The Comfortable Problem of Mid TV

A few years ago, “Atlanta” and “PEN15” were teaching TV new tricks.

In “Atlanta,” Donald Glover sketched a funhouse-mirror image of Black experience in America (and outside it), telling stories set in and around the hip-hop business with an unsettling, comic-surreal language. In “PEN15,” Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle created a minutely observed, universal-yet-specific picture of adolescent awkwardness.

In February, Glover and Erskine returned in the action thriller “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” on Amazon Prime Video. It’s … fine? A takeoff on the 2005 film, it updates the story of a married duo of spies by imagining the espionage business as gig work. The stars have chemistry and charisma; the series avails itself of an impressive cast of guest stars and delectable Italian shooting locations. It’s breezy and goes down easy. I watched several episodes on a recent long-haul flight and they helped the hours pass.

But I would never have wasted an episode of “Atlanta” or “PEN15” on in-flight entertainment. The work was too good, the nuances too fine, to lose a line of dialogue to engine noise.

I do not mean to single out Glover and Erskine here. They are not alone — far from it. Keri Russell, a ruthless and complicated Russian spy in “The Americans,” is now in “The Diplomat,” a forgettably fun dramedy. Natasha Lyonne, of the provocative “Orange Is the New Black” and the psychotropic “Russian Doll,” now plays a retro-revamped Columbo figure in “Poker Face.” Idris Elba, once the macroeconomics-student gangster Stringer Bell in “The Wire,” more recently starred in “Hijack,” a by-the-numbers airplane thriller.

I’ve watched all of these shows. They’re not bad. They’re simply … mid. Which is what makes them, frustratingly, as emblematic of the current moment in TV as their stars’ previous shows were of the ambitions of the past.

What we have now is a profusion of well-cast, sleekly produced competence. We have tasteful remakes of familiar titles. We have the evidence of healthy budgets spent on impressive locations. We have good-enough new shows that resemble great old ones.

Back to top button