A lot of shows these days have been exploring alternate worlds as they relate, like photographic negatives, to this one. On Twin Peaks, you can crawl into a puddle of oil somewhere in Washington State and end up in a reality populated by giants and dead girls who can only talk backwards in fast-forward. In Stranger Things, a porthole leads to a world that’s the exact negative of this one. On The Leftovers, Nora Durst describes the place where the departed have gone (or at least, her fabrication of that place) as an analogue of our reality, with the only difference being that the people in our reality are the missing ones there.
Clearly, television these days is breaking from reality, expanding into mind-boggling alternate realms. But, oddly, one of the other biggest, boldest reality shifts on television this year was also one of the most naturalistic: that of Veep, under showrunner David Mandel (this was his second season). Mandel took over and subtly exploded/deflated Veep — while the humor remained largely the same, the expanded yet disempowered vision made for the series’ most hilarious and incisive season, and its success therein speaks to the strength of a promising trend across television.
Veep had always been a series about a politician’s incidental rise among episodic falls. Each episode, Selina Meyer and her crew encounter a series of setbacks — usually of their own making — and respond to them with vague statements that straddle all political lines, diluting politics into the crass popularity contest it is in real life. Somehow, despite the shower of failures, Selina’s overarching path curved upwards, ending with her becoming the President of the United States.
Seasons 5 and 6 of Veep create a stunning diptych. It’s one in which Selina Meyer rises to the top of her myopic power-oriented reality, and then has to live in that reality’s antithesis. Her portal into the Black Lodge was a failed helicopter ride away from the White House at the end of Season 5. In Season 6, we find her recovering from a nervous breakdown, living in a home that’s legally her daughter’s, attempting to have a memorial library (which no one wants) built, and plunging into the putrid depths of her family history to write her memoir.
A decade ago, this shift may have seemed like an admission of weakness or even defeat — and some still seem to see it as such. But television is currently in the midst of breaking away from its formula of fixed-setting-as-fixed-theme. In the past, even brilliant, innovative shows like Six Feet Under followed the TV formula of being thematically/philosophically bound to their locations, and the professions those settings denoted: for Six Feet Under, it was the funeral home. The series was particularly (and effectively) bound to this setting-oriented formula, displaying tiny portraits of domesticity, disrupted — as they always will be, sooner or later — by death.
That series did a surprising thing by breaking, in its last 5 minutes, away from its temporal/locational setting by following all of its characters to their futures, then to their deaths. But if it had, for example, spent a whole season or two following Ruth in retirement at her doggie daycare that we see in this flash-forward, or Claire as a photographer in New York, people would’ve wondered, “Why the hell does thing still exist? They’re really pushing it.”
Because of TV’s roots in sound-stage filming, and particularly because of comedy’s roots in live audience tapings, there’s still a sort of sanctity that comes with location/profession on TV — they’re the things that cohere a show across seasons. Workplace comedies are bound by the existence of that workplace; family comedies are bound by a home set; friend comedies are bound by a hodgepodge of apartments and local hangs. In the past, when series broke from their settings, the break was perceived critically as exposing that series’ expiration. When Weeds left Agrestic, it felt both lazy and like a reach, undermining the show’s meticulous mapping of suburban oddity and malaise. When Seinfeld ended in a jailhouse, it seemed like the creators didn’t have any idea of how to end a show about nothing in characters’ everyday, nothing-oriented lives.
Going back way further, when I Love Lucy moved to Connecticut, that was clearly the end. If Sex and the City‘s Carrie had stayed in Paris for more than a couple episodes, people would’ve wondered whether that show’s end was imminent. The point of TV has always been to present variations on reliable repetition; even for many drama series that tried to break out of episodic patterns, it was hard to totally divorce from their genres’ formulae. Conversely, when a live-taped sitcom like Friends ventured elsewhere — to, say, London — it was such a big deal that it was almost treated as a cross-cultural tourist phenomenon (in the case of Friends, perhaps in part because their jaunt across the Atlantic was a joint venture planned by NBC and England’s Channel 4.) The sight of Friends’ familiar characters decontextualized from their nonsensically cheap West Village apartments was so bizarre that two featurettes were made about the two-episode tryst with London.
