Prestige TV: With so much good television, why do we only talk about a handful of shows?
Here’s a quiz for you:
Name the TV shows that the following characters are part of — Arya Stark, Rick Grimes, Don Draper, Walter White, and Claire Underwood.
Chances are you’ll know at least four of those (for the severely uninitiated, it’s Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards). You may not watch all of these shows, but unless you live under a rock, you’ve definitely heard/read about these characters and the TV shows they’re on. Your Facebook feed over the past month was most likely filled with articles describing the power dressing guide by Claire Underwood or Arya taking down Nightwalkers in season 7 because she now has a Valyrian blade. Or one of the many, many, many, many articles theorising the various character reunions on GoT. And surely somebody you know has, at some point, used a Don Draper gif (possibly when they think they’re being suave and winning) while chatting or messaging online.
Now, let’s try this quiz for a different set of characters: Liv Moore, Liza Miller, Walter Bishop, Issa Rae, and Stephen Holder.
Know them? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. If you do, congratulations — you watch TV shows that not everybody in the TV viewing world talks/writes/tweets about at every given opportunity, all the time. It means that you’re open to watching things on television that might be a bit more unconventional — not just the big budget shows or the awards season favourites, but maybe something slightly obscure.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t necessarily make you a TV snob — for that, you’d have to hang up your television on the wall and call it “art”, never using it, instead only watching shows online! If, however, you don’t know these characters, have never heard/read about them or the TV shows they’re on (iZombie, Younger, Fringe, Insecure, and The Killing), and are limited to mostly watching the first batch of shows, then: (1) you have no idea what you’re missing out on (Stephen Holder is a homicide detective in the incredibly well crafted procedural The Killing, and is portrayed by Joel Kinnaman. Also, that jaw clench!), and (2) you, dear viewer, probably only watch one type of television, and that’s prestige TV!
A lot has been written about how we are smack down in the middle of television’s latest golden age, to the point where TV executives are now referring to a phenomenon called “peak TV”, which is essentially the idea that there’s just way too much TV, where viewers are being inundated with too much choice. Despite a whopping 33 cancellations on various American networks this year, we can all agree that there’s no dearth of TV shows. Good TV shows, even great ones. Of course, we’re also at a point where a show being cancelled doesn’t necessarily mean anything — just consider Sense8’s shocking cancellation during season 2, the online outrage by fans, and its eventual movie-length return. That’s television for you in 2017!
Peak TV and reboots are terms that quintessentially belong to our time. The concept of “prestige TV”, on the other hand, has been around for a while now; remember when The Sopranos, The Wire, and Lost (all incredible shows, no doubt) hogged all the newsprint real estate while Veronica Mars had to be relegated to the sidelines, eventually being cancelled after just three brilliant seasons, despite single-handedly creating a new genre of television, ie teen detective noir? Side note: 2017’s Riverdale probably owes a lot to Veronica Mars!
Ten years later, in the midst of the most creative television fare we have on offer, we somehow don’t seem to be talking all that much about shows like Younger, Search Party, or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency; I mean, sure, there are the passing articles and reviews (I’ve done a couple of them myself here on Firstpost), but despite the ingenious and empowering storylines and narratives of these shows, we constantly find ourselves coming back to the familiarity of extolling shows like GoT, House of Cards, The Walking Dead, Fargo etc. Or the revived Twin Peaks (which, with its mere association to David Lynch and Showtime, was guaranteed “prestige TV” status). Or The Handmaid’s Tale.
You get my point — there’s usually a trend towards the kind of shows our cultural observations and conversations gravitate towards — Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk rounded up a list of 13 Signs You’re Watching a ‘Prestige’ TV Show; it’s a hilarious and uncanny list that applies to every show that qualifies as “prestige” TV!
In 2017, what are some of the prerequisites for a TV show to be termed prestige TV?
They are most frequently produced by specific networks like HBO, AMC, FX, Showtime, and increasingly Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.
