Photograph by ABC via Everett
“My So-Called Life”
Watching Kurt Cobain become a ubiquitous presence in hip-hop—from the angsty lyrics of emo teen rappers to this questionable Jay-Z jacket—has made me nostalgic for the nineties. Naturally, I ended up watching reruns of “My So-Called Life,” for few things feel as quintessentially nineties as a brooding coming-of-age drama full of Serious Themes, comically liberal parents, baggy flannels, and Juliana Hatfield cameos. The series only existed for nineteen episodes, or about a single semester of high school. But it felt like it was around for much longer than that, because it made the stuff of everyday teen life so weighty and open-ended. The “so-called life” under examination belonged to Angela Chase (Claire Danes), a high-school sophomore dreaming of life beyond the suburbs of Pittsburgh. She’s fifteen, right at the age when honest and responsible kids wonder when these qualities will begin to pay off. So, she begins paying attention to the dramas around her. While others dabble in drugs and sex, or suffer their bullies, Angela’s defiance comes in merely hanging out with this new, exotic-feeling crowd of friends.
“My So-Called Life” was unusual because of its sense of moral chaos. The characters were stormy, unreasonable, and flawed—but not in a way that pathologized youth. The show rarely felt condescending; you weren’t meant to sympathize wholeheartedly with anyone, just understand what they were going through. Sometimes, Angela, with her increasingly wobbly moral compass, was the least likable one of them all. I remember the strange, unfamiliar thrill every time the story zoomed in on her friend Rickie (Wilson Cruz), the first gay teen I recall seeing on TV. I’ve rewatched episodes of “My So-Called Life” a few times since the mid-nineties; it’s like “The Catcher in the Rye,” one of those things that seems unusually deep and meaningful when you come across it at a young age, only it actually makes more sense the older you get. Angela’s worried, well-meaning parents were often the most petulant characters on the show. Now that I’m closer in age to them than the show’s kids, I understand them a bit more. Maybe everyday life doesn’t seem so fraught with monumental choices anymore. But you realize that adulthood is as much a pose as teen-age rebellion, and that there are no answers, just more and more questions.—Hua Hsu
Photograph by Tina Rowden / AMC via Everett
“Halt and Catch Fire”
I just started watching the period drama “Halt and Catch Fire,” which ended a couple of weeks ago, after four seasons. The first season is set in 1983, at a Dallas tech company, where three main characters—Lee Pace, a charismatic salesman; Scoot McNairy, a frustrated engineer; and Mackenzie Davis, a punk-genius programmer—find themselves, for various fiscal and dramatic reasons, under the gun to reverse-engineer a cheaper, faster IBM clone. The joke of the premise is that “Halt and Catch Fire” itself resembles a cheaper, faster clone of an establishment behemoth: the show started airing in 2014, midway through the seventh season of “Mad Men,” and plays on viewer expectations of a transposition of that show from the golden age of advertising to the personal-computing boom. What I love about “Halt and Catch Fire” is how it complicates that transposition, with the shift from the nineteen-sixties to the nineteen-eighties, changing the genre and historical sensibility, resulting in a different kind of show.
The visionary Pace does many Don Draper-like things: he makes passionately understated sales pitches, places his finger unerringly on the spirit of the times, drops hints about his dark past. But he is never met by a breathless hush. Someone always rolls their eyes, makes a wisecrack, or calls him out for stealing a line from Steve Jobs. As an irony-addicted Gen X coeval of the children who play with a Speak & Spell in the pilot, I found such scenes both gratifying and insightful—the more so since they avoid mean-spiritedness. The takeaway isn’t that this is a buffoon pretending to be a world-changer; the takeaway, not unlike that of “War and Peace,” is that the world is changed by just such buffoons. Technology progresses, fortunes are made—not because a visionary somewhere exercised foresight or embodied the desires of a generation but because millions of people, all trying to do more or less the same thing, working in their own jerry-rigged, ad-hoc systems, failed or succeeded to varying degrees. It’s a less exalted view of the world, but more egalitarian, and more unpredictable, and I’m excited to see where it goes.—Elif Batuman
Photograph by Van Redin courtesy HBO
My friends are almost certainly sick of hearing me talk about “The Leftovers.” The series ended earlier this year, after three seasons, and, despite living in times where quality television is in almost embarrassingly good supply, I’m gearing up to watch the whole thing again. I’m aware that what I’m about to say will not scan as a selling point: I honestly believe that the show should be screened in seminaries. I’m a practicing Episcopalian, and the series as a whole provides as profound and knotty and empathetic a meditation on human existence as anything I’ve heard in church. (Sorry, Reverend.) The first season is widely considered to be unrelentingly bleak—and it is, though I would argue that it provides moments of catharsis that redeem its darkness. It’s also the only season informed by source material, the very good Tom Perrota novel of the same name. However, once the source material runs out, Perrotta and the series’ co-creator Damon Lindelof take the whole thing boogieing gleefully off a cliff into full-on crazy town—especially in the astonishing third season, which features an episode set on a night ferry so absolutely batshit insane and glorious that it sent me careening down an Internet rabbit hole, which ended with me on eBay at 2 A.M. buying a vintage wristwatch bearing an image of a creature called “Frasier, the Sensuous Lion.” The show’s central conceit—two per cent of the world’s population has disappeared into thin air without explanation—is a compelling one, but it serves mainly to point to a larger truth about the actual world; haven’t we all, really, been abandoned here, without explanation? The show’s real achievement is that it recognizes that mystery, respects it, and, ultimately, lets us feel that we are not alone. And I want to talk about it, all the time.—Emily Flake
Photograph by Jason Bell / Syfy via Everett
The first season of “The Expanse” which débuted on the SyFy network in 2015, has been described in different places as “Blade Runner” meets “Battlestar Galactica”—and that’s useful shorthand. On the “Blade Runner” end of things, Thomas Jane plays a hard-bitten detective with a drinking problem and a bad hairdo who is tasked with tracking down a missing woman on the mining colony of Ceres, two hundred years in the future. The rest is out of the “Battlestar Galactica” mold, with complicated political alliances, frantic space maneuvers, and a cast of impossibly attractive people shouting, fighting, flirting, and generally misunderstanding each other. The show’s political machinations—a three-pronged standoff between Earth, Mars (which has formed its own planet-state), and a group of worker-bee asteroid-dwellers who are represented by the Outer Planets Alliance—are a struggle to pin down, but the effort is engrossing, and worth it. By Season 2, which aired this spring (Season 3 is set for 2018), the show’s different threads come together, as rival factions confront the arrival of a deadly alien contagion, which turns everything it touches an eerie “Avatar” blue. Sci-fi often uses the future to comment on the present (“Battlestar Galactica” turned out to be one of TV’s most serious reckonings with the war on terror), but one of the pleasures of “The Expanse” is that it cannot be mapped onto our current political moment. It is, in the best sense, entirely diverting. Centuries in the future, and into the far reaches of our solar system, it’s a Trump-free zone.—Ian Crouch
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