The Unbearable Darkness of Prestige Television

Critically acclaimed genre series such as Game of Thrones and True Detective are using bleak self-seriousness to distance themselves from their lowbrow roots.

Lacey Terrell / HBO

Never has California seemed as gloomy as it does in the premiere of True Detective’s second season. It would be hard to choose the episode’s darkest moment—was it the near-suicidal nighttime motorcycle ride? The sad blowjob? The brutal beating of a man in front of his son, by a cop whose own child may be the result of an unsolved rape? So far, at least three of the show’s main characters are so dour, drunk, and all-around dyspeptic, they make the denizens of film noir look positively chipper by comparison.

And yet, such moodiness is far from an anomaly. Consider how many other current acclaimed shows cultivate a similarly somber mood. From the bro-style bloviating (or, broviating) of True Detective’s first season, to the ominous proclaiming that punctuates the general whoring and slaying of Game of Thrones, to the unceasing climatological and psychological punishments meted out to the cast of The Killing, it seems as though some of the most celebrated recent examples of serial drama have elected self-seriousness as their default tone. Especially paradigmatic of this drift toward the ponderous is The Walking Dead, whose third season includes episodes entitled “Made to Suffer,” “The Suicide King,” and “This Sorrowful Life”—titles that could just as easily characterize the despondent state of affairs on any number of shows viewers and critics alike have been singling out for praise. Game of Thrones, for instance, killed off one of its most jovial characters, Robert Baratheon, in the seventh episode, and with him, seemingly any hope of ensuring the series’s main players—in the words of the murdered king—“don’t look so fucking grim all the time.” It’s as if these programs, intent on proving their “quality,” fall into the trap of protesting too much.

This new strain of humorlessness comes across most palpably in programs that are also works of genre, from the police procedural (in the case of True Detective or The Killing), fantasy (Game of Thrones), to horror (The Walking Dead). In fact, it’s probably no coincidence that genre series are the most committed to this sort of sober and high-minded tone. This new solemnity could be seen as a sign of status anxiety: a byproduct of both serial television’s desire to disassociate from its soapy origins, and genre programming’s striving for cultural legitimacy. In short, these shows are victims of their own pretensions. TV might be enjoying a Golden Age, but it appears it may also be harboring some self-doubt.

To prove that such cheerlessness isn’t unique to American drama, there’s the BBC series The Fall. During the second season there’s precisely one moment that earns a laugh, and it’s when a member of the Belfast police department—engaged in what’s supposed to be a surreptitious search of a suspect’s house—puts his foot through the attic floor, causing the bedroom ceiling to collapse. It’s the sole instance of slapstick in a show that’s otherwise unwaveringly grim. Of course, its primary concerns—sexual violence, psychopathy, Irish sectarian tensions—don’t exactly lend themselves to lighthearted treatment. But there’s a difference between tackling bleak topics, and making a virtue, if not a fetish, of bleakness.

It’s a tendency that hasn’t gone unnoticed by critics. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, for instance, argued that one of True Detective’s principal transgressions was that it remained “dead serious” about even the most “softheaded” of its own premises. “Which might be O.K. if True Detective were dumb fun,” she notes, “but good God, it’s not: It’s got so much gravitas it could run for President.” Similarly, in his review of the most recent season of The Killing, Matt Zoller Seitz lamented that the series remained “full of itself, occasional moments of levity notwithstanding,” and was ultimately undone by its “gravely solemn, we-are-reinventing-the-genre swagger that doesn’t sync up with the stereotype-driven, sub-Special Victims Unit procedural you are actually watching ... ”

But lately, such solemnity feels less like the exception than the rule.

Call it serial pretension—a product of genre television’s still-uncertain sense of its  own value. On the one hand, it seems quaint to suggest that programs in the postmodern era should be entangled with questions of taste, or that audiences might be embarrassed by their appetite for genre entertainment, or what the film critic Pauline Kael famously hailed as “trash.” But even the most masterly examples of serial drama aren’t immune to such worries. As the film scholar Linda Williams notes in her study of The Wire, its creator David Simon made a habit of comparing his series “up”—likening it to Sophoclean tragedy, for instance—while its fans have frequently analogized it to Dickens, as if to prevent its being designated as “mere” television. Equally revealing is Daniel Mendelsohn’s defense of Game of Thrones, which hinged on the show’s exceptionally “literary” qualities—the explanation, he suggests, for it having “seduced so many of his [writer] friends, people who have either no taste for fantasy or no interest in television.”

This sense of hierarchy when it comes to culture is evident not only in the regular invocations of literature in discussions about television, but also in the broader deprecation of comedy. As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody put it bluntly, in a larger discussion of Hollywood cinema and award-season trends, “comedy gets no respect.” The situation may be somewhat different in television, where series like Veep, Silicon Valley, and Girls receive regular accolades, but even the most admired comedies don’t tend to attract the kind of genuflecting reserved for drama. And no genre remains more routinely and unselfconsciously maligned than melodrama. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few people admit to an enjoyment of prime-time soaps like Nashville, Empire, or Revenge without qualifying their predilection as “guilty,” or bracketing off the show as “trash.”

