The 4 Most Annoying Trends In 'Prestige' TV Shows
It's hard to define what "Prestige TV" is, but apparently we're living in a golden age for it. They're usually big-budget dramas, made for adults and airing on cable or streaming services. There is often crime, tense standoffs, and a lot of well-lit sex on top of the covers. Oh, and a boatload of awards. If you watch enough of these shows, you start to see recurring elements that seem intended to make something look like prestige TV, even if they don't actually add anything of value. For example ...
The Overly Long, Self-Serious Title Sequence
In the '80s and '90s, TV title sequences mostly seemed to be someone pressing the demo button on a Casio keyboard and having the actors smile and shrug at the camera. In the world of modern TV, you see seemingly endless computer-generated mosaics that are equal parts awe-inspiring and baffling (the Game Of Thrones CGI "game map" intro had to have cost more than some entire sitcoms spend in a season).
To me, nobody did this better (or more exhaustingly) than the Season 1 intro of The Leftovers. (Oh, did I not mention that with some of these shows, each season gets a whole new intro, because like a bad relationship, right when you think you've gotten over it, shit gets thrown back in your face?) The Leftovers' creators decided that it wouldn't be ostentatious at all for their intro to riff on the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Abrasively over-dramatic music scores their own version of the famous work of art, which references the events of the show. For a minute and a half. Cool.
On the decision to populate the ceiling with their own characters, creator Damon Lindelof said: "That suddenly made the sequence feel less pretentious, more irreverent and most importantly, original." Has there ever been a more pretentious, less irreverent, and most importantly, unoriginal sentence of Hollywood jargon ever spoken?
This is saying nothing about the shows themselves, by the way. I love Succession, but it opens on an interminable series of clips of the spoiled kids growing up, set to what sounds like someone dropped a guinea pig on a piano. At first I enjoyed it because it was a nice bit of exposition to see shitty kids who grow up to be shittier adults. But by Episode 3 I was skipping it. And sure, all of the gold and grime in the 90-second-long Deadwood opening provides a brutal kind of thematic beauty, but maybe all we need sometimes is 15 seconds and some goofy saxophone.
Kid Characters Who Are Written Like Adults
For prestige TV, one thing that's almost as important as adults being terrible is that kids, under no circumstances, can act like actual kids. They are to be mentally advanced by at least 20 years, in both performance and writing. They're either wise or sassy to the point that you audibly groan every time they finish a sentence. They will be all-knowing and absurdly in tune with deep cut cultural tastes from a minimum of 40 years before their birth. And for me, nobody better personifies this absurdly indulgent writing than Chloe from Big Little Lies.
To break it down, Chloe is a six-year-old who does little for the show besides be an insufferable human Spotify playlist. She is constantly listening to music, queuing up artists like Janis Joplin and Charles Bradley. Again, she's six, but she's that classic wise-beyond-their-years kid character that these shows are such suckers for, an oracle who sees all around her with clarity and grace, despite the fact that she can't write in cursive yet.
Meanwhile, Euphoria is a show that seems to serve exclusively as a way for its writers to retcon their high school years into something much "cooler." I don't doubt that kids today are getting into much wilder stuff than I did in high school, but I do doubt that every single moment of their lives is like a teenage version of the party from Eyes Wide Shut.
Hell, even the kids in Stranger Things have moments in which they shift from mostly believable Spielbergian retreads to demonstrating emotional intelligence about 30 years ahead of where they should be in service of the story. But then again, those kids have been battling slimy trans-dimensional demons for their entire adolescence, and have definitely seen some shit. Maybe they get a pass.
It's Still A Lot Of Sad Dudes Doing Bad Things
There's perhaps nothing more important to a prestige TV show than a middle-aged, usually white guy bathing in a vat of ennui. These characters are tornadoes of misery that suck up everything and everyone in their paths. They do terrible things, but it tortures them. Oh, and most of the dramatic tension is based on the audience rooting for them to get away with it.
This one goes back to the very roots of modern prestige TV, The Sopranos. Tony Soprano was without a doubt a sad dude doing bad things. But he was also a well-rounded character whose undeniable charm and humor always found a way to break through the darkness. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and you get Jason Bateman's "protagonist" from Netflix's Ozark, a guy who absolutely nobody can get behind.
His character is a wealthy financial planner with a perfect life and family. But if you scratch beneath the surface, well man, you'll learn just how TWISTED things really are. It's like someone took the formula for Breaking Bad's Walter White and wondered what that show would be like if it starred Pete Buttigieg instead. There's absolutely no redeeming aspect of this character, and after a while, it may leave you staring at the screen wondering why you tune in to see this reanimated Banana Republic mannequin be awful to literally everyone.
But it's not like he's part of a dying breed or anything. Billy Bob Thornton is a sad disgraced lawyer on Goliath, Titus Welliver is a sad repeatedly disgraced cop on Bosch, Giovanni Ribisi is a sad con man on Sneaky Pete. (And those are just the ones from Amazon Prime!) It's not relegated to dramas, either. Jim Carrey is a sad kid show host on Kidding, and the foundation of the Marvel Netflix shows was mostly, "Ya like superheroes? Well what if their lives were just dreary?"
Meanwhile, shows like HBO's Barry and The Righteous Gemstones give you characters who are also absurdly dark and adhere to the prestige trope of a sad white dude, but since they're pitch-black comedies, they at least find a way to throw a knowing wink in there. If we've reached the point where the best execution of the format comes in the form of parody, maybe it's time to mix things up a bit.
There Is Such A Thing As Too Much Nudity
Earlier I said that you wouldn't even have to get past the title sequence to know you're in for some prestige TV, but the truth is you can even tell way before that, when the content warning pops up letting you know that you're about to get prestigious as fuck: "Nudity." Network TV has plenty of violence, but nudity? To paraphrase HBO's old motto, "It's not TV. It's a flaccid dick."
There's nothing a good prestige show loves more than a set of tits. Though it was once refreshing to see sex somewhat normalized onscreen, now it's an absolute prerequisite to make sure some guy walks around in the background of a shot with his soft hog hanging out like they're just rolling in the men's locker room at the YMCA. And every time a bush is shown, the creators have already started on their Emmy acceptance speech.
HBO's Westworld is a convoluted time-shifting sci-fi labyrinth that also kind of seems like an elaborate excuse to put naked people on your screen. ("This humanoid robot's memory card cannot be removed unless she is totally nude!") Even a show like The Americans, which prided itself on being a methodical, complex family spy drama, didn't let the inability to show genitals on basic cable stop them from keeping things prestige with stuff like a now-infamous 69ing scene. No doubt the creators sat back and proudly watched as the internet buzzed about their bravery, but I'd imagine your average viewer was more blown away and offended by the absurd notion that a married couple would ever, under any circumstances, 69.
Of course, everyone reading this entry is waiting for the mention of Game Of Thrones, a show that purposefully staged exposition scenes in brothels and made sure those brothels were full of flawless bodies. Oddly, despite the show taking place in a quasi-medieval setting, their beauty and grooming standards are exactly what a 21st-century observer would find titillating.
I have no problem with genitals on my TV screen, even if those genitals are dangling right next to a sad dude contemplating crossing a moral line. It's just that so many modern prestige TV tropes are less about actual quality and more about batting us over the head with how "mature" they are. Eventually you get so desensitized that you just kinda wanna see a Baby Yoda every once in a while.
For more, check out Why Every Movie Trailer Is The Same:
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