Not long ago, orgiastic, homicidal weirdos could only live in art-house indie films, adult fiction, or pop music — but, recently the old homes of the Cleavers, the Bradys, and the Huxtables have been gentrified by turn-of-the-century coke-fiend surgeons, lady prisoners, blood-drenched sorority girls, and a sexually perverted celebrity horse named Bojack Horseman.
With an unprecedented 400-odd scripted series on TV, industry Cassandras have been warning that there’s simply too much to watch — that this era of “Peak TV” is a tulip-fever bubble primed to pop. But this glorious moment of Must-See small-screen abundance has also helped give birth to the medium’s sexiest, most idiosyncratic WTF era ever. So we get Chris Rock playing a cannibalistic gangster on Empire, the Broad City girls extolling the virtues of pegging, and Better Call Saul‘s titular lawyer defending teens who defiled a decapitated head.
Welcome to the golden age of Freak TV.
With competition for eyeballs fiercer than ever, showrunners and networks are doing whatever they can to stand out —specifically, getting raunchier (Girls) (Game of Thrones), louder (anything involving Billy Eichner), and more boldly experimental (The Man in the High Castle). That last show from Amazon, by the way, is based on fiction by Philip K. Dick, psychedelic sci-fi’s trippy, often-banned godfather, who astutely predicted many things, but never that TV would get so weird as to accommodate not one but two shows (Fox’s Minority Report) based on his subversive ideas.
And with The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones conquering the ratings, executives indeed seem to be embracing once-excluded freaks and geeks culture, from superheroes (Arrow, Gotham, The Flash, Jessica Jones) to clones (Orphan Black), mentally imbalanced hackers (Mr. Robot) to dorky tech-company beta males (Silicon Valley). Having all but given up on one-size-fits-all programming, the folks in charge are increasingly using the indie hit Louie as an improbable role model — and taking more risks on bold, love-’em-or-hate-’em shows like You’re the Worst, Master of None, and the stalker musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Oddballs from Mindy Kaling to Mitchell Hurwitz who got kicked off networks now fly their freak flags online, though the patron saint Freak TV still calls Fox home — and his name is Ryan Murphy. To ensure that American Horror Story and Scream Queens more than hold their own in the increasingly brutal GIF and recap game, his shows go so far over the top — bleach enemas, snake sex, acid-based spray-tans, and hysterical stunt-casting — that they might make John Waters and Harmony Korine blush. Meanwhile, Empire has become the superhero of night-time soaps, leaping through whole seasons of twists that any other shows might have thought were too much, all in a single-hour bound. Confoundingly, one of the network’s sweetest shows, The Last Man on Earth, somehow works because of its outlandish premise, and not in spite of it.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s perennial lame-duck punching-bag Lifetime: a network many only accidentally watch with the brand-loyalty equivalent of face blindness. Faced with the prospect of extinction, the network bet big on the unabashedly overheated telenovela Devious Maids and two of recent television’s most bizarre gambles: The deadpan Deadly Adoption movie with Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig scored 2 million viewers, while the self-aware reality TV lampoon UNreal was the best-reviewed series in the network’s history.
No doubt, the extreme competition has lead to some absurd shark-jumping, not to mention four Sharknado movies; why else would we be blessed with WeTV’s idiotic Sex Box (in which people had sex in a box) or VH1’s desperate Dating Naked (in which people dated naked)? Still, all Freak TV’s desperate attempts to ensnare viewers will have been worth it, if for no other reason this unholy era of anything goes has enabled the resurrection of TV’s most-beloved freak shows, The X-Files and Twin Peaks, both set to come back in the near future. The only question left is: Will they be weird enough to keep up?