When the parts are greater than the sum

What do you do when you love a core aspect of a television show, but aren’t sure you actually are enjoying the show as a whole?

It’s something I’ve wrestled with over the past few months with several shows that other critics have almost universally lauded. “You’re The Worst,” “Jessica Jones,” and “Transparent” are all shows that have incredibly good qualities but consistently elude my grasp. That’s different than saying they are “good” or “bad,” because who the hell really can say that but the individual viewer. I’m very glad they all exist, and there are aspects of them that I don’t only enjoy but view as actually important pieces of pop art. But there’s a difference between appreciating the parts but not the whole.

Sometimes, that’s fine: on a show like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” I can overlook at least one dull plotline each week. In that case, there’s no real rhyme or reason to what doesn’t work: It’s just hard for a show to consistently tell three great comedic stories each week. It’s not a fundamental conceptual flaw that holds it back. There are just some weeks in which Rosa has a great storyline and some in which she doesn’t. There’s nothing for me to grasp onto other than the characters, who are generally fun to watch on a weekly basis.

Would I say the best of that show is better than the best of the three shows above? No way. But I’m not judging individual episodes or individual aspects of these shows. I’m looking at them in totality. What makes it difficult for me to not celebrate those first three shows is the above-mentioned cultural importance that they have embedded inside aspects I don’t particularly think work in the aggregate. Pop culture needs more honest depictions of depression, trauma, and non-cisgendered characters. The responses that these topics have generated prove these are important shows that stand out in the world of Peak TV.

No one would ever argue that “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is more important than those shows, even though it boasts one of the most casually multicultural casts on television. And “importance” isn’t a criteria that shows have to meet in order to justify their existence. But when you dislike a show that deals with a serious issue that people respond to with visceral intensity, you tend to feel like a dick for saying that you don’t feel the same way. It’s one thing to say you don’t like a show that has a passionate following from genre fans. It’s another to say you don’t like a show that demonstrates just how much abuse men heap upon women (physical and mental) on an almost daily basis, one to which dozens of writers and undoubtedly tens if not hundreds of thousands of viewers intimately relate. Who the hell wants to say THAT?

Of course, I’m not saying that. I’m saying I didn’t totally love a show that accurately depicted that. There’s a difference, even if that difference sounds pedantic or snobbish or mansplain-y. I can simultaneously believe that the Jessica/Kilgrave stuff was top-notch and also believe that everything around them not named “Luke” or “Trish” were pretty terrible. I can tell you in all honesty that Aya Cash deserves an Emmy for her work in “You’re The Worst” and tell you honestly that her character’s storyline upset the entire balance of the show in season 2. I can tell you that the characters on “Transparent” are original creations and that all I want to do when watching it is take Kathryn Hahn’s rabbi as geographically far away from those monster people. I don’t need those people to be saints. But they are TRULY the worst. Sorry, Gretchen and Jimmy.

I’d much rather celebrate the good than the bad, but I also think it’s important for a show to do more than one good thing, ESPECIALLY when the thing that they do well has the potential power to change minds or simply reflect back an experience the viewer once thought only belonged to them. As a seven or eight episode season featuring on its core four characters, “Jessica Jones” might have been one for the ages. Turning “You’re The Worst” into a drama centered only on Gretchen’s descent and Jimmy’s confusion also would have been amazing. (As for “Transparent,” I think I’m just always going to miss this show’s wavelength, which is a me problem and not a show problem.)

Now, all these changes are of course what would make the show work better for me. And I’m not the showrunner. But what is frustrating about all of them isn’t that they are bad so much as they can be SO GOOD as to make that which does not work all the more troublesome. I actually preferred Edgar and Lindsay for large chunks of the first season of “You’re The Worst,” but they largely existed in their own orbits this season. I don’t want Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue not to get paid, but their storylines really didn’t truly connect with the Jimmy/Gretchen material. (And, to be honest, a lot of Jimmy’s stuff didn’t connect, especially early on.) And as much of a fan of “The Matrix” as I aim, you can’t tell me that you looked forward to scenes of Jeri Hogarth tell Jessica Jones for the trillionth time what a liability the latter was to the former’s firm.

Again: shows often have aspects that work titanically better than others all the time. But when the aspects are this vital to its viewership and the communities that they inhabit, it’s frustrating to not be able to tell everyone to watch it without assigning several Alan Sepinwall-esque asterisks to the recommendation. These are important things to discuss in entertainment, and have a crucial and necessary role in it. But they can’t exist at the expense of the entertainment, either. You either get a preachy piece of crap that turns off even those that support the message or muddled work that gets the core message right but has a hard time communicating that through the clutter.

It’s rarely fun to say anything isn’t perfect. (Maybe “Stalker” is the exception. Fuck that show.) And as always, I’m not saying you’re wrong if you liked what I liked PLUS everything else. That’s often the implication, and now more than ever I want to try and cut that line of thought at the pass. I want more tough, complicated, causes-an-argument-both-with-your-friends-but-also-yourself topics in my television. The issues addressed in these three shows need to be addressed in more, not less, shows in the future. These shows haven’t “fixed” things anymore than Jimmy “fixed” Gretchen. But there needs to be an incredible amount of care that goes into inserting them into television shows in order not to dilute the topic nor disrupt anything on its periphery. It’s a ridiculously tricky balance, which is part of the reason so few have fucking tried it. It’s like walking a tight rope across the Grand Canyon while also trying to learn the oboe. There’s a reason most people don’t do it, above and beyond the economic and studio interference reasons.

So ultimately, this is call for MORE of these types of shows, not LESS, now that the door is slightly ajar and there are opportunities to tell more from these unheard voices and more outlets seeks ever more content. Just because the balance didn’t totally work here (again, IMHO, mileage indeed can and does vary) doesn’t mean I think it never can. I enjoy the breezy charm of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” but crave the issues that the other shows explore. Shows shouldn’t confirm what I think but challenge what I believe. They should explore avenues 99% of television shows don’t acknowledge even exist. I often don’t even know what those avenues even are until they are revealed, and then I wonder how I ever lived without them. When depicted with sensitivity and intelligence, they increase our capacity for compassion. Even if I don’t fully love these shows, I still love what they do, and that they exist at all.

That’s the kind of peak to which TV should aspire.