Or Everything Wrong with Prestige TV, Part II
This is Part II in a two-part series, “In Brief, Everything Wrong with Prestige TV.” Part I focuses on Scene Direction, while Part II focuses on Writing and Producing.
Imagine television as the victim of some deadly insidious plague. Thus far my diagnosis has covered the external ailments of decline, most notably manifested in the degeneration of scene direction. But what of television’s internal symptoms, namely in writing and production? Whilst a visual medium, the bones of television’s success come from its scripts along with how page and film are put together in tandem. The skin is beautiful, but without structure it amounts to a squishy rug. Since an effective cure assumes a sufficient diagnosis, it is time to snap on a latex glove and dig a tad deeper.
As television series grew ever more prestigious, their distinctions became ever more blurred, both from movies and among themselves. Right after Game of Thrones (2011–2019) showed its white walkers besiege Winterfell on the same April weekend when Avengers: Endgame (2019) premiered, one critic dubbed it “the decisive defeat of cinema by content.” His description was incomplete: content had overthrown television as well. As the result of creative effects from business decisions, beneficial as well as malignant, this winter had been long coming.
We used to take for granted a certain baseline competency, a privilege no longer affordable. What a midlevel show in a subpar slot could accomplish just a few years ago, not even a slush-funded flagship series can replicate. What happened? Consider the economics. While Netflix can ably acquire or produce, finance, and distribute international films and series—from Roma (2018) and Squid Game (2021) to Japanese anime and Bollywood movies—Netflix alongside both other streaming services and old Hollywood studios moved from seeing and selling themselves as American companies to being merely U.S.-based global corporations. Amazon Prime, for example, is known beyond our shores and borders not primarily for online retail and shipping, but mainly as a streaming platform.
Such an enlarged scale requires a pot-boiled product. A sense of humor, taste, and aesthetic style is usually particular, often regional and generational. Likewise, action and characterization are expensive and laborious. Whether indie or international, the principle remains the same: prestigious streaming, to maximize its reach and supply, cannot afford too much of any of these things. Somehow nothing actually happens as plot but everything refers to something else, or better yet, to itself. Solipsism is often the main theme: a self-aware series critiquing or satirizing its material and genre, so obsessed with its own IP. it makes and says nothing new.
Moreover, anything on streaming, both movies and shows, look bland and dull. An aesthetic turning point came in House of Cards (2013–2018), both one of the first major successful streaming shows and among the first to be shot on digital camera. Each of its episodes looks the same: this cinematography by Igor Martinovic was deliberate, done to reinforce themes of power politics as hollow and stale. However, it ushered in a whole industry fad of grey-filtered content getting churned out as we tuned in. Since then, everything else on streaming, and increasingly on network, has looked the same—none of the glorious darkness of Twin Peaks (1990–1991), but a sort of autotuned equivalent.
True, television naturally alters itself every generation or so. When Seinfeld (1990–1991) reduced the sitcom to its most essential elements, it had decimated the format. For several years afterwards broadcast television was a desert bereft of creative juices . . . until Arrested Development (2003–2006) came along and reinvented it. Yet, whether like The X-Files (1993–2002) in its reboot seasons (2016–2018) or Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1993) in its sequel series, Picard (2020–2023), later Arrested Development’s followup seasons (2013–2019), much awaited shows all streaming on Netflix, were a pale and paltry shadow of past vigor. What we see on the screen is due to the changes behind the human scenes, creative and economic, thanks in large part to changes in the technology behind our computer screens.
Back when Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), popularized media theory for the masses, his main target was television, not the internet. He had “no objection to television's junk,” for “the best things on” the air were “its junk.” The real danger lay not in such “undisguised trivialities” but in their being taken seriously. “Television is at its most trivial” and “dangerous,” Postman argues, “when its aspirations are high” in aim as “a carrier of important cultural conversations,” a thing which “intellectuals and critics are constantly urging.” Yet even Postman qualified this claim, noting that “television's potential for creating a theater for the masses” was “a subject which in my opinion has not been taken seriously enough.” The tragicomic irony is that his wish came true. A theater for the masses? There is an app for that.