In the last decade, though, TV has been starting to estrange itself more and more from the idea that in order for a show to justify its existence, it needs to be consistent in its milieu. This year, Master of None, for instance, after seeming like a specifically Brooklyn-centric series, boldly uprooted itself at the beginning of its second season. Jane the Virgin came unstuck in time last season, skipping ahead three years — and it didn’t feel like a cop-out at all. Homeland has shifting time and place with every season, for better or for worse, for a while now. Instead of the bottle episode — which has become a lauded form of experimental divergence — we’re also seeing bottle seasons.
The Leftovers is the best example of this: each season has taken place in a different set of locations, and you never knew which characters would follow the narrative there. And then, of course, there’s Twin Peaks: The Return: it’s stylistically cohered as a “fuck you” to the notion that a TV series needs to maintain familiarity to justify its continued existence. The Americans, meanwhile, is a series that would’ve benefited from a more major shift in its most recent (fifth) season. Since the very beginning it’s been teasing its leads’ desire to abandon their spy life, but at the beginning of the season they were still where they’ve always been: in the same house, still taking on new missions — and still asking the same questions.
While total divergence from a theme or place used to look like running out of ideas, I wonder if it can’t — when done for the right reasons — be the solution to making more artful television. The problem with just about every good show is that eventually, it bumps up against its parameters. Sooner or later, after however many seasons, shows founder because they’re recreating a formula. (To go back to the template of normcore mediocrity, Friends, for instance: think of the stupidly dizzying way Ross and Rachel went back and forth over the course of 10 seasons as though stuck in a fish tank.)
Which brings me back to Veep. The jump ahead in time (by a year between Season 5 and 6), coupled with the scrambling of all power dynamics on the series, did not seem like a shallow abandonment of a theme for relevancy, but rather a deepening. As I’ve discussed before, throughout the series, we’d mostly seen how people presented themselves at work; the personal would seep through in asides behind closed office doors. Here, the characters are put in the Upside Down: it’s all personal — with political talk and strategy being discussed largely in Selina Meyer’s (well, actually, her daughter Catherine’s) own home, in sweatpants, with backgammon.
The refreshing nature of this biting glimpse at these politicians’ personal lives was particularly on display in the seasons’ finale. First, the finale included a number of flashbacks, each of which was at once uproariously funny (particularly in details like the progressions of Gary’s hairstyles) and informative of how these characters, and mostly Selina, ended up trading the pursuit of happiness for the pursuit of power. The series now ventures casually into the dark playground of Selina’s personal life, and it’s because of this that, in the Season 6 finale, it’s able to give us one of its most telling scenes. As Selina readies to announce that she’s running for President again, she breaks up with Jaffar (Usman Ally), her ambassadorial Muslim boyfriend and kindred spirit in moral disregard. She tells him she can’t have “baggage.” He corrects her: “Muslim baggage.”
For one of the first times on the show, Selina is shown with a kind of vulnerability that isn’t at all funny. She cries silently as she descends in an escalator — and suddenly the moment cuts off, and she’s announcing her presidential run with her typical, plastered politician smile. It’s a bravely, barefacedly pathetic moment, both beautiful and scathing. And it exists because the show redesigned itself as a personal/psychological look outwards at politics, as opposed to a political show that occasionally looks inwards at character psychologies. (Which was also fantastic, of course.) Stuck in the stark Upside Down of Selina’s personal life, we stare with her back at the alternate realm to which she used to belong, and accompany her as she clambers to return, like Dale Cooper shooting out of a purple abyss and into a real-world suburban bedroom. The freedom of having shown and explored both worlds — the political through which the personal permeates, and vice versa — strengthens the series, allowing an examination of the way that the absurdity of government and policymaking are a macro manifestation of the petty, the micro, the personal.
The thematic life of the show was strengthened by breaking away from given trajectories, given professions, and given locations. And that brings us to this question: what if television series could more readily become autonomous from the pitches that make them buyable for their networks — and thus from their locations, and even from their timelines — without seeming desperate? What if they could do so out of deliberation, rather than desperation? Life often doesn’t stay in the same place; jobs change; the people in one’s life become estranged and replaced. It’s no wonder that by a sixth-or-so season, shows start to feel off: no life clings to formula or theme as long a series might. If TV shows could follow characters or themes wherever, they could last longer — without feeling like their characters’ realities had begun to ferment within a tightly closed jar.