These 5 TV shows are significant for Gen Zers for a multitude of reasons, but each of these productions has honesty in common.
By Gloria Oladipo
This decade has brought an avalanche of pop culture moments and phenomena that only TV could capture. So many TV shows gave me a new perspective on the world and collectively provided us with a language by which we can talk about community ills. That being the case, here are five TV shows I have chosen as having the most impact on me, a Gen Zer, over the past decade. I selected these show these shows based on the following criteria: what they meant to me as an individual, how they impacted conversations within our communities, and what the shows meant for the TV canon.
How did a show about an alcoholic, drug-abusing horse offer more commentary and clarity about addiction and mental illness than most lawmakers this decade? BoJack Horseman helped continue important conversations around how trauma never happens to just one person. We watched BoJack, an anthropomorphic horse-man, belittle and demean everyone important in his life; compared to the one-dimensional vilifying that traditionally happens, the show gives us insight into Bojack’s behavior and shows that even with introspection, people still make a choice to be cruel. We aren’t told to forgive Bojack or hate him, but to know him and allow ourselves to laugh with/at him, dislike him, and generally have any feelings sans judgment. BoJack offers the necessary framing, discussion points and difficult questions like, how do we keep people accountable given their mental health struggles and issues? How many chances does a person truly deserve?
One Day At A Time
I have needed something good to happen to Black and brown people. I’m not talking about idealistic nonsense that glazes over our real-world issues. I mean the everyday type of joy that white people have in abundance (basically the happy part of a Parenthood episode). One Day at a Time (ODAAT) answered my call. The show’s premise—a non-traditional, Latinx, middle-class family dealing with a host of political and social issues—is a comedy that allows us to laugh alongside the family’s antics while also crying in solidarity with their issues. The show doesn’t back away from tougher topics. In the three seasons before being canceled—and before being successfully transferred to POP TV—ODAAT covered mental illness, Trump, immigration, addiction, queerness, and more. These subjects were covered with generosity and fullness that elevated the show’s characters and didn’t devolve into stereotypes. For example one of my favorite moments is Elana, the eldest daughter, coming out to her mother and grandmother. Instead of being met with harshness, she is received with an overwhelming amount of love. How often are older WOC given space to process change without being automatically painted as bigots? Unlike other shows centering people of color, ODAAT didn’t allow the nuanced struggles of the characters to overshadow the genuine joy of being a family. People of color need joy, happiness that we relish in, to be reflected back to us. As a show, ODAAT depicted the joy BIPOC can and should experience (and how we carve out that pleasure) while also acknowledging that life is not easy, especially now.
Ah yes, the fall of the techno-bourgeois; one of my favorite songs. Mr. Robot followed the daily issues facing Elliot and his accomplices as they attempt to destroy corporate America. Similar to many Americans in the face of bank bail-outs and suffocating student debt, Elliot and ‘f-society’, a group of anarchist hackers, have identified capitalism to be a deep source of evil. However, unlike many people who grow complacent, Elliot and his peers are hands in an attempt to stop it. Mr. Robot never shies away from calling out industries that condone the oppression of others for more money; the ability to call out the ills of technology and capitalism (and here I will give a quick shout-out to Black Mirror) is critical. The show is quite clear: the problems and consequences of income inequality aren’t individuals buying iPhones or other individual acts of capitalism, the problem is corporations and the economic elite who hoard wealth. Mr. Robot invites us to think about what rising up looks like as an individual and as a community. There will always be consequences to revolution (the show is quite clear on that), but when the ills of capitalism are destroying so many lives already, isn’t it worth the risk?