The internet recycled the boob tube as content. A technological shock at such scales of industry-wide disruption and degraded storytelling competency has not been seen since sound was first introduced into film. When the talkies replaced silent films in the late 1920s and early 1930s, large and noisome sound equipment as well as stationary recorders largely prevented much of clever scene direction long established and widely practiced. Gone were such things like tracking shots, to be instead replaced with static multi-camera setups, if that at best. With scene direction set back decades, this skillset had to be relearned, often from scratch. Something similar has happened to television—as an ironic twist—due to its incorporation of cinematic techniques and digital technology for both consumer and producer.
The answers to this new age are unclear, but posing the right questions might be enough. “To ask is to break the spell,” or so recommends Postman, a man who foresaw that computer technology’s “massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data” would be “of great value to large-scale organizations” but it would have “solved very little of importance to most people” and “created at least as many problems for them” as it had unraveled. Here and now, nearly forty years later, we are looking at the new problems of televisual storytelling. Its spell has been broken, its runes lay in ruins, yet like monks after the fall of Rome, we can piece them together, discern their meaning from living memory, and lay together the basis for a more civilized, enlightened future.
When stories change form, they sometimes retain their essential materials. Their various forms of expression, nevertheless, shapes their overall goals. As water changes purpose by merit of its vessel, televisual narratives function much the same way, coming in two broad formats, episodic and serialized. Though seemingly self-explanatory, the two often step on each other’s turf, often in competition and sometimes in cooperation.
While all television is delivered per episode, episodic television does not think beyond that parameter. The adventure of a showing, on the one hand, lacks ramifications to follow it in further ones. If viewers miss last week’s episode or even last year’s season, it remains possible to watch any given episode on its own. Most sitcoms and procedurals ascribe to this philosophy with larger narrative arcs serving as window dressing. One can plug in to The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966) or The Brady Bunch (1969–1974), Law and Order (1990–2010) or Blue Bloods (2010–), even Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) with an immediate sense of the story. Serialized television, on the other hand, is all about the bigger picture. Since each episode acts as a chapter in the larger story, individual episodes make little sense if seen out of sequence. Stranger Things (2016–) and Game of Thrones (2011–2019) rode this soap-opera style to phenomenal success.
Nevertheless, the most exciting shows understand, like Solomon, that the best narrative splits the difference. Episodic television by itself lacks any stakes, whereas purely serialized television is often impenetrable to new viewers. With the rise of streaming and subsequent fear of spoilers, every water-cooler conversation is now a social minefield. When American television used to call for upwards of twenty episodes per season, the blended episodic-serialized approach allowed for standalone episodes as inning eaters threaded within a continuing story, often in the same episode as a gradual advance or in season openers and closers as a steady charge. Seasonal arcs and series McGuffins to ground episodic storytelling were around as early as the 1960s and ’70s, from The Fugitive (1963-1967) and Kung Fu (1972-1975) to the BBC’s Doctor Who (1963-1989) and Knight Rider (1982-1986). However, series arcs with multiple ongoing subplots grew in far greater importance with Hill Street Blues (1981–1987) and NYPD Blue (1993–2005), just as larger mythologies were built through them starting in Twin Peaks (1990–1991). Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999) innovated this approach, bringing it to perfection by cranking out syndication-friendly episodes while also maintaining complex extended storylines.
This blending proved to be a winning formula. Seinfeld famously had a “no hugging, no learning” rule to prevent sentimentality, sending the characters back to miserable square one by the next episode. Yet even it still rewarded viewers with recurring characters whose grudges, romances, and memories carried forward from past escapades, not to mention a couple seasonal arcs along the way. This mixture, a steady status quo that rewarded longtime fans with its callbacks, remains a vital part of the show’s Parthenon status.