The extent to which TV drama has internalized this value system is reflected not only in its bias toward dark and punishingly tragic content, but in its narrative tendencies, as well—particularly its emphasis on what the television scholar Jason Mittell calls “narrative complexity.” For Mittell, a hallmark of complex TV is that it prioritizes plot events over character relations, in contrast to the relationship-driven soap opera. It’s a description that readily applies to shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, which don’t just give precedence to plot (leading one critic to dub GoT the “plottiest show on television”), but which do so at the expense of characters, who are casually and often gruesomely dispatched. It’s true these two shows, in particular, take their cues from literary (or graphic literary) sources. Regardless, their veneration for plot suggests they’ve seized on complexity as the surest path to prestige.

The very structure of Game of Thrones seems to telegraph its ambitions. Take “The Wall”: a 700-foot-tall barrier of solid ice that separates the north of Westeros from the dangers beyond. On the far side, we’re in the realm of pure pulp: a world of unchecked blood-letting, incestuous coupling, and White-Walking. Not so different from what takes place within the Wall, only there’s far less concern that the unfolding events must mean something. Back in the Seven Kingdoms, however, the target mode is historical realism. Here, the set pieces are epic; the moral stakes high; and the dialogue portentous, so that even passing exchanges are made to seem positively refulgent with meaning. Here, characters are given to announcing a scene’s thematic significance: The scheming counselor Varys can proclaim, in the season five premiere, “We’re talking about the future of our country!” Or Daenerys Targaryen, the aspiring queen and current warlord, can remind viewers—in a Days of our Lives-worthy piece of exposition,—“I did not take up residence in this pyramid so I could watch the city below decline into chaos!”

In this light, while early reviews of Game of Thrones often focused on rescuing it from the genre label—“boy fiction,” as Ginia Bellafonte termed it in The New York Times—one issue with the show is that it isn’t genre enough. If, as Nussbaum has observed, “fantasy—like television itself, really—has long been burdened with audience condescension,” the solution is not to tamp down (or wall off) the fantasy. In contrast to proud genre series like The Americans, Justified, or Orphan Black—which concern themselves with the subjects of spy-craft, gun thuggery, and clone warfare, respectively—Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and True Detective seem almost self-loathing, and for all their nudity and gore, ashamed to indulge their B-movie impulses. That’s not to say there are no funny moments; as Lord Tyrion on GoT, Peter Dinklage has performed heroic feats of comic relief. But on balance, these programs qualify as punitive pulp: a subcategory of shows that exploit viewers’ love of swordplay, zombies, and serial killers while denying them the lurid pleasures therein.

So who’s to blame for this grim state of affairs? It’s tough to say. Not only because the collaborative nature of the medium makes it hard to determine who’s “responsible” for a program’s tone, but because tone itself is so slippery, a product of viewers’ perceptions as well as showrunners’ intentions. At the same time, it seems significant, as Mittell mentioned to me, that three of the above-mentioned series were created and/or written by those with little previous experience in TV, and far more in the worlds of fiction (Nic Pizzolatto), film (Frank Darabont), or both (David Benioff). It’s not farfetched to think that they might be bringing to one medium the norms and practices of another.

It’s a factor that could help explain the difference between these shows and the many dramas that don’t suffer from such pomposity of spirit, including canonical series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or The Wire—which as Jacob Weisberg noted in Slate, “attains the dimensions of tragedy without being depressing.” It’s true that some of the shows I mention occasionally manage a similar feat. True Detective’s pilot, for instance, has lots of fun deflating Rust’s addlepated philosophizing; when he tells his partner that a dead body is a “a paraphilic love map,” or mentions that he can “smell the psychosphere,” Marty’s reaction is to tell him to “stop saying odd shit like that.” But it’s a spirit of amusement that dissipates as the show progresses, overwhelmed by the increasingly baroque mythos, Southern-baked stereotypes, and heavy confessional talk.

The problem, then, is not that these shows are serious, or even that they’re almost always serious. It’s that they expect the audience to be, too. In other words, the major flaw of True Detective or Game of Thrones is their monotone, the fact that they only ever ask for or permit from viewers a single, worshipful stance. It’s this allergy to camp—to deviant interpretations—that likely makes these shows so ripe for deflation. Both SNL and Key & Peele recently featured sketches spoofing the body count on Game of Thrones, while one of the liveliest debates about The Killing’s fourth season concerned Detective Linden’s chapped lips. Similarly, it can be hard to watch True Detective without recalling A.O. Scott’s comments about August, Osage County that its performers should win an award for “most acting.”

That said, in recent years there’s been an encouraging counter-trend: the embrace of a hybrid tone that, if hardly unique to contemporary television, may be emerging as a distinctive characteristic of post-network-era programming. In her roundup of the best 2014 TV, for instance, Nussbaum remarked in passing that the “distinction between comedy and drama” had dissolved. It could be premature to declare this erosion complete, given the entrenchment of so many current series on the dark, dreary side of the tonal spectrum. But it’s a worthy goal. If excellent tragicomedies like Enlightened, Getting On, Louie, and Transparent are any indication, new programs may increasingly aspire to move among tonal registers, rather than insist on wholeheartedly embracing one.