We’re currently living in a paradoxical TV moment: “Spoilers” are considered sacrosanct, and yet we do our damnedest to figure out what they are. We rush to do the Wikipedia Test — and then to check Reddit, and the recap, and the podcast. Preserving a pop culture property’s sanctity and plumbing its depths are just two different ways of showing how much you care.
So how are shows shouldering the burden of that scrutiny, provided they’re lucky enough to earn it? Is rabid sleuthing an entertaining appendix to a show, or a distraction from it? Are we loving our TV to death?
For a generation, museums have chased after the numbers, with blockbuster exhibitions and amenities that have indirectly ceded curatorial control to the turnstile. The government now looks to accelerate this abdication of leadership through “reenvisioning our grant programs,” as the National Endowment for the Humanities announced this year.
If the museum visitor now expects to receive the keys to the collection, backed by government mandates, there may be little hope to save the museum from populist whim.
“Honesty” is a word that, when thrown at journalism, unhelpfully describes both a baseline and a vaguer horizon, a legal minimum and an ethical summum. Too often, we precisely monitor the former and profligately praise the latter. In Helen Garner’s case, we should give due thanks for the former and precisely praise the latter. As a writer of nonfiction, Garner is scrupulous, painstaking, and detailed, with sharp eyes and ears. She is everywhere at once, watching and listening, a recording angel at life’s secular apocalypses—“a small grim figure with a notebook and a cold,” as she memorably describes herself. She has written with lucid anger about murder cases, about incidents of sexual harassment, about the experience of caring for a friend dying of cancer.
But Garner is, above all, a savage self-scrutineer: her honesty has less to do with what she sees in the world than with what she refuses to turn away from in herself. In “The Spare Room” (2008), her exacting autobiographical novel about looking after that dying friend, she describes not only the expected indignities of caring for a patient—the soaked bedsheets, the broken nights—but her own impatience, her own rage: “I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions. Now I knew that it was anger.”
This is the trick that time and human nature always play on us. The way things are—no matter how they are—quickly comes to seem normal. It’s as unremarkable not to see moth snowstorms now as it once was to see them. As a species, we too are passing through the bottleneck of the present. It’s stunning to realize that the ampleness of nature in 1970, however you measure it, isn’t even a memory for most Americans. For every generation, nature seems full enough no matter how empty it becomes.