When Breaking Bad ended, I reacted much like I would after getting out of a long-term relationship. I was devastated, almost inconsolably so. I was irrationally certain that I’d never find anything worthwhile to watch again. That it all ended cathartically with me crying in a crowded bar only served to drive the analogy all the way home.
In the weeks that followed, I struggled to get back into the television game. Watching The Mindy Project and The New Girl on the couch with my roommate was cheap and soul-sucking after a while. The jokes were fine, but each storyline seemed to be wholly surface-level and unsatisfying, especially when compared with the five seasons of emotional turmoil I’d subjected myself to with Breaking Bad. It is, of course, futile to try to compare a weeknight Fox sitcom with a critically acclaimed AMC drama. But haven’t we all written off a perfectly nice person that we just met too soon after an intense breakup?
When I needed something — anything — to watch, I turned to Mad Men re-runs — the equivalent of resignedly dialing up an emotionally unavailable ex who happens to look a lot like Jon Hamm . But watching the same thing over and over again can feel stale, even slightly inauthentic. You know what to turn to in order to elicit specific emotions, but they’re never going to be quite as intense as when you were surprised by them the first time around.
While staying with a friend in LA, we decided to start in on Hello Ladies, one of the two new HBO shows I’d had my eye on. Formulaically, it was the exact opposite of what I look for in a television show, as I’m extremely averse to watching anyone embarrass themselves so publicly. Within ten minutes, it was pretty clear that’s all that Stephen Merchant’s character, Stuart Pritchard, was going to be doing. Initially, the character had slight potential to be charming — tall, gawky, bespectacled, and hopelessly single with a heavy British accent. But he reveals his prickishness almost immediately. He’s rude, pushy, and possesses perhaps the most annoying quality anyone can have, whether in real life or on the small screen: he’s tragically un-self-aware.
I somehow kept watching through train wreck after train wreck. And while Stuart continually failed to insert himself in the glitzy LA lifestyle, I found myself caring about the plot line less and less — there’s only so much cringing one can do. One of the reasons I stuck with it was that the supporting characters were so spot-on. Christine Woods, especially, shines as Jessica Vanderhoff, an actress only slightly past her prime struggling with the idea that her expiration date is nearing. Regardless of what she projects, she holds no delusions over her circumstances — a refreshing alternative to the lead. By the end, though, I was exhausted. While I had finally committed to making it through a full season of a new television show, the final episode was a chore at best. I knew instantly that I wouldn’t be sticking around for season two.
On my plane ride home from LA, the older businessman sitting next to me drank four gin and tonics and then watched a 2012 Coldplay concert and a show on the making of Modern Family. His entertainment choices, and my immediate dismissive reaction to them, reminded me of how I feel when I witness someone I went to high school or college with settle down in a marriage, with a kid or two on the way. They seem happy enough — maybe they’re even happier than I’ll ever be — but I can’t understand how they can’t see that there’s so much more out there for them to experience. And so I quietly judged him while I sipped plane wine and started in on the other HBO show I’d had lined up: Family Tree.
Now, it’s a regularly documented phenomenon that people react with more emotion when they’re viewing something on a plane (see the last segment on the This American Life episode from February 2011). Regardless, I was instantly taken with Family Tree. A longtime Christopher Guest fan, the awkward mockumentary-style improvisation is directly in my wheelhouse. The main character, Tom Chadwick, is Chris O’Dowd at peak O’Dowd (a welcome departure from the aggressive douchebag he played on Girls): bumbling, earnest, and quietly charming. Recently dumped, he’s channeled his heartbreak into finding out more about his lineage. The cast of characters is perfect: most notably his sister Bea, who communicates her most inappropriate thoughts through a talking hand puppet named Monk — hypothetically, it’s a concept so absurd that it shouldn’t work, but it does, and well. His best friend, the boorish and chronically immature Tom, serves to drive the show’s awkwardness home, all the while wearing a shit-eating grin. Still, there’s nothing cringe-worthy about it: even when he’s trying to artificially inseminate an alpaca at the zoo where he works.
Though not fast-paced, dramatic television by any means, the plot moved along comfortably for me. As I neared the end, I found myself invested in the characters’ lives, and desiring to see what would happen with them as the show picked up again. By the time I finished the season, I felt good that I had committed to something again with regularity.
Maybe it sounds a little sad that I’ve started to think of television shows like relationships. But it makes sense: we invest time — and if they’re really great, emotional energy — in them, not really ever knowing what’s going to happen. They can disappoint us, or thrill us, or just sort of taper off quietly without any hard feelings. And then reluctantly or not, we make our way back to our Netflix queue, onto the next one.