Other shows benefitted from not putting all of their eggs in one basket. The X-Files grew famous for its wider conspiracy plot, but as the story’s mythology grew too unwieldy and unsatisfying, the standalone “monster-of-the-week” episodes grew in stature. A modern X-Files fanatic—call them X-philes—cannot tell you the shifting endgame of the Cigarette Smoking Man, but sure as hell can tell you all about the Flukeman. Late in the series, by seasons 6 and 7, it got to the point that the standalone episodes were the better option, almost as if, by seasons 8 and 9, a loaf bread’s sawdust filler started tasted better than the dough. While The Office (2005-2013) made its bones on Dunder Mifflin’s day-to-day disasters, in contrast, it was the romance of Jim and Pam that captured America’s heart. Check whatever dating app the reader has downloaded—dollars to donuts one of the first three accounts will have “a Pam looking for her Jim” in the biography. Episodic serials not only changed lives, but probably created some as well. So far, so good, so where does the decline come in?
If one were to chart the history of television, it would tell a story of decreasing episode quantity and increasing serialized quality. I Love Lucy (1951–1957) had thirty-five episodes in its first season, which established the notion of television as an episode factory. Television seasons initially consisted of as many episodes as were days in a month, all of them perfectly self-contained. As the decades passed, the number gradually fell to around twenty episodes per season, which proved the ideal amount. It is enough to tell a proper story, and also provides enough breathing room for diversion and character building. The fault of modern television has been to shift once again, this time way too far to a more ominous thirteen-episode season.
Beside its supernatural connotations, this number is perfectly unsuited for television writing. The paucity of so few episodes places the overarching story above everything else, usually to the detriment of the whole. Television showrunners frequently refer to their shows as “thirteen-part movies,” as if that is a good thing rather than hell on earth. Part of film’s pleasure is its brevity, so a thirteen-hour movie is missing the point, unless you’re Bela Tarr. Too linear and too meandering at the same time, it results in the loss of distinct forms and the triumph of binged content.
Recent Marvel television shows from Loki (2021–) to Wandavision (2021) have enough plot for five episodes, if that, but are bound to stretch that out like taffy shared between too many children. “What is drama,” Hitchcock quips, “but life with the dull bits cut out?” Now, it has been inverted: story in television is now entirely utilitarian and the breathing room that once held art together is storage space for clockwork machination, now slowly unwinding. Current shows, taking after Jar Jar Abrams’s Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010), are more interested in setups than payoffs, somehow never bold enough to be capable of knocking down the dominos they have erected. The recent Halo series (2022–), based on the popular video game series, only reached the titular Halo in the first season’s final episode, an attempt as clear as day to set itself up to be renewed for a second season by getting very little done. Showrunners, purportedly dedicated to plot, are too scared to actually accomplish anything. In their quest for renewal, they wind up with canceled shows where nothing is started, let alone finished.
Shows used to be shot while the series was still airing, episodes dropping one at a time. This arrangement led to near-immediate fan response when the show was still in production, so that the series could quickly tell what was working and what was not. Part of the fun of watching a series was seeing how much it changed from the pilot—as with The Office’s Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) and Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) gradually becoming less irritating versions of themselves—or how it learned the secret its own success—as with Vince Gilligan in Breaking Bad (2008–2013) deciding not to kill off Jesse Pinkman after watching Aaron Paul’s performance. Even with the early internet, shows from Star Trek: Next Generation (1987–1994) and Twin Peaks to The X-Files usually improved, and subsequently profited, by interacting with online fan response. Shows were given the time to find themselves, by the second or third season becoming what we now recognize and love.
