Against Prestige TV
There’s a new TV show that I find emblematic of the medium today. It’s called Modern Love and it’s mediocre. Each episode is based on a different essay written in the New York Times column of the same name, and each takes a mostly lighthearted approach to dating in 2019. All media now must be based on something, even if we have to scrape the bottom of the barrel so hard that we are now adapting newspapers.
In Modern Love, there are so many brilliant moments—real, relatable, raw, funny, sweet, creative moments—that are all suffocated by the show’s insufferability. Modern Love always lets good writing be murdered by Good Writing. The show shines whenever the writer decides to drop the pretense that they are smarter than the viewer. Every episode has a narration that feels like someone simply pasted paragraphs from the essay directly into screenwriting software with no regard as to whether that would work for an actual human being actually watching a show. For instance, when there is a sound effect of birds chirping, we don’t need a narrator to tell us that there are, in fact, birds chirping. James Baldwin claimed that an enormous violence is done to the written word when it is changed to be adapted; thankfully he can’t see what happens when it is not.
Welcome to Prestige TV. This is the era where TV “finally became good.” Instead of watching a show that’s well-written and unpretentious, we now have hundreds of shows where nothing happens and nothing means anything and we feel nothing about it yet we are compelled to continue. Aren’t you thankful?
How many “great” Prestige series can you name without a major qualifier? Homeland is great . . . for the first season. True Detective is great . . . for the first and third seasons. Game of Thrones is great . . . until the ending. Fargo is great . . . but doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
There is a particular aspect of this era that I find troubling. With very few exceptions, no comedy series is deemed Prestige. This is absurd. Modern comedy series take inspiration from the same shows dramas do. The only distinction is that one is comedic and the other pretends to be saying something.
Nowhere is this divide more evident than in the book Difficult Men by Brett Martin. Before the first chapter, Martin already rejects most comedies for reasons that are, at best, unconvincing. There are two main reasons he gives. First, the networks have “kept up” with the premium and cable channels where Prestige TV mostly resides. Second, comedy series have half-hour episodes. This second reason is particularly “interesting” because he notes that shows aimed at a female audience are more often than not comedies with half-hour episodes (Weeds or Sex and the City, for example).1 It seems even those who note the disparity still continue to perpetuate it.
This separation is reductive. Prestige drama is really just a narrative furthered by both large corporations trying to expand their market share and by TV critics with low expectations. Besides a number of genuinely masterful drama series, a lot of dramas have not been able to be as effective, memorable, or even as meaningful as many comedy series have been at the same time. For every Twin Peaks: The Return, there are plenty of Ozarks.
I offer a case study of two shows that focus on similar characters and hit many of the same plot points. One is the Netflix drama House of Cards, the other is the HBO sitcom Veep.
Both are cynical, profane series that are based loosely on British television and follow a Clinton-esque figure as they manipulate their way to power. Eventually, through the resignation of the President, they manage to ascend to the Oval Office. The respective episodes where the lead becomes president were aired within months of each other.
On a deeper level, they began in the relatively calm Obama era and amplified the absurdity of the series as the election of Donald Trump went from a horrible joke to a horrible reality. They also rely on an ironic construction where you both identify with and against a villain. You root for the main characters as they do increasingly immoral acts because it serves as a fictional representation of exactly the opposite of what we want in real life.
House of Cards is more important than you think. Back in 2013, when the show began, the narrative that TV was finally becoming good was in full force. House of Cards both confirmed the narrative and announced Netflix as a creator of “bold,” “original” content, all a part of Netflix’s plan. It laid the groundwork for other steaming series. So if this show was so groundbreaking, why do we never talk about it?
Partly, it’s the ending. To end a long-running series is a herculean task because a finale can either cement the show as a beloved work of art or retroactively kill any enthusiasm for it. If a show ends badly, that finale becomes the elephant in the room that haunts every discussion. A quick list of shows where this happened: Lost, Dexter, Game of Thrones, and most egregiously, How I Met Your Mother.
House of Cards as one of the most “that’s it?” finales of all time but even before that, it had whittled away all of its good will. There was little payoff to the laborious pacing, the intrigue of the show had become flaccid, the acting had grown hammier by the monologue, and there was already a more interesting David Fincher show on Netflix at that point. The show was surviving on the vestiges of interesting plots established seasons ago. And after #MeToo began, the show lost claim to even the simplest of defenses: that its lead actor was not an alleged pedophile.
House of Cards begins as a show that seems intelligent but, upon closer examination, only has one entirely consistent theme throughout the series: politics is aesthetic. Consistency is a big problem for the series. One of the most famous Frank Underwood monologues, where he describes the difference between money and power, is contradicted in the penultimate season once the writers realized that money is power. And that’s not character development, it’s more “we just learned about the Koch brothers.”
