Is “Prestige TV” Over?
Is the idea of what makes great television actually ruining good shows?
Two years ago I interviewed adult film industry icon Jonathan Morgan about why the porn we watch has become so extreme. Some of my first boners back in the early ’90s came compliments of the Spice Channel, a cable network broadcasting heavily edited porno flicks with zero images of penetration. The softcore tidings of yore have since been trampled by spine-tingling scenes rife with violence and internal body parts becoming external ones. To each their own, I guess, but for its time, the Spice Channel was revolutionary.
However, the Supreme Court soon sent the Spice Channel spinning toward irrelevancy — though not for reasons you might presume in our era of 6-3 conservative majorities. In decisions handed down a couple decades ago, the Court established relatively liberal definitions of “obscene or indecent” materials and protected free speech across the then-burgeoning World Wide Web. Gloves came off in the porn industry, and increasingly explicit material soon made its way onto TVs and personal computers.
Porn producers weren’t inspired strictly by loosening laws, however. They were capitalists, and legislative changes only gave smut peddlers permission to adhere to the ever-evolving demands of consumers.
“Whenever you give somebody something, they’ll feast on it and then after a while they’ll say, ‘OK, we feasted on this, what else ya got?’” Morgan, the porn producer, told me. Once a craftsman on many Spice-aired films, he added: “Like anything, [porn watchers] wanted to see more, and soon what they wanted to see was out of the realm of what softcore was.”
Beginning with the 1999 debut of The Sopranos, we’ve now feasted on “prestige TV” for nearly a quarter-century. Despite bloated budgets — with funds funneled toward house-name actors, period-themed costumes, special effects and set pieces rivaling anything Hollywood puts on movie screens — viewers have continued to reward makers and distributors of prestige TV. They’ve granted them both their attention and subscription fees. The past few months of high-profile debuts and beloved series returns indicate this two-way gravy train isn’t going to be willingly derailed by producers anytime soon. There’s too much money to be made.
But where does prestige TV go if it’s already been designated “peak TV” as well? We’re starting to find out, and it feels kinda pornographic — definitely not of the softcore variety.
With added pressure to compel pairs of eyes that are overwhelmed by a widening berth of viewing options, producers are now presenting content with over-the-top boldness, doubling down on what each of them do best in their respective series. In other words, they’re trying super hard. And after enjoying the spoils of the past 25 years, better-trained TV consumers who are more familiar with quality storytelling beats and techniques of the medium can feel the creatives’ stoutly strategized moves flow through the viewing experience.
So TV has reached another level, but that might not totally be a good thing.
Morgan’s words bounced around my brain a week and a half ago as I watched the season three premiere of For All Mankind, the Apple TV+ alternate history space exploration soap opera — a convoluted yet apt description for the show that already supports my thesis about contemporary TV exhibitions. In the run-up to last season, critic Miles Surrey titillated viewers by writing that the final few episodes of 2021 will “[hit] on a visceral and emotional level that’s as good as television’s ever been outside of Earth’s orbit.” After watching gold-coated visor-wearing U.S. Marines gun down Russian cosmonauts in a Western-style standoff on the (fucking) moon, followed by a Russian counterassault on an American lunar base, I couldn’t argue with that take. Both sequences were stellar (pun intended).
But no TV series today can coast. It must push forward, violently, and season three of For All Mankind promises as much with bright literalness. This season’s focus — sensically, after the moon’s been used up for storylines — is a space race to Mars. (We still have four more seasons of this series if Apple funds the creators’ vision, so maybe by the end they’ll put to rest the debate over Pluto being a planet?) One episode in, however, a Mars landing is merely aspirational. During the premiere, For All Mankind’s writers instead catch us up with the characters at the first-ever space wedding, inside the first-ever space hotel.
Like most prestige TV series, For All Mankind has no shortage of characters with whom to build storylines that can carry hour-long episodes 10 or so times a year. Putting these particular characters in close quarters together — ex-spouses meeting new spouses, former flings hosting their old lover’s wedding, broken-hearted children vocally mourning the death of their parents — generates plenty of tension. Thus, the dialogue that overtly establishes the characters’ current individual standings sounds like it wrote itself.