With the advent of streaming, however, a series is only sold after having been wholly written and produced. Entire seasons now drop at once: it makes for a thrillingly lazy weekend but mostly poor writing, with no semblance of the shared viewing experience as well-paced monocultural touchstones. Since writers can no longer tweak their shows, they must instead trust the original vision in all its flaws, hopefully to then fix them next season, if there be one. The result is one of shows entirely boxed into themselves and writers who cannot pivot in real time. This pattern is frequently seen in Stranger Things, which spends about half its season correcting mistakes from the last one. When they casually killed off Barb in the first season, for example, they did not realize what a fan favorite they had unwittingly created and summarily executed. The second season was something of a mea culpa for a sin that never would have occurred if the showrunners had seen audience response while still in the creative process.
Much of modern television writing has not changed in purpose to sell advertisements to eyeballs, nor much in the aspirations of its authors. Nor has it even improved in quality from the glory day, rather the process of its delivery—namely, an episode count too long for film and too short for substance—has hindered its birth. 21st century television has essentially poured water from a tall vase into a low pig trough, with prodigal sons unable to distinguish between the two.
The rise of streaming was a gold rush for show business. Television is a cutthroat market, with personal effort spent less on the creative side than on throwing elbows to ensure status and place. So when Netflix and its ilk appeared like Gandalf cresting the hill above Helm’s Deep, most were ready to welcome the miracle—one far more like Aaron with the Golden Calf. Since broadcast television was limited by such petty concerns of timeslot and budget, streaming simply wanted content to fill its library, with a seemingly bottomless pocket to achieve it. It all seemed too good to be true . . . because it was.
Postman, it seems, prophesied wisely. In reality, like most technology companies, the real “disruption” offered by the streaming sites was not innovation, but the elimination of pesky labor rights that raised costs and lowered shareholder value. The repeated tactic of these companies is to use venture capital funding to artificially lower costs in the short run, crush any competition still beholden to traditional expenses, then hike the price and enjoy the spoils of a labor-decimated landscape. Netflix’s mistake was expecting others not to follow suit, for it soon faced stiff competition from the likes of Disney Plus, with a coffer deeper than its own Scrooge McDuck—not to mention Apple and Amazon. Further, Netflix has recently had to slash its budget and some of its upcoming slate of projects, whereas Disney and company will share in victory, until the next challenger comes along to repeat the process.
In the streaming wars television is a battleground that fares about as well as the flat plains of Poland. Show quality has consequently suffered, as if to ensure the contagious misery is shared with the audience through their TV, laptop, and phone screens. The traditional model of network television was no picnic—we should not be too nostalgic for the abuses old Hollywood promoted—but its victories were earned, real, and extremely hard fought. Whatever advantage the older forms of TV production have, it comes solely from their age long after already having waged these wars. The goal of new television programming has been, tragically, to push back this front as far as it can, perhaps even to the sea.
One such tactic under the new regime has been to consolidate positions. Usually assistant jobs are straightforward, with the hired hand working in a niche category like casting or costuming or whatnot. Streaming sites have since been blurring the lines among these sets. Instead of hiring three separate workers, for instance, they deploy one recently graduated Swiss Army Knife. In theory this move is a win-win, as Netlifx saves money, and the worker gets three experiences to put on his resume. But reality bites: the worker burns out before he even gets his next promotion, just to be replaced by another eager acolyte waiting in the wings. Because of the ubiquitous desire for these jobs and the subsequent churn, streaming companies keep wages low. As this is the way most get their foot in the industry door, ironically, Netflix is decimating its minor leagues before it can replenish its ranks.
Netflix has similarly brought the gig economy to its writing staffs. The past convention of the writers’ room was to hire someone for a full season. Even if the writer was not brought back for the next season, he still got a full season’s pay and benefits. Most importantly, he got to experience all of production’s different facets. Instead of hiring a Swiss Army Man, studios trained them on the job. The true knowhow of television production comes from writers learning what it takes to run a show themselves. Nevertheless, Netflix’s new model has “mini-rooms,” which are nothing but glorified freelance gigs. Writers are hired for a few episodes, then shuffled along without any extended pay or benefits. Aside from the financial loss, writers are kept at a deliberate arm’s length from the overall creative process, resulting in a generation with wide gaps in their knowledge. Netflix is creating a conscious vacuum where the writer used to be, and now fills it with those who eye the ledger. This is to say nothing of fewer episodes as well as fewer seasons overall, not that Netflix’s model is in working order.
