Illustration by David McAllister / Prospect

There’s too much television

Take it from Prospect’s TV critic: so many shows started off as books, articles, ideas—and should have stayed that way
December 6, 2023

I don’t often embark on a hate-watch. I watch bad movies and television, but bad in the sense of enjoyably bad. Dumb action movies such as The Meg 2: The Trench or trashy, put-it-on-in-the-background series such as Emily in Paris. Not stuff that I think is going to bore or anger me.

But recently I did watch something knowing, on the way in, that I was going to hate it. My boyfriend watched it first, on a whim, then told me he needed me to see it too, so that we could bitch about it. So I sat down to watch the Netflix documentary The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.

Maybe you’ve heard of it. For a while, it was pushed quite heavily on the Netflix homepage. And there is also a 2016 book with the same name, the inspiration for this documentary, by a blogger called Mark Manson. The book, a sort of memoir-slash-self-help book disguised as an anti-self-help book, was a New York Times bestseller. Before the show began playing, I wondered how a book of that sort might translate to TV.

The short answer is that it really, really doesn’t. The problem is not primarily that Mark Manson, who fronts the documentary, is irritating, although he is. He comes across as relentlessly self-satisfied and convinced of being in possession of a great intelligence that I can’t see evidence of here.

No, the real problem is that the filmmakers have produced more than an hour-and-a-half’s material that did not need to be television and cannot sustain being television. Manson, sat in a dingy basement room decorated with expensive ceramic dogs and fine liquor, recites sections of his book, the main thrust of which is that you should stop focusing on bad things and focus instead on good ones. Manson makes repeated, unsubstantiated claims, for instance that nobody is enjoying their holidays because they spend those holidays on Instagram looking at other people’s nicer holidays and being furious about it, or that being too nice to your children will lead to them feeling like frauds as adults, for some reason. We also get the story of Manson’s life, which is not interesting enough to justify us learning about it. He was caught with some marijuana in his locker at school, his parents divorced, he has had some averagely bad relationships.

The filmmakers have no idea what to show us, other than Manson. Title cards saying things like “TRAUMATIC SHIT” or “HAPPINESS IS A PROBLEM” flash up over stock footage of, say, a clown smoking a cigarette, or a girl on the beach with no face, a woman in a crown getting doused in white paint, a car blowing up, cartoon people falling into galaxies, a couple looking at a fish tank. The revelation, near the end of this carousel of almost randomly chosen images, is that the key to being happy isn’t getting rid of your problems, it’s solving your problems, which is—unless I am the moron—the same thing. Watching this show made me so angry, so petty and het up that I am even minded to point out that he uses the term “precautionary tale” when he means “cautionary tale”. It is patronising, empty garbage, start to finish.

Forgive me for the rant. But there is a point to it. Watching this documentary got me thinking about the state of television in general. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck isn’t a lone blight on the current landscape of “content” (and this is content, really, not TV); it’s part of a larger trend. Things that should not be television are, increasingly, made into television.

The book to television or film pipeline is very old. The Godfather was a novel first, and a good one—I’m reading it at the moment, as it happens. Killers of the Flower Moon was first a book by the journalist David Grann, published in 2017, and is now a beautiful film directed by Martin Scorsese. Dune, Pride and Prejudice, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Hunger Games, Little Women, The Lord of the Rings. You could list examples for days. It’s no surprise that deals for these kinds of adaptations are made, given the fact that authors get comparatively tiny sums to write their books when compared to having their books developed for screens.

Even memes are becoming TV. Remember those videos of hyper-realistic cakes? That’s a TV show now, too

The jump is even bigger between something like a magazine article and a film. It’s part of what keeps features writers in the game: the real possibility that they will write a story for anything up to, say, 10 grand (although usually much less), and then a TV studio will buy the rights to adapt it for the screen for much, much more. The 2019 film Hustlers was originally a 2015 New York magazine story by Jessica Pressler. Nightmare on Elm Street, somewhat unexpectedly, began its life as a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1980s.

All of this is to say: it happens a lot. And sometimes these deals make everybody happy, as in the examples I gave earlier. Good for the author, good for the film studio, good for the audience. Art begets new art. But what is happening more and more frequently now is that stuff that was either crap or thin to begin with is made into television simply in order for more television to exist. Just look at how the Marie Kondo book became a Marie Kondo television programme in 2019, which spawned a second even more boring Marie Kondo show in 2021, and then further copycat television series about decluttering your life, such as the deathly dull The Minimalists. Tiger King, the documentary series we all watched in a fugue state during the first lockdown, is apparently being turned into a scripted show, to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of the same intellectual property. A gameshow version of the Korean hit series Squid Game is here.

Even memes are becoming TV. Remember seeing all those videos of hyper-realistic cakes? Objects such as human arms and toolboxes that turned out to be cake? That’s a television show now, too, on Netflix, called Is It Cake?, where people have to guess whether or not a thing is cake.

It’s not just the profit motive behind all this, I don’t think. It’s also a result of the fact that video content is king in other spheres now. TikTok’s popularity means that if regular people have an idea, or something they want to express, it’s more likely to be committed to video than to another medium. The huge view counts on videos of people ranting in their cars, walking down the street, making meals for themselves, implies that there is a big audience for mindless moving images.

I watch those TikTok videos, too. They have their charms. But the massive increase in the amount of low-quality video content on social media shouldn’t mean we have to see a similar increase in low-quality televisual content. And yet, here we are.

Update, 9th January 2024: The original version of this article incorrectly suggested that A Nightmare on Elm Street was inspired by an article published in the Los Angeles Times in 1987, rather than a series of articles published in the same paper across the earlier years of the 1980s. This has since been amended in the text.