Dear Sunday: An Open Letter to the Onetime Ruler of the TV WeekDavid Bloomer/Showtime
What happened? You used to be the highlight of my week; now we’re barely seeing each other. A few months ago, we were inseparable. In fact, if we’re being honest, you were coming on almost too strong. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Veep, Silicon Valley all at once? With a scoop of John Oliver for dessert and a dollop of Penny Dreadful for a postprandial snack? That’s a recipe for either obsession or a restraining order, and I loved every minute of it.
Now, as the leaves and sitcoms fall all around us, you’ve changed, Sunday. Don’t try to deny it. Last night, I watched Carrie Mathison — once one of your great characters — continue her mad devolution into a sexual predator drone. Surely America’s most brilliant (and most forgiven!) spy is capable of doing her job without sleeping with sources or making faces like this. Afterward, I squirmed through yet another interminable episode of The Affair (alternate title: Blueballs: The Series), which featured not one but two of my all-time television pet peeves: one character asking another if she was a good person and, later, demanding “Look at me!” I get that The Walking Dead is the most popular show of the night, but should it also be the best? I can’t believe I’m saying this — and I’m going to say it at greater length on Wednesday — but I’d rather spend the night in Beth’s Monster Hospital than another minute amid the chilly faux-profundity of The Affair’s Montauk. (Even the producers of McBain: The Movie would have thought McNulty staring at images of a shipwreck were a bit on the nose.) You can make excuses, Sunday. HBO had on a literary miniseries. You were distracted by Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But you can’t lie to me. We’ve spent too much time together, spilled too much blood. You’ve changed, Sunday. And it isn’t me. It’s you.
Is it because you’re scared of football? You can admit it. I think even football players are scared of football these days. And it’s true that NBC’s weekly game is a ratings juggernaut, more than enough to swamp empires in New Jersey, let alone a new series still struggling to find its footing. But in 2014, Sundays aren’t really about live ratings anymore. They’re about prestige; they’re about perception. Sunday is the night for television’s best — even if most of us DVR that best and watch it over takeout sushi on Tuesday evening. Cable networks have traditionally used you as a place to plant their flags, not to worry about how many people will see them waving. And yet they’re treating you with kid gloves, as a problem to be managed rather than an opportunity to be seized. Showtime probably thinks that the female-fronted Homeland and the female-scripted The Affair are smart counterprogramming to the weekly testosterone-fest on NBC, but that sort of mind-set is both sexist and silly. Plenty of women watch football, and just as many men don’t. Forget “counter”: The key to attracting them is simply smart programming, full stop.
And that’s where Showtime is letting us down, Sunday. You and me both. The network’s fall shows are meant to be thought-provoking, but have utterly neglected a far more important audience response, particularly on such a vital night: pleasure. The Affair is busy chronicling the world’s least sexy liaison between the world’s least interesting people (she’s “damaged”; he’s a writer — which is considerably worse and far more boring; trust me, I know). Watching them hem and haw and move furniture isn’t an escape; it’s punishment. Homeland is a trickier case, Sunday. I know it and you know it. We have a history, the three of us. It brings me no joy to say the show’s best days are behind it; but it’s worrisome how even its fizzy, oft-suicidal flair for the insane has gone flat. Yes, I truly admired and downright enjoyed the final few seconds of Homeland last night, the way the wayward plot stitched itself together into that familiar, crazy-making quilt of personal and professional agita the show does so well. (The kid was a misdirect! Saul was in the trunk! Quinn was … oh, I have no idea what Quinn was and neither do you.) But everything that came before was so clumsy and sour, it’s hard to stay positive. You may have disappointed me, Sunday. But Homeland broke my heart.
Here’s what I think is going on, Sunday: I think that even though you’ve played host to nearly every major television series this millennium and showcased practically every moment that has pushed the medium forward, you yourself remain a little hidebound. I think the problem with you, Sunday, is that you’re still playing an old-fashioned game in the newfangled world that you helped create. You treat fall like it belongs to someone else. Why else would you embrace excellence the rest of the year, only to develop cold feet once summer fades? I get that you still think of the network TV season as king — hell, I sometimes do, too — but those days are over, buddy. Your old friends aren’t doing you any favors. Sure, CBS has given you The Good Wife, and that’s no small thing. But it’s also the only thing. I get that Once Upon a Time is a legitimate hit, but I checked out five minutes of it last night and saw an adult woman dressed as the princess from Frozen standing in a police station. That’s not Sunday-night TV. That’s last Friday in Brooklyn. You’re better than that, Sunday. And I wish you knew it.
And I wish the major cable players knew it, too. For too long now they’ve been loading their biggest and best shows into the programming windows that traditionally belonged to them and not the networks: the dead of winter and the height of summer. Sure, production schedules have something to do with why Better Call Saul is premiering in February and Game of Thrones is hitting its 10-week stride the very moment the big four networks go dark for the season. But the other reason is fear. And that’s an outdated concept. If HBO had held The Leftovers until September, it would have dominated the cultural conversation for an entire autumn. I say this with full confidence even though I hated the show with the passion of a thousand silent dummies smoking cigarettes. Instead, TV’s most prominent network is basically taking a three-month mulligan on you, the most prominent night of the TV week. What was there to say about Boardwalk Empire that wasn’t about prosthetic teeth? And what’s next? The last gasp from the airbags at The Newsroom? The return of a show you chewed up and spit out a decade ago? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but winter can’t get here soon enough.
I miss you, Sunday. I miss our time together. I miss your musk. (Though, if we’re being honest, this guy is plenty aromatic.) It doesn’t feel good to admit I’ve been spending time with Wednesday and that even lowly Saturday has been going to the gym and isn’t looking half-bad. It’s not enough for me to want you, Sunday. This relationship isn’t a one-way street. I’m not going to watch and tweet and recap you just because of the good times we shared in the past. You have to want it, too.
Show me something, Sunday: Some of your old spark, that creative madness that made me fall for you in the first place. As soon as you do, I’ll come running back to your arms.
It’s just that I might not find out about it until Tuesday or even Thursday, depending on how my week goes. You understand.