Has Prestige TV Set the Bar Too High?

Sam Skopp


Many critics and viewers alike believe that television is currently in a golden age, due to the unprecedentedly high level of quality and popularity of shows such as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, two particularly high watermarks of prestige television. Looking forward, however, is high-quality TV just a trend, or the new standard?

Game of Thrones continues to be a heavy hitter in the world of pop culture. Without giving anything away to those who may be sensitive to spoilers, news about a certain plot point expected to be addressed in the show’s upcoming season has regularly made headlines since June, when the previous season concluded.

Fan interest is clearly at a high point. Critics as well continue to match that interest with high praise. Glancing at the show’s reception on Metacritic suggests that reviews have been consistently high, from the show’s first season to its most recent.

This is, however, an established pillar in the pantheon of prestige TV shows. While no other show can compete with Game of Thrones, at least in terms of current popularity and acclaim, some newer shows are making headway.

HBO also has The Leftovers. While its first season was seen by comparatively few viewers and was met with a lukewarm reception, its second season, currently on-air, is finding new fans in critics and everyday viewers alike. Having highlighted a nonlinear storytelling format toyed with in its first season, its newer episodes are upping the risk factor, which is working in its favor.

Fargo is another show consistently earning praise for its currently on-air second season. Gone is the black-and-white, good-and-evil(ish) moral code of its first season. Instead, this new season’s characters are flawed but sympathetic, whether they’re gangsters or the cops trying to do them in. This new, more complex approach has lifted the show into the realm of cinematic storytelling, much to its benefit.

While these examples suggest that television is still coasting comfortably at a high point, the bigger picture is more nuanced.

Consider, for example, Marvel’s current stake in the television landscape. Agent Carter has been well received by critics as a fun and rewarding series. Daredevil has maybe been their high point thus far, having taken advantage of the serial nature of TV to flesh out its characters more than that of their counterparts.

But most would agree that superhero movies are hardly high art, and this crop of shows is no exception. While they’re fun and compelling, and great binge watch material, no new ground is being broken that their source material hasn’t already covered in the past. While great modernizations of timeless source material, they offer few revelations.

This middle-of-the-road approach seems more indicative of the current television landscape as a whole. The Walking Dead is currently setting new viewing records, and while the series has had its share of critical praise, it’s been met with a seemingly equal amount of resistance from frustrated fans. The show’s creators seem to love to push the viewers ‘buttons, and while they more than make up for it with the series’ high points, the show has not been able to maintain the level of quality that’s earned its viewer base.

American Horror Story is another example of an extremely popular and relatively well-received series. Horror fans love it, which has earned it the numbers needed to stick around for a while, and critics seem to have decided it’s pretty good.



“Pretty good “TV isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and may merely be reflective of the increasing viability of catering to specific interests. Shows like Empire or Fresh Off the Boat, which are good shows in their own right, have become hits with ethnic minorities in part due to their more realistic portrayals of minority characters, offering a welcome and necessary alternative to the broad stereotypes we are far more familiar with on the small screen.

Shows such as Empire and American Horror Story, which appeal to a more niche audience than the coveted 18-34 year old white male demographic, are likely only going to get better as interest in them grows. With shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe doing the same for animated TV, hefty dramas in the vein of Breaking Bad may be on their way out—but shows that may look a little different could grow to be similarly heavy hitters.

While not within the realm of prestige TV as it’s traditionally discussed, comedy shows are currently experiencing their own renaissance.

Sketch comedy is at peak cultural relevance, in a way seen not since the early days of SNL. Amy Schumer, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele have all skyrocketed to movie stardom due to their subtly subversive and crowd-pleasing comedy.

Breaking new ground entirely is Nathan Fielder, with his show Nathan For You.

While the show’s format, in which Fielder helps struggling businesses with absurd ideas told with a straight face to get their proprietors to agree to them, suggests straight satire of reality TV, some of the show’s business plans have proven to be weirdly viable.



For example, in the show’s newest season, Fielder has created a jacket company in order to simultaneously promotes awareness of the Holocaust. While this stunt had a broader comedic context within the episode in which it was featured, the very real jackets he has opted to sell online have raised upwards of $40,000 for Holocaust awareness nonprofits.

This blurring of satire and earnestness may be par for the course in 2015, but its place in high quality comedy, or TV in general, really, is unprecedented, and suggests a bright future ahead for edgy comedy.

Breaking Bad may have concluded its run two years ago now, and Better Call Saul, its replacement, may not be as good. But whereas Breaking Bad was a drama, in the tradition of The Sopranos—which more-or-less kickstarted the prestige TV boom—Better Call Saul is a little harder to classify. Originally billed as a comedy and featuring a tried and true comedic actor in its lead role, the show favors an hour-long format traditionally reserved for dramas, and got pretty notably dark for its finale. Genre, in the case of Better Call Saul, becomes secondary to its unique story.

Better Call Saul can’t replace the highly popular Breaking Bad, but it is a sign of what great TV may look like in the years to come. These harder to classify shows may not have the same broad appeal of Game of Thrones, but as anyone fan of TV knows, the most important ingredient in television is fun, and this new crop of TV shows has that in spades.


Author Bio:

Sam Skopp is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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