my other recent favourites. I have written about Lovesick before (and yes, I wish I had been a writer on that show too) and thought about it so much over the years and many rewatches. Like Love Life, Lovesick feels like real human beings, even in the heightened circumstances required for TV. Dylan is a white Marcus, essentially — he’ll stay fucking up as long as the universe keeps expanding but he’s not a Bad Man per se. Just a romantic idiot who’s not always taking time to carefully manage how he moves through the world and who he bumps into while doing so. It makes them somewhat annoying (there are so many moments I wanted to reach into the screen and flick Marcus on the forehead, for example) but it also makes them recognisably normal. And all around Dylan/Marcus are the people who help them self-actualise whether by telling them a hard truth they’re (not) ready to hear, or by doing something stupid with them to get through one (1) small part of life.
After the death of Stephen Sondheim several days ago, I found myself in a state of real, quiet sadness. I was not an intimate uber-fan, I had not expected to feel so much. The back catalogue is vast, but all I could bear to listen to, over and over, was Being Alive. Every random version of it I could find. Across an ocean, my best friend K was doing the same thing. When we spoke, in the early insomniac hours, we talked about Company (we saw the gender-swapped London production together in 2018) and how Sondheim’s greatest gift was to make you really look at the red insides of your life, and good or bad, make you feel it. “Somebody need me too much/somebody know me too well/somebody pull me up short/and put me through hell/and give me support/for being alive.” I can’t listen to it without doing an internal audit.
I kept thinking about the thing the creator of Lovesick, Tom Edge, said to me when I interviewed him and asked about how to make a perfect romantic comedy. Even though we have all seen so many variants on the genre, Edge said, these stories are “still worth telling and still worth probing, because loving people, whether they’re your friends, your family, or people that you may ultimately settle down with, is such a fundamental part of humanity.”
Love Life S2 really felt like a story worth telling. I’m really glad they did it.