Major subscriber losses have forced Netflix to tighten its belt, alongside ill-planned advertisement tiers and theatrical releases. Others, such as Hulu, try to keep prices low with cheaper subscription costs along with additional commercial breaks. Streaming bundles are just cable packages wearing a fake mustache. Studios such as Warner Brothers are giving priority to the theatrical experience, while successful streaming brands such as HBO Max rely on a weekly network-style release schedule for shows, even if its movie library is shrinking faster than faces in Stalin’s photo album. Economic necessity seems to be forcing the hands of both studio and streaming to bygone days, but the technical and creative skillset developed by older models seems gone for good. Everything old is new again, but more out of retreat than preference.
Indeed, the irony of the streaming age is its utter reliance on inherited intellectual properties from the previous golden age. Netflix made its bones by licensing classic sitcoms under one roof. As other companies got wise to the value of their streaming rights and have started to keep or reacquire them, Netflix has been desperately trying to plug the leak with a glut of mediocre original programming. But none have the staying power of Friends (1994–2004), whose streaming rights have recently gone for as much as a hundred million dollars. Likewise, NBC’s streaming platform Peacock is surviving solely off its rights to The Office.
The platforms need the old movies and shows made by a different generation, first seen through a different technology, and molded in a fabled monoculture. To dip our toes in the world of film, Top Gun: Maverick (2022) has owned this summer’s box office. The subtextual narrative is almost as grand as the movie itself: an immortal Tom Cruise achieving his highest grossing movie forty years into his career. But a healthy culture would not require such a hero to save it, certainly not one in his advanced years, however godlike they be. As that film argues, there is no young buck worthy enough to take the mantle. Aside from superhero movies, there is no new way to generate that sort of star power anymore. After Tom flies off into the sunset, the sun will not be rising again—well, probably not.
If modern television feels like it has forgotten the lessons of the past, this break above all else is the reason why. In Mike Judge’s film, Idiocracy (2006), the future world population has a perilously low IQ. Its advanced machinery that does most of the actual work of society was built by scientists long ago. When that machinery starts to deteriorate, its society faces a slow-motion degradation as knowledge crumbles away. While in that film the loss of knowledge was an accident of genetics, here it is a purposeful torch tossed into the library at Alexandria. The only thing Judge’s film missed was the internet, yet its consequences, like the eerily familiar President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, were prophesied nonetheless.
At some point, the Hollywood suits realized that it was cheaper to lower everything across the board—the budgets, the knowledge, even our standards. It takes real investment to make something of quality, a thoughtfulness which does not fit in a market that demands escalating profits and rising stock prices. The plot is fiendishly simple: destroy the institutional wisdom of television production, recreate a new class with no expectations, and then train the viewers to diminish expectations, ours and theirs, all to make a quick buck. It is not a bad scheme, as diabolical schemes go. I myself felt compelled to watch all of Stranger Things season four, if only just to have motion in the foreground of my unfocused eyes. American life once called us to shoot for the stars. Now it is engineered to lower our horizons.
The indignities across all these facets are three fronts in a larger war. Be it incompetence in direction, the reshuffling of writing, or the managed decline of production, the snapping heads on this Cerberus are hungry. Whatever information we gain from these shows cannot match what we learn from the dreary result. The medium, as Postman’s predecessor Marshall McLuhan [said], was both “the message” and “the massage.” Its underlying logic forms our souls and uproots our notions, tastes, and habits. Think of how streaming sites and the like refer to their film and television nowadays, with the sickening diminutive of content. “As recently as 15 years ago,” Martin Scorsese [recounts], “the term ‘content’ was” used only when discussing “cinema on a serious level” and always as “contrasted with and measured against ‘form.’” However, that new term, content, got “used more and more by the people who took over the media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should.” A winter of discontent, surely as there ever was.