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Pose truly redefined what we conceptualize as good TV and who we “define” as television stars. Pose follows the journey of Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, played by the effervescent MJ Rodriguez, as she creates a house for LGBTQ+ Black and other people of color in New York City during the rise of 1980s and 90s ‘ballroom culture’. This show cracked me right open. During this decade, we have seen the rise of violence against the queer community, particularly against Black trans women and trans women of color. However, in the face of this persecution, queer communities continue to take up space, find strength in our chosen families, and take other protective measures. Pose is a testament to that—the fact that, despite how evil the world can be to marginalized people, we can find solace, love, and strength in each other. Not to mention, Pose has helped usher in a generation of LGBTQ+ stars that mainstream television chose to ignore for so long. The stars of Pose aren’t suddenly legitimate because they are receiving the industry recognition they so greatly deserve; they are a brilliant ensemble being given well-formulated, truthful material (with the financial resources of a producer like FX) to shine.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver was a critical injection of what has been missing this decade: accessible education. The world is full of everyday abuses: chicken farmers facing industry-wide abuse, immovable tobacco giants stopping healthcare initiatives in smaller countries. Even as someone who reads the news, is in academia, and generally likes to be aware, there are a litany of issues I only learned about because of this show. The world is moving so fast, making it hard to keep up with daily, normalized atrocities. John Oliver has made it his mission, in a small part, to make sure that even in the chaos of the 2010s, no one’s struggles get forgotten. Last Week Tonight provides the necessary background education on society’s problems, catching everyone up so we can begin having a dialogue and engage with these issues. The show still has arenas they need to cover: government violence against sex workers, more in-depth coverage of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and other topics. Moreover, at times, he lacks the positionality to demonstrate what is at stake in these issues (it can come off as an overly enthusiastic white ally talking compared to making space for the people directly impacted by these issues). However, even amidst the improvements that could be made, John Oliver’s popularization of education on political issues was critical this decade as we continue to fight for our and each other’s liberation.
90 Day Fiance on TLC
Ah, 90 Day Finance. Thank you for making us re-evaluate power dynamics in relationships, especially along categories of nationality. Thank you for showing the complete xenophobic disrespect that most Americans have towards any culture that isn’t theirs. Thank you for showing how pathetic Americans are and the ways we are willing to manipulate and lie to trap foreigners. The comedic air that surrounded the show really diminished critical analysis that we should all be doing around the intersection of “love” and power; however, for those who were able to reflect and move beyond the show’s antics, 90 Day Fiance pushed us to re-examine all the things we, as a society, have agreed is appropriate in relationships. As the immigration crisis (and the language used to describe it) reached a boiling point, 90 Day Fiance proved to be another arena to interrogate the xenophobic nature of this country and how much room Americans have to make “mistakes” (and be abusive, manipulative, controlling, etc.) when finding “love.”
Euphoria on HBO
Besides ushering in a whole new rulebook regarding style and makeup, Euphoria allowed Gen Z-ers to see ourselves and our issues on screen. Seeing a Black addict on screen, especially given how white-washed portrayals of addiction have been throughout the opioid epidemic, has been refreshing. Moreover, the show’s depiction of teenage issues (failed relationships, fights with friends, etc.) juxtaposed to the evilness our generation is capable of (I mean, Nate’s blackmailing of Jules throughout the season shook me to my core) was a much-needed check on portrayals of our generation as exclusively tolerant. I am excited for new opportunities at diversity and storytelling the show can move towards; please, any Euphoria producers, get my good sis Rue some Black friends and add Walela Nehanda to the next season for an accurate, soulful depiction of illness in young, Black people!
Atypical on Netflix
Atypical was one of the few shows (maybe the only one) I saw this decade that brought autism and its various manifestations into popular discourse. The show’s protagonist, Sam Gardner, is an autistic young adult navigating the inaccessible world around him. Compared to TV’s typical depiction of autism as a “savant syndrome” or a ‘quirk’ that only affects young, affluent, white children, Atypical really strives to present the challenges of living in a “one size fits all” society and not demonize having autism itself. Not to mention, Atypical has also offered an opportunity for actors within the show to explore their own positionalities–most notably, Brigette Lundy-Paine’s coming out as non-binary; it is ridiculously beautiful to watch a character and their actor come to terms with their identity at the very same time. Notably, the show has some improvements to make. For one, having a non-autistic actor play ‘Sam’ (even with consultation) continues to shut out autistic actors from their own stories; while the show is making strides to be more inclusive, thus showcasing the art of an autistic artist in the series, the centering of a neurotypical actor in a non-neurotypical storyline reeks of a casual apathy towards centering otherized people.
Atypical has had a continuous problem with actor Michael Rapaport, more specifically his use of ableist language and his propagation of ableist principals including a dislike of subtitles. His ableism besmirches the show and is jarring for a storyline (I don’t believe he cares about neurodiverse or disabled people when he continuously says he doesn’t). Moreover, for conversations about autism to start and expand with a white, affluent person like Sam while other characters of color on the show are never given fleshed out storylines is disappointing. Hopefully, these critiques of the show and the actors can be talking points to continue the important conversations the show is starting; I love Atypical but I want it done right.
Shows to watch in 2020:
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.