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Tough shows need to be watchable: When They See Us is "seductive," Chernobyl is "intoxicating"

  • Netflix's When They See Us and HBO's Chernobyl struck a nerve, despite their depressing subject matter, because they each found ways to be watchable. "These new true-story series manage to make depressing, traumatic material not merely watchable but mesmerizing," says Emily Nussbaum. "It may seem odd to focus on whether an excellent TV show is 'watchable,'" she adds, "but that’s been a recurrent question about modern television, from The Sopranos to The Handmaid’s Tale. For those seeking an escape from reality, moral weight, uncut by other satisfactions, can drive viewers away." Nussbaum points to John Ridley's 2015-17 ABC anthology series American Crime, which also tackled tough subjects. "It got low ratings, and I had no luck with talking anyone into watching," says Nussbaum. "As hypnotic and well directed as American Crime was, it was also nearly humorless, requiring you to submit yourself to its methods. There was something tough and original in Ridley’s vision; there was something exasperating about it, too." In contrast, a show like Orange Is the New Black was able to attract a large audience by mixing heartbreak and serious issues with rude and wild jokes. "I’ve probably absorbed more about the justice system from Orange Is the New Black than I did from American Crime—or, for that matter, from some spectacular pieces of investigative journalism—because of my attachment to the characters," says Nussbaum. When They See Us has been a hit because it was not only haunting, but it was seductive, too. Just look at the final episode, revolving around Korey Wise locked up in solitary confinement. "That episode is smartly built, using fantasy and flashback, spiked with elements of theatrical glory and strangeness: Wise’s daydream of a date at Coney Island; a knock on his cell door that echoes the fatal knock on the window of a fast-food restaurant which drew him into the park," says Nussbaum. "These aesthetic releases highlight how trapped Wise is, but they are also there to liberate us from feeling trapped with him; they give us access to his imagination in a way that doesn’t reduce him to a martyr." Nussbaum adds: "The recent HBO series Chernobyl, created by Craig Mazin, is an exemplary case of a show that should have been unwatchable but is instead addictive....Where When They See Us emphasizes intimacy, using the fuel of family drama to power a criminal-justice story, Chernobyl is structured as a thriller—a distressing thriller, in which firefighters die in agony and dogs are shot, but an exciting one nonetheless. She cites Chernobyl's dry humor and "MacGyver-like save-the-day twists," adding: "In the era of The Walking Dead, Chernobyl is unusually restrained."

    TOPICS: When They See Us, HBO, Netflix, American Crime, Chernobyl, Orange Is the New Black, Peak TV