But the exposition really takes off (yes, another space pun) when a thruster on the rotating hotel starts thrusting too much. It’s been struck by debris from an exploded North Korean shuttle (seriously). Some valve on the thruster can’t be closed automatically due to the damage, and the ship’s commander is informed by an operations manager on the bridge that, because the hotel is turning faster, “centrifugal gravity is starting to rise.” They then stare at a narratively-nifty meter, where the gravitational force reading is printed in a large, lit font. Its needle shifts slowly throughout the episode toward a red zone — red is for “danger,” folks.
When the centrifugal gravity gets to 4G’s, we’re later dramatically told, the hotel “will…come apart.”
After learning of the threat mid-reception, wedding host and co-owner of Hotel Polaris Sam Cleveland decides not to tell the guests, putting all their lives more at risk. A party disruption will destroy the hotel’s prospects for future private events, but surely the two faceless spacewalkers sent out to close the valve will put an end to the problem with 24 minutes left in the episode.
At this point in my viewing I’d already laughed a half-dozen times at the unintentional comedy that rivals the ’70s-era disaster movies this episode of For All Mankind was clearly inspired by: The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure. But my biggest laugh yet was reserved for the predictable deaths of those poor spacewalkers, flung from the hotel out into the void just like an astronaut caught in HAL’s crosshairs halfway through 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The obviousness of the writers’ choices only gets more stark from there. Paying for his sin of not informing guests about the centrifugal gravity problem, and helping to up the episode’s stakes, Sam Cleveland is crushed in an elevator. (Even with an awesome name like that, you shouldn’t take an elevator during a building emergency, on Earth or in outer space.) After being called to duty while trying to consummate his marriage (seriously), Danny Stevens, the astronaut son of fallen astronauts Gordo and Tracy Stevens, embarks on a spacewalk of his own. Somehow he does what two more experienced astronauts couldn’t do a handful of scenes earlier and turns a wrench a few times to close the meddlesome valve. His actions also halt the propulsive orchestral soundtrack of staccato strings and pounding timpani, counterpointed by moaning brass, required in such a segment.
There is a brief but nonetheless hilarious twist, though. Just after closing the valve, Danny is struck by a large, loose support cable that had been wreaking its own havoc throughout the episode. The screen goes black, momentarily. But the remaining cast’s savior will live to see another day! Enthralled by the site, he watches the sun rise over Earth, attached safely to the rotating hotel by a support cable of his own.
For the sake of brevity I’ve limited the number of hackneyed moves made by the production team of For All Mankind in its season three premiere. There’s more where that came from. But while I can’t describe their choices in any other way, make no mistake, I loved the show. For All Mankind is stuck in rarefied air with entertainment that is somehow bad, yet good. The decisions its creators make are very derivative and also display a mission toward the extraordinary, with the purpose of one-upping themselves and perhaps every other TV series-maker working today. And when their ideas are injected into a series landscape with a pretty neat premise, as well as a bottom line that doesn’t recognize the color red, allowing for the construction of unrivaled imaging that would force Kubrick to coo, they get away with it. I laugh not because it’s all so ridiculous. I laugh because it’s all so ridiculous and still so many people agreed to put it on the air. Their confidence may arguably be unfounded, but it’s also infectious, and I can’t pull myself away from my AppleTV when they’re doing their thing.
However, good can get too good. Over on Netflix, the Duffer Brothers are taking precisely the same blow-it-out approach to season four of Stranger Things. The New York Times ran a profile of the twin creators last month, under the headline: “‘Stranger Things’ Is Back, and the Duffer Brothers Made It Big.” To continue to compete in TV, they had to.
Like For All Mankind, so far this season of Stranger Things — with two more episodes showing up on Netflix next month — keeps going back to its well of core themes, concepts and images its fans crave. The bigness of Stranger Things 4 resides notably in its extended episode runtimes and its cast, which continues to adopt new members to spend more time in front of a green-screen. On TV, that piece of tech will later display the Upside Down alternate universe where evil reigns, a special effects playpen the Duffer Brothers are hanging out in for lengthier stretches this year.