Think about it, and you’ll realise it’s so true! Every prestige TV show you can think of, most likely airs on one of these networks. Even a show like Gilmore Girls, which in its initial seven-season run, aired on CW (nee WB), was known for its small-town charm and quick-witted characters, and had a doting fan-following in the aughts, suddenly became prestige TV material when it was revived for a four-part series on Netflix last year. Part of it obviously has to do with the fact that viewers of the show in the 2000s have now come of age and are the very people who subscribe to Netflix and write about the TV shows as part of their jobs. The other part is, well, can you see the trend?
It’s like a 10-hour movie.
In a different article, VanArendonk argued that for a TV show to qualify as prestige TV, it needn’t be filmed as if it’s a ten-hour long movie (looking at you, Westworld and Jonathan Nolan), or even more ridiculously, a 73-hour movie (aw, come on, GoT!) where “one episode of TV is not enough. To really appreciate what this series is doing, and to really tell a serious, worthwhile, complex, and important story, you can’t judge a single episode. You need lots. Ideally, you can’t fully judge it, can’t weigh its success or value, until you’ve seen all of it.”
I find myself at odds with this one: on the one hand, I like not having to wait for the entire season/s to be done for all the puzzle pieces to fall in place (and the fact that VanArendonk used The Good Place as an example of a TV show that managed great episodic narrative as well as the big-twist-at-the-end that most creators crave, warms my heart. I’m a super-fan of The Good Place and almost anything Kristen Bell is in, in case you didn’t know). On the other hand, Netflix has managed to make binge-watching such an integral, cosy-on-my-couch-with-my-comfort-food-and-bingeing-my-favourite-TV-show-as-if-I-don’t-have-anything-else-to-do part of my life, that I really can’t fault its endless attempts to make us do exactly that — binge. Ah, the hours I’ve spent watching back-to-back episodes of Stranger Things, House of Cards, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Making a Murderer, Black Mirror, and Master of None. The list is too long. All right Netflix, you got me on this one about prestige TV.
But not all networks are Netflix, and not all shows can be binge-watched at once (unless you wait for the entire season to be over, in which case, you’ll need to deactivate all your social network accounts and move to wherever is the middle of nowhere for you, to stay away from any spoilers. And while that may be tempting on a particularly rough day in the city, let’s face it, it’s not feasible). What we have, instead, is a show like Westworld deliberately manipulating its audience on a weekly basis, to ultimately reveal something that a whole bunch of viewers have already theorised way back. What the hell, prestige TV!
It’s not just a TV show. It’s literature.
For a lot of the prestige TV shows, this is actually true (GoT, The Walking Dead, Big Little Lies). But for all their gratuitous nudity, violence and gore, not-usually-thought-of-as-very-high-brow genres, and portentous dialogue, these shows always shy away from indulging in any mediocre B-movie impulse. It’s almost become a prerequisite for a prestige TV show to be thought of as “literary” (I’ve done that myself...comparing Noah Hawley’s vision for Fargo to a great book or a piece of art).
Remember how David Simon (The Wire) would compare the show to a Greek tragedy, while fans always saw some Dickensian similarities? In 2017, we’ve maxed out the literary-ness of beloved prestige TV. We’ve reached a point where a TV show can’t be “mere television” anymore, and anything that goes beyond is automatically assigned prestige TV status.
These shows are dark. Really, really dark.
I thought for a long time about this one, comparing the newest seasons of a bunch of shows that can be labelled as prestige TV. And between a murderer for a President (House of Cards), domestic violence (Big Little Lies), rampaging robots and murdering humans (Westworld), a brutal sociopath in an already-grim post zombie-apocalypse (The Walking Dead), a tech-savvy psychopath with his Asian and Ukranian minions (Fargo), women being raped and used as property (The Handmaid’s Tale), and every single scene on GoT, I honestly couldn’t find a moment of levity. Sure, Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie is kinda fun and preppy in Big Little Lies and Peter Dinklage has delivered some comic gems in his role as Tyrion, but four chuckles across seven seasons of two TV shows do not compensate for the unbearable darkness that is prestige TV.
