On Demand: Talking about talking about television


In the past eight columnsI’ve thought about 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. Thinking back, I identified key criteria for evaluating what makes a show both subjectively and objectively “good”, in no particular order:

  1. Construction of the world and aesthetics

Television relies on attention to stylistic details, such as cinematography, set design and soundtrack, to be transporting. These elements create the world of entertainment, the sensory mood and the residual imprint in your mind.

HBO’s “Betty” (2020-2021) follows a group of young women spreading the empowerment of women in the New York skate scene despite its predominantly male demographics. It is based on and features the cast of a 2018 film “Skate Kitchen”. There is an impression of documentary realism, conveyed with handheld shots, fluid dialogue and elements of the pandemic era like masks. He skillfully taps into a niche subculture while developing unique characters.

“The Queen’s Gambit” (2020) also successfully develops its own look and feel. It is a beautiful period piece that combines a contemporary approach to 50s / 60s costume design with the visual imagination of protagonist chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) recurrent hallucinations of chess games on his ceiling.

  1. Rhythm, premise, intrigue

My biggest pet peeve on TV is when shows go past their course, and my “animal delight,” so to speak, is concise and clean storytelling. Netflix’s “Russian Doll” (2019-) high scores for me, reusing the “Groundhog Day” (1993) device for Emmy nominee Natasha Lyonnethe character, a smoke cigarettes software engineer whose 36th birthday party is repeated every day. Packed in eight episodes of 20 to 30 minutes is an inventive balance of humor and melancholy that explores meaningful themes of human compassion with a never boring pace.

“The Right Place” (2016-20) presents another well-crafted and clever concept: A selfish Eleanor Shellstrop, played by the charming Kristen Bell, unwittingly finds herself in an afterlife adjacent to Heaven. The show ably surprised me by subverting the rules and preliminary assumptions of the world, and it ends perfectly after four Seasons, ending precisely where designer Michael Schur intended.

  1. The strength of secondary characters

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

“Glee” (2009-15) and “Sex education” (2019-) experiment with different combinations of characters in scenes among their high school ensemble casts, explore emerging dynamics and build relationships within the world. A series needs to be weighed, not only on the strength of its protagonists – both as characters and actors – but above all on the supporting characters, who bring that vital life and authenticity to fill a show.

  1. You!

Last but not least, you, and the expectations, contexts, mentalities and environments you bring strongly influence your reception of a performance. The right person, the wrong time is romance like the right show, bad humor is television – which is why it takes hours of deliberation to pick a movie for movie night, but also, to conversely, how my house looked in its entirety (about 7.5 hours) from “Cruel Summer” (2021–) in one day.


Karl M. Bailey