One exploding head makes for great television, but the effect is not multiplicative: A roomful of exploding heads is just a mess. Does this constitute a spoiler for season 2 of The Boys, Amazon’s flagship superhero shockfest? Barely. You haven’t been told which heads explode, or when. Nor would it even matter if you had. Nonspoiler alert: The heads belong to minor characters, whose lives are the same as their deaths—pointless.
Still, they should be sympathized with, these bathetically burst balloons. For to watch TV in 2020 is to put your head, as they have done, on the line. Right there, in plain view of some mutant sniper. Mind your movements, or pop! Off it goes.
The good news is you won’t feel a thing. Not only is death by TV painless, you’ve been preparing for it these many months of indoor indolence. Mid-pandemic, heads are rolling—scrolling—at unprecedented rates through the virtual plenitude, a kind of pre-death bardo state of perfect mind-body disconnection. It would be very Buddhist, if it weren’t so depressing. Duh-DUM, tolls the Netflix intro knell, ever signaling your imminent demise.
Just listen to yourself. When you’re not watching TV, you’re talking about watching TV. You see a friend for the first time in six months, and what’s the subject of conversation? Dark vs. Upload vs. Lovecraft Country, and then the question of whether you should start Away. Your mom really wants you to, of course—Hilary Swank made her cry. But your boss would rather you commit to Succession; he’s on his second watch. His daughter, meanwhile, says I May Destroy You is the show of the year, but don’t all serious-artist types think that? Better to play it safe and turn on Kim’s Convenience. On and on like this it goes, as if individuality can be carved from the conformity of riding the same many-mirrored carousel as everyone else. And have you seen The Boys?
Boy oh Boys. It’s easily the best and worst of the bunch. If there’s a way to push superheroes any further than this—full-on rapey murderers whose villainy is covered up by the pharmaceutical giant that not-so-secretly made them—the culture would have to combust. It’s not even postmodern, at this point. Deadpool was postmodern. Guardians and Thor were postmodern. The Boys is some pure metamodernist BS, so committed to sharpening its edge on the whetstone of canon it forgets to cut anything with its trenchant blade.
The show wants you to talk about it, but what more is there to say? There’s a racist supe with a Nazi past who radicalizes sad male fans through memes; there’s a lesbian supe with a drug problem and a redemption arc; there’s a sexually predatious supe who’s involved in a scene with a boat and a whale that—computer-generated though the whale may be—should nonetheless have violated sundry animal rights laws. These social-justice shocks the show seems forced to administer, in an effort to make you feel more alive than you are, sinking into your couch, losing your head. When the evil-Superman Homelander, played with such disgusting magnificence by Antony Starr that the patriotic suit and cape should be permanently retired, masturbates on the roof of a skyscraper, he is The Boys itself, naked and shameless.
This is the crisis so-called “prestige TV” finds itself in (if it was ever prestige to begin with). There’s not just an expectation of quality but of seeing something new, like a whale-murdering boat, or lightning Nazis. So shows proceed as episodically as ever, but they have to keep getting bigger, badder, uglier, realer, even if there’s no reason for it. One head explodes early in the season, so 10 must explode later on. In this, television mirrors real life. Or real life as it’s been, After Corona: a series of escalations. When you sit down to a new TV show at the end of your day, you’re not distracting yourself or escaping. You’re reinforcing the escalating, episodic tension of your everyday existence. The jolts of recognition might feel nice, but they’re not at all healthy. They’re destructive, and they’re the reason you feel deader after a binge.
Not true of everything, of course. Anything narrated by David Attenborough seems safe, and shows like Devs and Midnight Gospel—which, structurally, seem to forget that they’re television shows—force the brain into new patterns of viewing. But nobody wants to talk about those. They’d rather believe that a show like The Boys is supersmart and supercool, so that when their heads finally do explode, from overstimulation or rapid-onset depression, they can convince themselves, in their final moment of consciousness, that their minds were truly blown.