It’s Time to Burst the Bubble of 'Prestige TV'
The reviews have come in for The Last Tycoon, the latest Amazon show, based on the famous unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and they’re fine. They’re okay. Some critics really like it but the overwhelming response to the show, starring Matt Bomer and Lily Collins, has been decidedly muted. I like to think of myself as someone who keeps up with the latest releases across the major platforms, and I’d almost forgotten this show was even coming out.
Currently, television is at a saturation point in the culture, with every channel or streaming service getting in on the act to see if they can play with the big boys on HBO. There have been some wonderful results, and there’s real joy in having such an exceptional level of variety available, meaning shows that would have been considered unprofitable only a few years ago are now able to find their niche audiences to sustain several seasons. The ‘Peak TV’ problem often feels like one limited only to us critics - and it can be overwhelming to try and keep up with everything that people tell you is worth your time - but the obligation to consume as much of this entertainment as possible also reveals a growing problem in this quest to make Prestige TV: With everyone seeking to follow in the footsteps of Tony Soprano and Don Draper, we end up with far too many Ray Donovans.
For the majority of its existence, television has been considered the lesser medium to film and literature, merely a receptacle for shilling advertising to the masses with a few cheap programming choices in between. A major star of the silver screen moving to TV was seen as a major downgrade to their career. Various shows helped to puncture that assumption over the decades: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks, Oz, Sex and the City, and, of course, The Sopranos. Everyone knew that show was incredible and breaking the mould for what television could do, but frequently many couldn’t verbalize why it was good. Elements of its greatness, along with shows like Breaking Bad, were slectively picked and recobbled into something that resembled quality but fell short. It looked prestigious, and that seemed to be enough. The ‘difficult man’ story dominated, although many fell short of the deft complexities of Draper and Soprano. Nudity filled the screen, mostly because it could. Every show was quickly compared to a novel or film or anything other than a TV show, the ultimate slam. Mostly, television desperate to wear the label of prestige just ended up drenched in self-seriousness. There’s no laughter in prestige TV.
The film industry has been playing this game for a long time. As family friendly blockbusters became the preferred money-makers for studios over more adult focused dramas, the awards season cycle evolved into a means of promotion for such projects. Instead of following the traditional model of releasing your film and waiting for gold, producers and distributors could gently game the system: Release the movie in December on a limited LA/NYC run to make the qualification cut-off dates, get the nominations, and use that to promote the movie nationwide. As such, the annual calendar for cinema began to take a more rigid form, as did the films being put forward for awards consideration: Pleasant period dramas, ponderous biopics of tortured genius, historical tales of real-life pain, and the occasionally good film. The Harvey Weinstein mandated mode of awards bait, as vaguely defined as that term is, became a recognisable trait of the season, and so the same stories began to plague our screens year after year, all chasing the little gold men. These films weren’t solely made for the purposes of winning awards, a business model beyond lunacy, but in a risk-averse industry, it became safer to stick with the mould where success was within grasp, if not guaranteed. These films, so similar in style and intent, were engineered to attract notions of prestige. Television has become guilty of the same crime.
As film has the auteur, TV has the showrunner. This is a concept that didn’t come into form until Norman Lear, and the benevolent figurehead image continued into the prestige era, imagining a lone creative leader who breaks down barriers in the genre. By and large, these figures tend to be white men - David Milch, David Chase, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Joss Whedon - and while they were able to redefine much of what the medium meant in their own unique styles, the deifying of these creators robbed TV of its collaborative nature in the way we talk about it.
This may partly explain Prestige TV’s obsession with ‘difficult men’. The sadder your male protagonist, the more portentious the viewing experience becomes, and hence worthier of acclaim. This is easier said than done - Don Draper is a fascinating character who fits this mould but it takes work to write something like that well. Cherry-picking the gloomiest elements, sticking them on a recognisable actor and hoping audiences will be entranced by their darkness is just a lot less work. Some of these shows are very good in their take on this trope, and many have worked hard to dismantle the facade, from Better Call Saul to Mr. Robot, but too often we’re simply left with dull angry men whose generic problems and cardboard cut-out misogyny are expected to be interesting.
This fetish for difficult men has led to an erasure of difficult women who have always existed on TV - Buffy Summers, Angela Chase, Carrie Bradshaw, and so on. Carrie is an especially interesting example because Sex and the City, a show that was previously paired with The Sopranos as the prime examples of HBO’s redefining of TV, has seen its legacy weakened in the following years. What was once the defining women’s series of its time, a groundbreakingly candid sexual fantasy centred take on the romantic comedy, was suddenly a ‘guilty pleasure’, with Bradshaw, one of TV’s most prickly and uneasy women, reduced to a cliché (the spin-off films certainly didn’t help). Prestige TV has been more open to genre offerings over the past few years, but anything feminine tends to be shafted as a frivolity. In turn, those difficult men are awarded female ensembles to be difficult against, which usually results in lots of nudity and sexual violence.
Every network and service wants its big TV show, the must-see series that encourages you to subscribe, tell your friends and increase revenues. Hulu finally broke through with The Handmaid’s Tale, but it took them a while to get there. Netflix are happy to just fling any show at the wall to see what sticks, and sheer quantity over quality is a happy aim for them, although the two do often intersect. They’re one of the biggest perpetrators of one of Prestige TV’s biggest problems: The age of streaming, binge-watching and entire seasons being released in bulk have led to many creators treating a 13 episode run like an extended pilot or very long movie. How often have you heard a show being proclaimed as wonderful because it’s ‘just like a movie’, or even ‘just like a TV show’?
Eventually, I believe Prestige TV as a term will become as meaningless as Oscar Bait. It’s too broadly used and too weakly applied to really have any sort of impact, especially since every show now looks like a movie and stars A-Listers. There are glimmers of hope throughout this sea of blandness, but there’s something immensely disappointing about seeing undoubtedly talented people be given immensely interesting casts, an eye-watering budget, and fascinating material, only to turn it into something pleasant but bland. When there’s so much to choose from, shows have to be more than ‘good enough’, and we must challenge ourselves as viewers to interrogate why certain series are expected to have our respect while others don’t.