The first episode of House of Cards is a perfect microcosm of the series. Both function on this level where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, or to use a more fitting metaphor, the deck is greater than the individual card. Each piece that makes up the show is decidedly not great. It’s fitting, then, that the show introduced one of the worst aspects of Prestige TV: episodes that have no clear delineation. Every episode of House of Cards is named as if it is a chapter of a novel despite not having a novel’s foresight; otherwise, the show would have ended at 52 episodes. Each episode is almost entirely indistinguishable from the rest, both by name and by plot. There is not a single episode that anyone remembers of House of Cards.
Chapter 1 begins with one of the most audacious choices in television history, a scene so bafflingly dumb and over-the-top that it comes around to brilliance. Our main character, Frank Underwood, sees that a dog has been hit by a car, strangles it to death, and speaks directly into the camera about the usefulness of pain. A subtle beginning.
By the fifth season, any pretense of intelligence had been pushed in front of the DC Metro. The series had become so absurd that the President of the United States was now throwing advisors down flights of stairs with no consequences. The truth is that the show was never smart and that wasn’t what people liked. House of Cards was fun. The greatest moments of the series were when all the politicking amounted to something and someone fucking won.
By the end, the show wasn’t fun anymore. After Frank became President, there was literally nowhere for him—or the series—to go. And the politics didn’t help. House of Cards, a show about a Democrat manipulating and murdering his way to power, never commits to anything politically. In the absence of any actual politics, House of Cards feels rather Trumpian. Like Trump, House of Cards is more concerned with grievances against corrupt figures (in particular, the Clintons) than any relevant systemic critique. The show offers little in terms of “values” or “ideas,” just a list of people for you to dislike. This is not much different than Trump’s absurd narrative of “draining the swamp,” in which he, a non-politician, would be able to cast out the corrupt politicians represented by figures like the Underwoods.
The HBO satire Veep manages to be what House of Cards isn’t: subversive, consistent, meaningful, willing to give its female characters actual roles, and its lead isn’t even (allegedly) a pedophile! Unfortunately, the show cannot get the same critical consideration given to its male-oriented counterparts.
Veep is a satire about Vice President Selina Meyer as she goes from a frustrated politician unable to make any meaningful change to a calculating monster who will do anything and everything to gain power.
Veep, like the best examples of Prestige TV, strikes an intricate balance between personal agency and societal critique. Selina Meyer becomes a horrible person not because women can’t handle power and not because the writers needed an ending. Rather, she is at the behest of much larger structures which she nonetheless is dedicated to maintaining. Throughout the series, we are constantly told about the various men that have belittled, abused, and harassed her just for being a woman in politics. Meyer internalizes this hatred and makes it known—many times—that what she hates most of all is other women. Selina Meyer is, in some ways, a tragic figure, someone who perpetuates the system that created her. To her, there is no change in politics, just different faces. She represents the same nihilistic worldview that House of Cards only pretends to reject.
But Veep manages, through Jonah Ryan, to also reject a Trumpian vision of politics. Ryan is perhaps the funniest character in the entire series and easily the most insidious. Through privilege, this spoiled creep comes one heartbeat away from the presidency. He has no qualifications; he simply has family in the right places and is willing to spew bile against women, minorities, and “Arabic math.”
Veep questions how democratic our democracy really is, how systems of power replicate themselves, and whether this country and culture are really what we want. House of Cards is for fourteen year olds who gesture toward politicians and say, “You know, they’re kinda fake.” And honestly, they can keep it.
Veep is one of the best examples of serial storytelling in all of Prestige TV, and yet we never mention it in the same breath as any number of shows about middle-aged white men doing crimes and/or having affairs. Those shows are great, of course, but they do not represent the whole of human experience!
Think of what we have given up to get shows that are derivative of The West Wing. Take Psych. I love Psych. Is Psych perfect? No. In fact, there’s an episode so awful and convoluted that the show literally remade it in a later season. But free of pretension and the need to appear like the next great masterpiece, the show has a natural charm. And if an episode is bad, you can skip to the next one. In Prestige TV, if you skip an episode, you miss three murders and six gratuitous sexual assaults—which the all-male writer’s rooms will constantly reference but never explore in any meaningful fashion—and the rest of the series is rendered incomprehensible. Of course, it will still have the gall to call itself original and mature as opposed to a show that might actually transcend its limits.
I get it, everything used to be like Psych and it sucked. Well, now, everything is the opposite of that and it still sucks. I hope there will be a day when a natural balance is struck between the two poles. That doesn’t seem likely. In regard to art, capitalism’s function is to take what we like and then beat us over the head with it.
Every show is a product, every streaming service is a product, every narrative is a product. None of these streaming services are as committed to artistic expression as they want us to believe. They benefit from us continuing to describe TV in this way. Why is a bad Prestige series still a Prestige series even if the term that should be used is “middling serialized TV with better than average cinematography?” I’ll tell you why: It’s because they’ll sell you your own fucking language too. Again, aren’t you thankful?