Mad Men is a prestige drama. Louie is a prestige sitcom. The Newsroom, like it or not, gets the prestige tag too. “Prestige” has become a term of art when talking about television, and not necessarily a term that means “good.” Plenty of shows have the hallmarks of a prestige drama—heavy themes, high production values, accomplished actors—but little of the critical support. To a large extent, prestige is a state of mind. Prestige shows can be genre pieces like Game Of Thrones, historical dramas like Masters Of Sex, and even oddball comedies like Orange Is The New Black. They’re united by their sense of purpose: an aspiration to be relevant and artful, and maybe even to land on year-end lists and win awards.
What those shows have in common is that they have fervent followings—including among prominent TV critics, who’ve put them on their annual “best of television” lists. But with the exception of Scandal (and only slightly), they’re not major players in the Emmy and Golden Globe races. And more importantly, no one expects them to be. Astute TV watchers may hope that Tatiana Maslany will get nominated for her work on Orphan Black, but they also know—or should, anyway—that it’s a longshot.
As the upper echelon of scripted television improves, we’re seeing more and more of these second-tier shows that qualify as quality television, but aren’t quite considered “prestige.” It’s a fine distinction, but a relevant one, because perception often governs expectation—and ultimately opinion. Connoisseurs of trash TV are easily satisfied by dumb jokes and hammy performances. Prestige television is often subject to intense scrutiny, with fans and critics evaluating every plot-twist, stylistic choice, and coded message (in terms of both literary symbolism and the show’s attitudes about gender, race, and politics)—and not always to the show’s benefit. But reactions to this growing body of “mid-reputable” TV are all over the map. Devotees of the mid-reputable seem to be enjoying television more, but are quick to turn on a show when it stops being “fun.”
Understand that “mid-reputable” isn’t the same thing as “middlebrow.” Middlebrow is a term often attached to mainstream films that are serious, but not arty. Most prestige television shows are more akin to middlebrow movies, in that most are fairly easy to grasp. Middlebrow is often used by critics as a pejorative—although it really shouldn’t be. There’s skill involved in making something that’s direct, engaging, and thoughtful, and the best prestige TV and middlebrow movies do it very well. Just as not all prestige television is good, not everything middlebrow is pandering.
That said, when it comes to the kind of conventional wisdom that ultimately determines whether a piece of popular art wins major awards, the divide between prestige and mid-reputable is about as yawning as the gap between Oscar-bait and a great B-movie. Occasionally an expensive blockbuster snags a Best Picture nomination, but there’s a tacit understanding that only a handful of films are really in the conversation for the Oscars, while the best the rest can hope for is to be consigned to scattered critics’ lists. A Snowpiercer or an Edge Of Tomorrow or an Obvious Child isn’t likely to make the Oscar cut, even if on the whole they’re smarter and better-made than something like The Theory Of Everything.
It’s that unspoken agreement that fascinates me, especially as it relates to television. Perusing The A.V. Club’s 2014 Best Of TV list (which I contributed to), I see only one show, Orphan Black, that I’d slot into the “mid-reputable” category. The rest could pretty reasonably be called prestige television, or at least “cult shows.” Even Orphan Black is one of those genre series like Battlestar Galactica that shades into the realm of prestige. It’s not unheard of for series to level-jump—or even to take a step down. I don’t think The Good Wife was viewed as prestige TV in its first season, but now it’s one of the rare network dramas that belongs. Conversely, Sons Of Anarchy aspired to prestige status for a time—and was taken seriously as such in its second and third seasons in particular—but by the end of its run the show was a popular favorite that had modest critical support, and zero Emmy/Globes cachet.
Like Sons (and like a lot of the pulpier shows), Homeland wavers between categories, as does Justified. The jury’s still out on Jane The Virgin, a terrific new show that’s probably going to need to bank a full season as strong as its first half has been before it gets its proper due. But then Jane is heavily comedic, and comedies are a little harder to classify as “prestige” or “mid-reputable” or “trash,” unless they’re overtly cinematic like Louie, raunchy and hard-bitten like Veep, or aggressively post-modern like Community. (It’s tough to know where to slot A.V. Club list-makers New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but since both have been in the mix for year-end awards, they’re closer to prestige than not.)
Similarly, it’s hard to say which reality series qualify as the class of the genre. The ones often accepted as prestige TV are Top Chef, Project Runway, The Amazing Race, and So You Think You Can Dance, because of some combination of educational value, slickness, and earnestness. But there are shows like Naked And Afraid that seem on the surface like outright trash, but are as revelatory in their way as perennial Emmy nominee Survivor.
A quick note on “trash:” As with “middlebrow,” the term itself has negative connotations, though it doesn’t have to be taken as a negative. The vast majority of popular entertainment is trash—disposable, ephemeral—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some historical and cultural value. It’d be fascinating to dig through someone’s wastebasket from 1958 (presuming there’s nothing wet and smelly in there). That’s the kick I get when I watch an old episode of Banacek or It’s A Living. Good trash still meets a basic standard of professionalism, and is often refreshingly undemanding in a TV landscape that these days asks a lot of the audience.
And just as a prestige show can slip down to mid-reputable status (and vice-versa), a trashy show can get a promotion. I’d argue that both Sleepy Hollow and Arrow were perceived as trash before they debuted—and maybe even well into their first seasons. As they developed their own voices and followings, they leapt from the critical ghetto to… well, to a place that’s still not the nicest neighborhood, but is one that people will at least admit they like to visit. Judging by my Twitter feed, when a mid-reputable show is at its peak, a lot of critics and TV fans will confess to being more eager to watch the latest episode than they are to catch up with a weightier show like Boardwalk Empire. At its best, a mid-reputable family drama like The Fosters or a procedural like Elementary offers the same simple pleasures as trash TV, but is done with panache and personality.
So why doesn’t that deep affection translate into the kind of accolades producers can hang on a wall? Maybe it’s because, ultimately, a lot of mid-reputable shows are fundamentally formulaic, and formulas lose their punch over time. I see a lot of telephiles leaping on the bandwagon for shows like Sleepy Hollow, but I also see them leaping back off abruptly once some of the novelty wears off. There’s less of a sense that TV buffs have to watch these shows to stay current. And the level of personal investment is often a lot lower than it is with a Mad Men, where even when the series creator, Matt Weiner, tries fans’ patience, viewers feel obliged to see where he’s headed.
I don’t mean to knock Mad Men, or Boardwalk Empire, or even The Newsroom—all of which I either watch or have watched faithfully. If anything, I worry sometimes that some daring and ambitious shows get held to too high a standard, and get dinged unnecessarily because, deep down, people are eager to find excuses not to have to watch something that takes concentration, and that could well be a bummer. (I don’t exclude myself from this. There are plenty of prestige shows that I’ve never started watching, and I always feel a shameful sense of satisfaction when I hear that they’ve lost their critical cred.)
But I also worry that TV is going the way of movies, where too often the agenda for what’s “important” is set by studio marketing departments. I heard a fellow film critic complaining last month that she wished Hollywood didn’t cram all of its “good” movies into December. I bit my tongue, but I wanted to say that maybe she shouldn’t wait until the Oscar campaigning starts to go looking for something worth seeing.
The television business is different from movies, in that critics steer the conversation a little more, often championing smaller shows and helping to turn them into prize-winners (if not ratings champs). But there’s still a lot of marketing-driven consensus and peer pressure governing what we all feel obliged to discuss. And if in the end we’re all more excited about a new episode of The Flash than The Affair, maybe that says something about what’s really the best that TV has to offer.