Real talk: I hate the phrase “prestige TV.” I honestly don’t know what it means. I have an idea about what OTHER people think it means, but it’s a perplexing phrase for yours truly. It’s perplexing because it’s so limiting: “prestige” usually has something to do with a certain type of show (usually centered on a white male antihero, even in 2017) filmed in a certain type of way (ie, dimly-lit AF) with a long-form narrative that unfolds in a certain type of manner (ie, slow AF) in a certain type of tone (ie, dour AF).
There’s nothing WRONG with a lot of the shows most in the TV critic world would dub “prestige,” and I certainly like a lot of them myself. But there’s another entire world of not just entertaining, but important, shows that don’t fall neatly or overtly into the “prestige” category. I use “important” because talking about prestige TV is often about talking about the show itself as this hermetically sealed document that exists up to the edge of the screen. These types of shows are often a curiosity to be analyzed, not a living entity to be embraced. There’s something mathematical about the way these shows proceed: They do all of the “right” things, but still leave me cold.
I favor “important TV” over “prestige TV.” They may sound like the same thing said two different ways, but importance here is defined by how much a show means to the person watching it. This brings things to a personal, subjective level rather than some larger, objective level. (After all, let’s be honest: there’s literally nothing objective about criticism. I can’t believe I have to keep saying this, but enough people seem to not understand this that I have to keep stating it.) There’s enough TV at this point to stop watching what critics tell you you’re supposed to watch and get on with the fun of curating a solid lineup of programs that make you feel…anything.
The shows I tend to favor, as a 40+ year-old guy who’s been writing about TV for a decade, center on shows that portray people in ways that move me to laughter, tears, or both. I need to be invested enough in them to forget I’m watching a TV show altogether. That’s literally the only thing a show needs to do for me to be its fan.
Now, of course, creating compelling characters is the backbone of any show. So how come so many are so terrible at it?
Wynonna Earp, which returns for its second season on SyFy on June 9, does not have this problem. What it lacks in crane shots and CGI dragons, it more than makes up for in countless characters who react to extraordinarily weird situations in extraordinarily relatable ways. It has a roster of relatable people, is utterly and totally sex-positive, and is light on its feet without sacrificing emotion. It doesn’t have a globally-spanning narrative, because it knows the closer you are to home, the more dangerous life is and the more vulnerable you are.
The show wisely expands its universe in the second season (of which I’ve seen four of the planned twelve episodes) without losing any of the DIY charms of its first season. Without spoiling anything, showrunner Emily Andras wisely focuses on Wynnona and her sister Waverley as the heart of what unfolds after the climactic actions of the season one finale. (I won’t spoil that either, in case you haven’t caught up on the first season on Netflix, but if you haven’t caught up, why on earth are you reading this?) Melanie Scrofano is once again great as Wynonna, who wears sarcasm on her sleeve to cover up the emotional wounds she constantly fights. But the early part of season two belongs almost entirely to Dominique Provost-Chalkley, who is given incredibly fun and varied things to do within single scenes, nevermind entire episodes. Andras gives her the wheel in these early installments, and Provost-Chalkley nearly drives off with the entire show. Her interactions with Wynonna are great, but the ones with Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell) are even better. (Haught gets a lot of added depth in the early proceedings, and is often the smartest person in the room despite being perpetually kept at arm’s distance from the main action.)
That’s saying something with Tim Rozon’s Doc Holliday still in the picture. Holliday is one of those aspects of Wynonna Earp that sounds absolutely ridiculous if you try to explain his presence to someone who’s never seen the show. But it’s never ridiculous while you’re watching it, and that’s one of the greatest aspects of Wynonna in general: Even the characters themselves have a hard time believing the things that happen to them, but roll with them because there’s little other choice. These aren’t people for whom mobility (either physical or social) is an option, and the second season plays around a lot with the idea that Purgatory itself is much more aware of its supernatural shenanigans than it lets on. Just as Buffy The Vampire Slayer used monsters as a metaphor for how hellish high school can be, so too does Wynonna Earp use genre conventions to suggest leaving one’s childhood home is sometimes impossible.
The residents of Sunnydale and Purgatory may not generally seek out danger, but they also don’t board up their homes and avoid it, either. Where Wynonna shines is in its ability to embrace life in the face of death. This takes the form of really funny quips (including one of the best Siri-centric jokes I’ve ever heard), or people boning a lot and with great vigor. Sex is a huge part of this show, and it occurs between all combinations of races, genders, and sexual orientations. The one common thread: it’s almost depicted as something celebratory rather than punitive. One of the ways to make flesh-and-blood people come alive onscreen is to show them craving flesh without it consuming their every waking moment. Again, it’s a really simple thing, but it’s utterly refreshing because so few shows do it! It’s not that sex is meaningless in Wynonna Earp. What’s often fun about the sex on this show is that it’s as surprising to the characters as it is the audience, which happens as often as the traditional, slow-burn, near-miss type of relationship also depicts. The mix of the two feels realistic, even if its set in a revenant-filled triangle.
At one point in these early episodes, one character chides another for being too hasty in their approach to a particular problem. “It’s called the long game,” this character says. “I’ve been playing one for a while.” Andras and company are technically playing a long game here with the show’s mythology, but there’s also a freshness to the speed at which it dispatches story while also being keen to develop and deploy solid monster-of-the-week episodes. Again, without getting into spoilers, the end of season one opens up the show’s monster palette quite a bit, which is a good thing. Just as in season one, there isn’t one single narrative arc but rather several smaller ones that organically lead into the next one. The fourth episode feels like the end of season two’s first act, and I can’t wait to see what the hell Wynonna Earp does with that doozy of a cliffhanger.
How long can Andras play the Wynonna Earp game? It’s unclear. The show’s ratings were not huge, and its timeslot doesn’t help. But it has hugely devoted (and hugely vocal) fans. The show’s central conceit (especially with Black Badge’s shady reach) is malleable enough to go on for years, but Wynonna narratively pushes itself as if it’s not taking any additional seasons for granted. My advice, if you haven’t sampled it yet, is to check it out on Netflix ahead of its season two premiere. There’s an emotional richness and an utter lack of pretension that will most likely win you over. It’s a show that doesn’t know how not to wear its heart on its sleeve, and it will sneak up on you fast if you let it in.
If that’s not the mark of an important show, then I guess I don’t know what is.