13 ways tv is tackling the big issues
With the success of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, i-D examines how – and why – television is taking on today’s key topics.
Great TV is no new thing; we've been spoilt by the small-screen since Alan Bleasdale's Boys From The Blackstuff in the eighties, through to Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, The Wire and Skins.
But in recent years, with streaming overtaking terrestrial, television has really come into it own, becoming a key platform for disseminating the many nuanced narratives that dominate today's conversations. With queer, trans and BAME minds creating the shows we watch, we can now access TV that examines today's most pertinent topics with experience and expertise. We can also totally switch off and watch Game Of Thrones and Stranger Things. It's a win/win situation.
Thanks to streaming - and with it an influx of cash - TV is more democratic than ever. We can all watch the same shows, at the same time, wherever in the world we live. Localised issues become a global conversation. Unlike film, TV isn't constricted by time, nor is it competing to get bums on seats. Therefore writers are able to create TV that represents the world we all live in - rather than that of the privileged white straight male. We've all read that story, seen the film, bought the T-shirt etc. Only a cursory glance at shows like Orange Is The New Black, Fresh Off The Boat, Chewing Gum, Atlanta and Transparent reveals casting that actively includes a community more familiar to that of the one we inhabit.
The latest show to become a trending topic is 13 Reasons Why; a Netflix Original that deals with everything from depression to rape and death. Though the show has polarised audiences for its depiction of suicide, it's the perfect example of how a television series is able to portray subjects that matter to us.
Here are our 13 reasons - in no particular order - why TV is tackling the big issues
1. More diversity onscreen and off.
While Hollywood tends to be awash with the same old (predominantly white male) screenwriters scouring for books to adapt or previous hits to re-make, TV is getting progressively better at seeking out writers who prefer to create from their own ideas and imagination. Though TV might not yet ace the Bechdel test, there are increasing efforts to find female, non-white, queer writers and directors (sometimes all three at the same time!), unlike Hollywood whose diversity from front to behind the scenes is notoriously dreadful. Diversity of minds means diversity of characters, story and plot, ensuring series such as Chewing Gum and Orange Is The New Black; shows that step far away from the world of the white, straight male.
2. Talking of Orange Is The New Black …
Netflix's breakout hit and the show that took us from solo binge-watching DVDs to collectively binge-watching entire series' in one go. OITNB isn't infallible - behind or in front of the camera - but that's not to ignore its many accomplishments. Of all the issues the show has tackled, and of all of the characters it has created, perhaps the most powerful is Laverne Cox's Sophia Bursey. Strutting out of the cells and straight onto the cover of Time, Cox dragged key trans issues, such as gender-free bathrooms, firmly onto the front-pages. The show also got stuck into lesbianism (still fairly rarely found on mainstream TV), immigration, abuse, race, poverty, intersectionality, interracial politics and age. It did all this while boasting a predominantly all-female cast (not seen since the days of Prisoner Cell Bock H) that was determinedly multi-racial (unlike Cell Block H) and featuring females of all ages. Coming under criticism for the lack of BAME contributors behind-the-scenes, hopefully series six will be as beautifully diverse off-screen as well as on.
3. And then there is Transparent…
Written by Jill Soloway, Amazon Prime's Transparent is possibly one of the very best TV shows alive right now. Tackling LGBTQI issues with subtly nuanced intelligence, the page-turner plot is also utterly watchable thanks to the excellently observed narcissistic characters skilfully drawn by Soloway and Our Lady J. It's probably why the show draws guests such as Hari Nef, Angelica Houston and Carrie Brownstein. Often funny, occasionally heart-wrenchingly sad, Transparent is always a joy to watch.
4.RuPaul's Drag Race.
Before Laverne Cox and Jeffrey Tambor, RuPaul, werked his way all over the screen. The Emmy-winning Drag Race, while ostensibly full of fabulous lip-synching and buckets of tea, shade and pink lemonade, has also become a platform that discusses issues key to the LGBTQI community. Although some might be sad that the show is leaving its Logo home, the fact that Drag Race is transferring to primetime VH1 indicates how far we've come.