We need not inherit past ignorance. Television is not cinema, but that has not been for lack of trying. It was tried, with some crucial victories, but when prestige fused with digital, the result was strategic defeat and overall retreat. Every time, therefore, these studios refer to their media with a term just a step above slop, fight. Every time your television comes in a factory presetting designed to make it look worse, fight. Above all else, when your shows stop putting in the effort, fight. Prestige television is a title, not a PR term, and titles must be earned as well as only sparingly awarded. Now is the winter of our discontent at stream-prested content. Snobbery is looked down upon when it is one of our finest virtues. Learn to hate what you love, and you may have a shot at true happiness.
Or Mark Frost and David Lynch, but as an eighteen-hour movie, Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) is pushing it. [Author’s Note.]
Still worth it. [Editor’s note.] ↩︎
Quoted in Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures (1976), centennial edition, forward by Princess Grace of Monaco (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), 41. ↩︎
One of my favorite examples of this happened with Frasier. As the writers gradually got to know the main trio of actors, a sort of shell game occurred with the characters. Kelsey Grammer, who plays the liberally haute bourgeoisie Frasier Crane, was actually more politically and aesthetically similar to the character of Martin Crane, his retired cop father. Martin was played by the late John Mahoney, a British actor who had to teach costar David Hyde Pierce about the merits of fine wine and opera. Pierce was dissimilar from the refined aesthete Niles Crane, and more like the character of Frasier. The writers leaned into this odd situation, incorporating real sentiments from the actors and letting them essentially act opposite themselves. It is a dazzlingly meta display that never could have happened without the patience of 90s sitcoms. ↩︎
When in Season 3 of Seinfeld, George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander) says to a potential flirtation at a bar, “I’m a writer” but clarifies he is a television writer . . . for a pilot . . . of a sitcom, the hysterical woman walks away, laughing to her friend: “A sitcom! [Cackle.] Can you imagine? [Howl.] And he actually tried to use it to hit on me! [Tears.]” George, we’ve all been there. [Solidarity.]) ↩︎
In more edenic times, television networks had nearly double, sometimes triple, the number of episodes per season as Netflix usually allows, and proved much more willing to double down on successful shows. In general, the Netflix model has ten episodes per season, and three seasons at most, a limited scope often to the chagrin of their creators. In stark contrast, take Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). A thematic forerunner to The X-Files, it starred Darren McGavin of A Christmas Story (1983) fame, as the wily working-day journalist who usually manages to solve the mystery, kill the monster, get the girl, but never have his story published. Canceled after just one season, it still got twenty four episodes and at nearly an hour long a pop; that is a whole day with Kolchak. Such was par for the course: in 'the Room,' a staple crop of young and seasoned writers would develop over time, enshrining their own culture and style. More episodes gave the luxury of risk, and from risk sprout innovation. But with far fewer opportunities for writers per season, let alone a series, they are not given the batting practice needed to become seasoned. This is the rare time quality and quantity were joined at the hip, something the new model neglects. ↩︎
This is true for the more highbrow, niche-audience shows such as Vince Gilligan’s AMC series, Better Call Saul (2015-2022), and for the number-one program just underneath NFL broadcasts as well as most TV critics’ radars, Taylor Sheridan’s Paramount show, Yellowstone (2018-). ↩︎
If not proof of Scientology, better than any E-meter test for thetans. [Author’s Note.] Please do not sue us. Hail Xenu. [Editor’s Note.] ↩︎
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), Revised Edition (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2001). ↩︎
This pun, surely you must be joking? [Editor’s Note.] Don’t call me Shirley. [Author’s Note.] ↩︎
Joe Joyce is a screenwriter and freelance critic from the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley. He has been called a living saint, amiable rogue, and “more like a little brother” by most girls he’s dated. His film reviews can be found at Letterboxd as well as Angelus News.