But while For All Mankind’s presentations flirt with being too reliant on what butters its bread (cool-as-shit outer space shit), Stranger Things has gone overboard. Just as the Duffer Brothers did in season two, they’ve again put Eleven, like, over there somewhere, away from the rest of the primary characters while conflict builds. I imagine she’ll be back with them later and once again play a major role in slaying the season’s new super-duper villain. This time it’s Vecna, who’s more powerful than previous antagonists in some annoyingly amorphous ways.
Going through these episodes waiting for Eleven to figure her stuff out so she can help everyone else has felt like a slog. The stakes also feel lower due to the Duffers’ unwillingness to kill off any major characters, especially after teeing up the death of Hopper so effectively in season three, only to bring him back for the fourth installment. Though I love the Hopper character — like all other sentient beings who watch Stranger Things — I can’t help but think the Duffers neutered themselves to some extent by not dematerializing him in that Russian lab. Now, in Stranger Things 4, everything’s outsized just for the sake of being outsized, and no characters are taking any real life-threatening risk. They’re gonna be fine. (For what it’s worth, this season of the show is the only one not “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.)
This TV-wide pandemic of full-tilt envelope-pushing by creatives to retain viewers hasn’t been all bad, or even good-bad. Some of it’s quite satisfying. Better Call Saul got more deliberate and detail-oriented, as it slowly but intensely approaches its end. Some have been frustrated with the pace of Saul, but not I. Atlanta came back after a long hiatus, only to toy with fans by excluding the core four characters from several episodes. Donald Glover and co. instead ran allegories about race relations, fame and other topics familiar to series devotees that dripped with surrealism. Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix said, “Atlanta does a lot — drama, satire, criticism, Vonnegutesque humor, Lynchian noir,” and called this past season “meta.” I call it brilliant. Barry, meanwhile, held onto its commitment to hyperrealism, even as it explores the darkest recesses of the human condition. Creator and star Bill Hader told Sean Fennessey on a Ringer podcast that, after watching the visceral season finale segment in which we hear a panther viciously maul a screaming minor character to death from inside a neighboring cell, one series writer had a panic attack, while another asked Hader, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” You got the sense she meant it in a congratulatory way of sorts.
New series are on entertainment steroids, too. At the center of We Own This City is Jon Bernthal’s wildly balletic portrayal of Wayne Jenkins, the Baltimore cop with a propensity for bombast and a lack of respect for the phrase “probable cause.” (This show is co-run by David Simon who, perhaps seeking a return to glory, has fallen back on the same network and setting as his canonized series The Wire, after his “little-seen” program The Deuce was canceled three seasons in.) It wasn’t enough for Yellowjackets to rely on ’90s nostalgia and allusions (for now) to cannibalism. Its showrunners have also introduced mysticism and the occult to a program that otherwise, like Barry, is grounded in gory realism. And Severance, another AppleTV+ series bursting with high production value, deftly cued up mysteries and unknowns as winding and limitless as the white light halls of Lumon’s offices.
What’s not helping showrunners behind those latter two series that so highly leverage viewer uncertainty is the presence of internet sleuths hellbent on cracking narrative codes and predicting crucial plot points. In both cases, their creators publicly addressed widespread fan theories. But message board culture such as this could force writers’ hands into increasingly outlandish storylines if only to avoid being predictable. We’ve already seen this in Westworld when, after an outstanding season one was spoiled by the internet, season two’s plot proved confusingly aimless. Its showrunners tried to throw Redditors off the scent of its apex, and in doing so alienated viewers — including this one, who didn’t make it through the entire chapter and hasn’t returned to the series since.
So we’re not watching prestige TV anymore. Instead, we’re getting ideas of what these types of series should be, with producers scaling precipitous mountaintops of creativity, attempting to stand above the fray. But the air’s getting thin up there. However, until they collectively stumble down the cliffside, millions of viewers will continue to ask, “What else ya got?”
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