5. TV can be reactive to significant shifts in politics.
A film is two to three years in the making and lasts for two hours or so. TV has the time (around 12 hours per series) - and writing talents - to react to politics and popular culture as events unfold. In series five of Claire Danes' Homeland, the plot focused on terrorism in Europe; in the latest, the show resettled back in the US to examine an incumbent President and #fakenews. Similarly in House of Cards, Spacey's maniacal Frank Underwood is now dealing with drones, a dangerous Russia and social media; though series four received mixed reviews, one can only imagine the rife references to Trump that will unfold in the forthcoming fifth series.
6. TV isn't afraid to be break the old rules.
Finally a female black lead on TV (well, Netflix) who isn't defined by race. As Viola Davis perfectly pointed out during her Emmy acceptance speech for How To Get Away With Murder - "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. Here's to all the writers…who have redefined what it mean to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black". It's almost amazing now to think about the complete lack of any BAME visibility back in the days of Dallas and Dynasty, Eastenders and Corrie - which still has a long way to go, considering it's set in the multicultural metropolis that is Manchester. Finally, we're seeing actors playing characters whose race is of little or no consequence.
7. Fresh Off The Boat and Master Of None.
All that being said, we really need to look more at the word diversity; there are still very few Asian and Indian actors on TV, rarely if ever are Native Americans or Aborigines cast in roles that make no mention of race. But, again, there are encouraging signs; though both Eddie Huang's Fresh Off The Boat and Aziz Ansari's Master of None discuss pertinent subjects such as heritage, immigration and the generational divide, they are also, essentially, about hip hop, friends and the search for love.
8. TV trusts one person to write, direct and star in a show.
Insecurity and Atlanta might be winning the awards overseas, but we're doing our bit in the UK too; Michaela Coel was not only given the opportunity to write a great character, she got to play Tracey and sing her theme tune too. Chewing Gum is mostly played for laughs, but Coel also poignantly touched on religion, friendship, fatherhood, appropriation and white privilege. And weird sex clubs. What Chewing Gum does really well though is class; highlighting that council estates aren't always littered with needle and danger, Coel's estate depicts a place full of sunshine, love and a sense of community.
9. TV is able to develop and grow.
Would anybody else love to see a series of Moonlight (the Barry Jenkins, not Bruce Willis version)? You can only tell so much of a story in two hours, and while Moonlight's narrative was beautifully rendered, tele has the space and time to develop characters and storylines, really getting into the nitty-gritty of bullying, coming out, addiction and love. The same goes for lead roles as it does plot; most characters we see in series one will ultimately be changed by a show's final episode (see: Walter in Breaking Bad, Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Omar in The Wire etc).
10. The important issues we discuss in the UK are being discussed wherever in the world has good broadband.
Thanks to Netflix, Plex and Amazon Prime, TV is becoming increasingly democratic. With Netflix making $5 billion a year from subscriptions, they can afford to pay for their own content, so there's no longer a lag between shows airing in the US and the UK, and vice versa. People in LA can watch Chewing Gum, and folks in Iceland can watch Atlanta. This cross-pollination of cultures and ideas can only be a good thing; everything we discuss locally, we can now talk about globally. While that does unfortunately mean idiots like Katie Hopkins get to comment on THINGS SHE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT, it also means we can talk to someone in Bahrain about Barb, Borgen and the brand new series of Master Of None. On the downside, this does mean some major plot spoils. People really are idiots.
11. Stranger Things.
It's just great, isn't it? And it's back in October. Hurrah!
12. Because TV has so much money and an available audience, it doesn't care about casting big and bankable names.
Despite not having one famous name or even an Instagram star amongst its cast, 13 Reasons Why is one of Netflix's most popular series. Trans and gay actors are now almost a normality on TV, with shows like The OA not even bothering to mention Ian Alexander's trans status. TV doesn't need a-list names to ensure a hit series; bums are already on seats. The only thing Netflix is competing with, really, is itself.
13. 13 Reasons Why
It's caused much upset with parents and schools - its depiction of the suicide scene was deeply disappointing - but 13 Reasons Why is the coming of age drama all teens want to see. Books, films and magazines are crucial when it comes to discussing issues important to young people; but nothing like TV can reach these minds en masse. Platforms like Netflix and Prime have realised how huge - and engaged - their audiences are and how huge their appetites are for stories that examine today's big issues.
Being gay, black, trans or teen no longer means your story will be marginalised; in fact, it's the opposite. The success of 13 Reasons Why proves how much we want - and need - stories that help us make sense of how our lives are, how our lives were, and how our lives might be.
Text Hattie Collins