And if the prestige TV show happens to be a “comedy”, well, it’s not. It’s usually a dramedy at best, like Louie (I’ll take it!) or Girls. Why so sad, prestige TV?
Big movie stars. Huge!
Just look at the cast of Westworld, House of Cards, and Big Little Lies!
And Oscar winning (or nominated) actors aren’t the only ones coming to the small screen. Directors Steven Soderbergh, Baz Luhrmann, Jean-Marc Vallée, Stephen Daldry, and Tom McCarthy have already entered the fray. With Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle set to join them, Vanity Fair is absolutely right in wondering if making a prestige TV show is the new post-Oscars move?
Thirty-eight Primetime Emmy Award nominations for GoT, 46 for House of Cards. I haven’t counted the number of awards that prestige TV shows have won overall, but I feel like I’ve seen Kevin Spacey at too many of those things!
The term “prestige” was meant to denote quality, and sure as hell, almost all of the shows that belong in this category are superlative. But (and bear with me here) over time, it’s gotten increasingly easy to mimic that standard of quality so that a variety of shows (even with super-diverse genres) begin to “feel” similar. They begin to feel formulaic. And to a viewer (or at least, to a very discerning viewer), it begins to feel stale. You begin to get restless. That prestige TV is a thing and that it’s here to stay for a while, is a given. And as long as I keep getting shows like Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies etc., I’m good!
But maybe our conversations around TV, in general, could stand some change. Don’t get me wrong — I love watching all kinds of television, even the shows that are termed prestige TV (Westworld), and I’ve even argued passionately about why The Walking Dead and zombies haven’t lost their allure after seven seasons. The point isn’t to stop talking/writing about shows just because they’re termed prestige TV, in some silly attempt at reverse snobbish-ness. When the show is as important and relevant as The Handmaid’s Tale, we must watch it and talk about it, encourage others to watch it, and then discuss it. But there are shows like Younger and Insecure, which (though not anywhere near as dark and foreboding as The Handmaid’s Tale) are gleefully original tales of female empowerment (also addressing racism, sexism, and ageism).
After I finished watching iZombie’s kickass season 3 finale, I was in a zombie-show comparison mode when realised that, as much as I love The Walking Dead (I saw Steven Yeun at the Sydney Film Festival recently, from a great distance, and my fangirling continued for a day and a half!), Robert Kirkman’s incessant milking (yes, I said it) of the franchise without progressing the story, is a sad, shameful fact that we have to live with as fans of the comic and the show. Compare that to iZombie creator Rob Thomas’ brilliant take on his equally-brilliant comic (with an awesome zombie-heroine and darkly comic tones, natch), and I’m afraid that for all its prestige TV credentials, The Walking Dead is, beyond a point, just spectacle. Why then, don’t we talk more about iZombie? Is it because it’s not “prestige TV” enough? Or is it because it’s not dark enough? Or because it doesn’t register on our radar since it’s not a grand, big budget show that airs on those handful of networks that grab all the attention?
I understand that once the show has aired and the fanbase has been established, continuing to talk about it weirdly makes us feel like part of the larger community. But consider this — Star Trek: Discovery (which is still filming, and is only set to premiere in October 2017) is written and talked about on various sites/forums almost every day. In the meantime, there’s The Expanse based on the James SA Corey (pseudonym) series of novels with the same name, quietly renewed for its third season; with great reviews from critics for “beautiful visuals, well-developed characters, and thrilling political narrative” and nominated for both the Saturn and Hugo awards, The Expanse is probably one of the most under-mentioned TV shows, that is actually really really good! Damn you Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman — hogging all the space-TV-show limelight! (I’m only kidding.)
We’re at that enviable point in human history where we have an insane amount of TV shows to watch, more than any other generation before us. Over the past few years, streaming services have redefined how we watch our TV shows, they’ve changed our idea of having a good time while watching our favourite TV shows, and they’ve introduced us to bingeing these TV shows. Maybe it’s about time we change how (and how much) we talk about these TV shows as well.