FX’s sci-fi drama Legion concluded its three-season run this past week. It was one of the most improbable shows on television: a superhero franchise tie-in, run by Fargo creator Noah Hawley, that very quickly turned into an experimental and surreal work about the nature of consciousness. Its final season included musical numbers, narrative told through still frames, an episode-long trans-temporal fairy tale, time demons, a scene from a completely different show spliced in, and a whole lot of subtitles. Nobody really cared.
Reviews for Legion were generally positive, but reviewers’ enthusiasm was muted. There was a lot more chatter about conventional dramas like Big Little Lies and Succession, to say nothing of that other genre show that had a finale this year. To be sure, there were plenty of reasons to not be entirely positive about Legion: the second season ended on some rather tricky ethical territory, and also contained some of the series’s most self-impressed noodling. (See Jon Hamm’s lengthy monologues about freshman philosophy.)
And yet, it feels like the paucity of Legion discourse is reflective of a larger sense of critical priorities. TV critics and scholars are interested in kitchen-sink drams and sitcoms, viewing character writing as trickier and more essential than visual experimentation. There’s increasingly a desire to move away from the contemporary world of serialized genre show and towards more traditional episodic structures. A look at the shows nominated for an Emmy, or with the highest ratings on aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, shows a long list of series dedicated to humanist, character-driven drama and comedies.
All of which raises the question of whether there’s any room for television to be experimental in the same way that film, literature, and music often are. While they don’t play many multiplexes, if you know where to look you can find many films that are essentially non-narrative: languid dramas that focus more on mood than plot, or rarer films that are just a sequence of images without plot at all. Writers, artists and musicians have been pushing at the boundaries of their media for the past century.
And yet there’s no real equivalent in television, no “art television” to go with “art film.” Even Legion had a cast of characters and a conflict-based plot that advanced each episode. Television is still in its nineteenth century, experimenting with the content of its stories but not its forms. And there appears to be little appetite, amongst either critics or the average viewer, for anything else.
There are rather prosaic reasons for this. Making a television show costs a lot more money and involves a lot more people than writing a book or even making a film. This means that basically any new entry into the medium has to convince some studio exec that it’s commercially viable. On top of that, the series structure means that brief bursts of formalism are less tenable. Various economic factors, like union contracts, demand that television seasons and episodes be of a fairly standard size.
Perhaps the closest thing to non-narrative television was Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job. The Adult Swim series took the fairly standard form of a sketch comedy, but had a frequently absurdist bent. Its sketches frequently ended mid-scene with an ugly or abrasive non-sequitir, or told a joke that operated on an alien sense of humour. It frequently parodied the formal conventions of late-night television, presenting a nightmarish version of the most banal parts of the medium.
And yet Tim & Eric was mostly ignored, carrying out its run in the shadow of great humanist dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire. When discussed at all, it was frequently dismissed as being for stoners and bored college freshmen. The same mantle was used to describe all the Adult Swim shows, which were frequently more inventive than their lush premium-cable counterparts.
More recently, HBO aired Random Acts of Flyness, a similarly absurdist sketch show by Terence Nance. Nance is certainly a part of the art-film world, having previously mostly worked in museum installments. The series follows mostly the same tack, presenting nonsensical and dream-like images along with more expository segments to talk about the problems facing African-Americans.
Random Acts received good reviews, with a very high rating on aggregate sites, but again produced little discussion. Ironically, for a series so desperate to push buttons and disturb white liberal complacency, it was largely greeted with mute applause from white liberal critics. Perhaps it was the strong undercurrent of didacticism that made it a comfortable critical proposition — even if critics didn’t quite get the show, they could at least be sure it was on their side in the culture war.
I’m not suggesting that these shows should be adopted uncritically, or that they’re necessarily better than more conventional series. I just find the lack of appetite for experimental or abstract television striking. Is it just that we’ve left the postmodern cultural moment, and all viewers want is a good set of relatable characters? Will these works be hailed as masterpieces decades from now, in the same way that experimental art is usually appreciated after its age?
In any case, in this age of “peak TV”, I’d like to invite more writers, directors, and showrunners to think outside of the representational box. And I’d like critics to take these challenges seriously, not just as stoner comedy or trippy visuals but something worthy of detailed examination.