why Peak TV has me turned off

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illo by Ronnie Sullivan

Confession: I have Peak TV exhaustion. Despite all my best efforts, I’ve failed to consume all the Highly Acclaimed Prestige Television required for admittance in our current cultural discussion.

It’s not for lack of trying. I have subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. I inhaled BoJack Horseman, Stranger Things, and The Dark. I started Orange is the New Black. And House of Cards. Better Call Saul, Kiss Me First, most of the Marvel Netflix shows. There’s still Jack Ryan and Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and Glow and The Crown and sense8 and Black Mirror and Handmaid’s Tale and and and..

Click the Netflix button. Scroll, scroll scroll. Exit. Click the Hulu button. Scroll, scroll. Why does nothing seem appealing, even when it all should?

Part of the analysis paralysis comes from knowing so many shows are worth watching. Even if not all of them are for me, how do I know what I’m going to like? The overload of quality shows has made me numb to preferences.

It feels like reaching around in the dark trying to determine what sort of show to watch. Gritty Drama? Wacky Comedy? Depressing Animated Comedy? I don’t know how to analyze my brain for feelings about shows grouped by keywords in this way. Dark Drama With A Snarky Female Lead?

Maybe I just need a break from scripted content. Television has etched the three-act structure permanently into my brain the way important facts and worthwhile knowledge is in other people’s. I can see story arcs telegraphed two episodes in and I get tired. It’s not the show’s fault, it’s mine.

This is a large part of why I’ve found myself watching others play video games more than traditional television these days. This essay isn’t really about Peak TV, but what turning it off has done for me. Currently there is more content I consume regularly on YouTube and Twitch than I do on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon combined. The rise of YT and Twitch streaming means I’m certainly not alone.

Since I was a middle schooler watching a cousin do the seemingly impossible (ie, finish a level) in Super Mario Bros, I’ve enjoyed watching others game. The Let’s Plays found on YT and Twitch are so entertaining because I get to experience games I never would have finished or even played otherwise. BioShock, Fallout, Resident Evil 7, Uncharted – these are all games I am not going to play, but I love their stories and experiences. I know my physical skills don’t line up, but I want to see the story and the world of The Last of Us. Without LPs I wouldn’t have that.

The world of video game streaming has evolved a lot in the years since technology has made this new entertainment medium possible. There’s no shortage of live-streaming that integrates content in novel ways. And thanks to the magic of things like the Raspberry Pi and emulation, communities build around replaying old games, localizing foreign games, rewriting and working through custom hacks with other interested people in the internet.

This niche type of entertainment echoes public access television, with seemingly even greater potential. Imagine if every kid alone in their basement had the opportunity to talk and play games with like-minded folk across the world. People aren’t just watching others, they are interacting and enhancing the program itself. Discord chat and twitter makes streaming so much easier than your late-night 1980s public access tv. It cultivates that small community feel that allows people to bond.

The show that’s really captured my heart in my turn away from tv is Gill and Gilbert. A self-described “nightmare public access show”, it feels to me like the pinnacle of streaming shows. Patrick Gill and Brian David Gilbert, of the polygon.com video game site, stream on Twitch each week for about an hour. There is generally a theme/thin premise attaching the game they play to a challenge. The inaugural episode features the lads playing Celeste and eating berries whenever they die in-game. (Well, in Patrick’s case, it was pepperoni slices. Pat’s allergic to berries, but loves that pep!)

Throughout the show, Pat and BDG check twitter for segment suggestions, which are then improv’d into goofy non-sequiturs. Many of their challenges relate to eating, though there are also episodes with temporary tattoos, painting, acoustic guitar, and “mystery fluids.” (Spoiler alert: one of them is soy sauce.)

Here is a sample of the magic with zero context, featuring nuggets, synchronized hair flips, Zelda, and long, good legs being shown off.

Absurd humor is a very specific, subjective type of comedy. It’s easy for the premise to fall flat, but the chemistry between the lads is exquisitely positive and brotherly. BDG’s exuberant, bubbly sing-song is the yin to Pat’s soft, monotone yang.

Their stream quickly became the highlight of my week. The nonsense-based humor is not tethered to mental stressors like storyline contrivances or current events. It’s a delightful splash of weird in a week that often leaves me feeling overwhelmed. As a viewer I’m asked only to react and enjoy, the stakes are only as high as video game deaths and drinking soy sauce.

Gill and Gilbert subverts tropes quietly while improv-ing songs from Wario’s POV. The idea of masculinity stretches to embrace what would be considered fringe and celebrates it. I mean, there’s a lot of singing. Singing about video games, anime, and entirely fictional goblins named Crenshaw. Singing apologies for dying in the video game. BDG’s love for nail polish and The Goofy Movie are ever-present .

My favorite Peak TV comedies (lookin’ at u, BoJack) can sometimes be Too Much, especially in 2018 when America is essentially on fire and dealing with a potential autocratic takeover. Gill and Gilbert is simply good fun, watching pals making segments (and makin’ love) where I can dedicate my brain to positivity, laughing, and even making fan art.

If you check the #gillandgilbert hashtag on twitter, you’ll see a ton of amazing, creative people making very silly art. A community has grown around Gill and Gilbert that strengthens my love of the show itself.

G&G embraces unbridled enthusiasm in a way that serves as a reminder for what’s important in life. Quality time with good friends, while you make silly memories and sing inside jokes into life, that’s the important stuff.