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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 22, 2024

On Demand: Talking about talking about television

ON-DEMAND-1

Over the pasteight columns, I’ve pondered many memorable shows, exploring what works and what doesn’t, which characters are interesting and which aren’t and why I — or you — should even care. Reflecting back, I’ve identified key criteria for evaluating what makes a show both subjectively and objectively ‘good,’ in no particular order: 

  1. World building and aesthetic

Television relies on attention to stylistic details, like cinematography, set design and soundtrack, to be transportive. These elements create the show's world, sensory vibe and residual imprint in your mind. 

HBO's “Betty” (2020–21) follows a group of young women spreading female empowerment in the NYC skateboarding scene despite its largely male demographic. It is based on and features the cast of a 2018 film “Skate Kitchen.” There’s a documentary realism feel to it, conveyed with handheld shots, naturally flowing dialogue and pandemic-era elements like masks. It adeptly taps into a niche subculture while developing unique characters.

“The Queen's Gambit” (2020) also successfully develops its own look and feel. It’s a beautiful period piece that blends a contemporary take on 1950s/60s costume design with the visual imagination of protagonist chess prodigy Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) recurring hallucinations of chess board plays on her ceiling.

  1. Pacing, premise, plot

My biggest TV pet peeve is when shows run past their course, and my ‘pet pleasure,’ so to speak, is concise, clean storytelling. Netflix’s “Russian Doll” (2019–) scores high for me, reusing the “Groundhog Day” (1993) device for Emmy-nominated Natasha Lyonne’s character, a cigarette-smokingsoftware engineer whose 36th birthday party repeats everyday. Packed into eight 20–30-minute episodes is an inventive balance of humor and melancholy that delves into meaningful themes of human compassion with a pace that never bores.  

“The Good Place” (2016–20) presents another well-crafted, clever concept: A selfish Eleanor Shellstrop, played by the lovely Kristen Bell, undeservingly ends up in a heaven-adjacent afterlife. The show skillfully surprised me by subverting the rules and preliminary assumptions of the world, and it concludes neatly after four seasons, ending precisely where creator Michael Schur intended.  

  1. The strength of secondary characters

A complex, dynamic character arc is the heart and soul of a show, the mechanism for inciting our own emotional response and granting the story a real presence.  

“Glee” (2009–15) and “Sex Education” (2019–) experiment with different character combinations in scenes among their high school ensemble casts, exploring the dynamics that emerge and interweaving relationships within the world. A series should be weighed, not simply on the strength of its protagonists — both as characters and actors — but especially on the secondary characters, who bring that vital life and authenticity to fill out a show.  

  1. You!

Last but not least, you, and the expectations, contexts, mindsets and environments that you bring strongly influence your reception of a show. Right person, wrong time is to romance as right show, wrong mood is to television — which explains why it takes hour-long deliberations to pick a film for a movie night, but also, conversely, how my house watched the entirety (about 7.5 hours) of “Cruel Summer” (2021–) in one day. 

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