The one burning urge I had was to talk to someone. Anyone. So much so I was practically yelling alone in my room. It was 4 a.m. Monday morning and I had just finished watching the latest episode of “Homeland.” I knew my mom and brother had watched it, but they would be asleep at that hour. Luckily sleep came quickly for me and not minutes after I awoke my mom was calling me.
Unfortunately for the show, my strong, visceral reaction to the show was entirely negative. I had never seen a show jump the shark so fast and repeatedly. To avoid spoilers, I won’t get too much into what actually happened. Suffice to say, it was the worst kind of crazy, with characters behaving completely irrationally only to do something even more unbelievable ten minutes later.
The show was no longer what I thought it was.
Setting aside this episode’s individual flaws, this “Homeland” season has exemplified the problem with the prestige drama phenomenon as a whole.
TV is the hardest medium in which to achieve greatness. TV shows, for most of their history, have been the second-class visual art, with movies playing the more sophisticated elite. Shows were expensive to produce, broadcast on just a handful of channels necessitating wide family appeal and were beholden to the almighty advertising dollar. In the TV world, artistic visions were habitually altered by the networks with both eyes firmly set on the bottom line.
Because of this, many of the best story tellers focused their efforts in the film world, where there’s less meddling and more niches than just family-friendly to cater to.
In the last decade or so, the rise of cable TV has shifted this balance. Now, there are a bunch of channels with much more specific and segmented demographics. Shows can be made cheaper and need less of a return to justify the investment. The HBO model is the father of this trend of promoting serious, ambitious dramas as a way to distinguish its programing, with “The Sopranos” as its prodigal son.
The demographic these prestige dramas seek to attract is one that takes their entertainment seriously.
They probably watch all the movies getting Oscar buzz so that they feel knowledgeable on what was important this year. They don’t watch very many TV shows in general.
Time is precious, and only shows of artistic merit are expected to fill them.
This demographic is similar to the one that the modern day auteurs of cinema depend on for patronage. It should be no surprise then when these people become more attracted to the TV medium and enter the field.
Much like how auteur theory privileged the omnipotent position of the director, we now view show runners in the same light.
What we failed to realize is that the inherent problems of TV shows would not be fixed just by having more ambitious and creative people manning the controls. I think the success of HBO’s model and AMC’s back-to-back home runs raised our expectations too high for what TV could be.
If we needed any more evidence of our unfounded faith in the prestige drama, last Sunday’s “Homeland” episode surely disabused us of any notion to the contrary. But it’s not just “Homeland.”
Dexter is a show that started off with an interesting point of view but soon — and unforgivably in my eyes — jumped shipped to full on camp within its first season. And “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO’s latest attempt at finding a true heir to its flagship prestige drama throne, is three seasons in and we’re still not sure if we care about any of the characters.
The main problem TV wrestles with is how to keep a show compelling over multiple seasons. This is in part due to the nature of TV programs.
A person creates a pilot, which may get picked up for a season, which may be extended for another season, and on and on again.
This uncertainty about the ultimate lifespan of a show means at each step of the way the writers must throw in each good idea they have to justify its continued existence. The focus has to be on the short term, but it’s the long term vision that history will ultimately judge.
Later events can’t undermine the stakes of previous season, and the stories being told must remain in the world the show first created.
In short, there are just too many opportunities to fall short of greatness.
And greatness should always be the standard. Sure, greatness on its own terms — a comedy and a drama are great for different reasons — but greatness nonetheless.
Not only from an ambition point of view, but from a practical one. The demographic that watches these shows will not suffer anything less than very good.
Despite the shortcomings of shows like “Homeland,” I don’t think the prestige drama fad is going anywhere.
The appeal of long-form visual storytelling will keep attracting artists of all levels. I read in a recent interview with Quentin Tarantino on The Hollywood Reporter’s website that he may try his hand at an HBO style mini-series after retiring from film. With creators of his ilk wading into TV’s waters, those with enough gravitas to, by name alone, guarantee the full culmination of their artistic visions, maybe there will be more thought on how a show progresses without fear of being canceled.
At any rate, its important to recognize how young this kind of TV really is. But while its recent years have been largely promising, it still isn’t yet where it needs to be.
William Haisley is a third year law student and is the Collegian’s Wednesday columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org