On the face of it, 2013 was just as strong a year as any in recent memory for the kind of prestige programming that has critics declaring a contemporary golden age of television. It was the year when one of TV’s most ambitious dramas, Breaking Bad, performed its swan song for over ten million viewers, a number that would make any network executive jealous. It was the year when Netflix not only resurrected the too-smart-for-primetime sitcom Arrested Development but also launched two equally intelligent (and arguably stronger) shows, Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. It was even the year when books on the subject — namely, Brett Martin’s Difficult Men and Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised — started appearing to solidify this creeping consensus for posterity.
And yet, things also started to feel as though they were falling apart. The problem with celebrating the triumph that was Breaking Bad’s ending is that now Breaking Bad is over, and there’s nothing consistently brilliant enough to replace it. Before you protest, before the words “Mad Men” cross your lips, let’s remember what it’s been like to watch that show for the past few years, as seasons of smooth-surfaced social commentary gave way to character-development gridlock and WTF moments designed for maximum GIF-ability. We used to marvel over its historical engagement and dig into its political subtext; now we develop conspiracy theories to predict what will happen next. But Mad Men isn’t alone; from Downton Abbey to Homeland, the shows we think of as “quality television” have steeply declined in quality. We’re still talking about them around the water cooler (or, more likely, Gchat) Monday morning, but the conversations have started to go something like this:
“Did you see Downton Abbey last night?”
This year’s series premieres, meanwhile, have suggested that the traditional prestige-viewing formula is no longer yielding reliable results. Despite its plum Breaking Bad lead-in, AMC’s latest conflicted-male-antihero offering, Low Winter Sun, was canceled after its Season 1 finale attracted only 600,000 viewers. (The network has also failed to get much traction for Hell on Wheels, a Western that premiered in 2011 to critical indifference and whose third-season audience hovered around two million.) Then there was Showtime’s Masters and Johnson dramatization, Masters of Sex, whose irresistible premise and smart casting decisions ensured that it rode a wave of hype to early renewal. But from its cast of characters to its mid-century setting, the show lifted everything from Mad Men that it could carry. Which is to say, everything except for those intangible elements that make a TV series not just beautiful and historically accurate but compelling and inspired.
Quality television, it turns out, can’t just be photocopied like reality TV shows about weddings and people from New Jersey. Eventually, you run out of genius showrunners with electrifying ideas, and you’re left with a middlebrow of imitators that have all of highbrow TV’s trappings but none of its art.
That we can now sort television into “highbrow” and “middlebrow” categories is remarkable in itself, seeing as the medium was considered inherently lowbrow as recently as a decade ago. (PBS, as far as I remember, was commonly believed to be “not really television.”) Not that this current golden age has extended to all, or even most, corners of what the same snobs who fawn over HBO in 2013 used to call the “idiot box.” In many ways, the 21st century has been a darker time than ever for TV packaged for mass consumption, from the proliferation of cheap, exploitative reality series to the sad state of the traditional three-camera sitcom as practiced by CBS’s wildly popular, brain-numbingly retrograde primetime offerings. Assuming we had no interest in casually homophobic humor or obsessively tracking the weight loss of others, those of us looking to unwind in front of something we simply find entertaining — and yes, this includes many who have enjoyed the smart-TV renaissance — were shit out of luck.
Until recently, that is. After building up steam over the past few years, lowbrow — which I define as not “stupid,” because sometimes it can be quite smart, but “unpretentious” — TV was back with a vengeance in 2013. It didn’t just rack up millions of Middle American viewers; it also dominated the critical conversation. And, like the middlebrow shows, we have quality television to thank for it.
The Emmy-winning dramas of the past decade have established a place for history, cinematic beauty, politics, and long narrative arcs on the small screen. In 2008, True Blood introduced all of these elements to an unabashedly soapy show about vampires. And, likely because the series was airing on HBO, under the guidance of pedigreed Six Feet Under showrunner Alan Ball, that channel’s self-consciously high-minded viewers embraced it. Then AMC — which has never been too proud to crib from HBO’s playbook — caught on, premiering its ridiculously popular, comic-book-based zombie drama The Waking Dead around Halloween in 2010. The next spring, HBO did it again with Game of Thrones, another genre show that (while less campy than True Blood) brings high production values and political intrigue to bear on a fantasy tale overflowing with sex and violence.
Since then, there’s been an explosion in lowbrow TV drama with highbrow sensibilities. There’s American Horror Story, which enlists A-list actors and gay icons alike in sometimes-revolutionary, sometimes-tone-deaf, always-fast-and-loose social commentary, performed against a background of gorgeously shot gore. ABC has been an especially enthusiastic participant in the trend, giving us glossy, female-driven variations on the theme with splashy one-word titles: Revenge, Betrayal, and above all, Scandal. Two of 2013’s most critically beloved new shows, NBC’s Hannibal and Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, are (respectively) a serial-killer reboot and a supernatural drama based on the Washington Irving story. Then there’s my personal favorite of the year, Dracula, the fin-de-siècle steampunk Stoker riff and vehicle for Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ devilish pout that’s an aesthetic achievement if not quite a narrative one. Even The CW is getting in on the cross-pollination this fall with Reign, a gleefully anachronistic account of Mary, Queen of Scots’ time in France as teen drama.
The proliferation of these shows has brought one of my favorite pieces of criticism, Pauline Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” back to the top of my mind. The essay is an argument that people who love film as art became cinephiles through embracing the thrilling, occasionally brilliant aspects of the trashy movies we grew up on — not the prim middlebrow movies that uphold “good, clean” social mores. “If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery,” Kael writes in her famous final paragraph. “Trash has given us an appetite for art.”
What strikes me is that, in the case of TV, the reverse happened: art has given us an appetite for trash. Great television has brought new, more demanding viewers to the medium and made preexisting viewers more discerning. The same people who watch Downton Abbey are likely to turn up their noses at Breaking Amish (although it’s fair to assume that the similarity between even that show’s title and Breaking Bad’s is no coincidence); they might give Reign a try, though.
And if they like it, these good citizens of our current television renaissance are sure to talk about it, tweet about it, tell their friends — just as Kael observes in another of her great insights into the power of trash: “The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.” This might explain why so many of the recent conversations I’ve had about new-lowbrow TV have gone something like this:
“Did you see American Horror Story last night?”
“Yes! Oh my God! Mind: blown.”
I can’t deny feeling a bit of a thrill, watching these unpretentious shows overtake the grandly ambitious Mad Mens and Boardwalk Empires from which they sprang. This is not just contrarianism or anti-intellectualism; there are real reasons to root for “good trash.” I like that when it goes off the rails, it errs towards exhilarating craziness rather than self-serious boredom and repetition. I also appreciate that trash can use fantasy and fun as a diversion when smuggling in brave, radical cultural critiques. Less accountability to reality means fewer safe choices. It’s for both of these reasons that Scandal (despite the snobby protestations of a vocal few who still cling to the idea that what’s branded as high culture is always smart, while low culture is always stupid) has become a better political thriller than Homeland.
And that comparison suggests perhaps the greatest thing about the year when we started to take trash TV seriously: In growing weary of the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of middle-aged white womanizers, we finally have a chance to make room for a whole lot more women and queer folks and people of color at a table still mostly reserved for Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan, and a whole lot of guys named David.