The Curse of Quality Drama

Rumours of a potential Star Wars live action series have been flowing around for a while now, but apparently the rumours are consolidating. Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress and Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic have information (a little) and speculation (a lot).

Am I the only person in the universe who thinks that a live action Star Wars TV-show in the tradition of The Sopranos and The Wire would be an absolutely horrible idea? I’m not sure whether a Star Wars TV show would be a good idea at all – the Clone Wars was already one Star Wars installment too far IMO. But a Star Wars show done in the style of The Wire and The Sopranos would be a complete disaster. Because the Star Wars universe is not, even in its most disreputable corners, a place like the world portrayed in shows such as The Wire and The Sopranos. Even if you believe that those two shows are the be-all and end-all of modern television – which I don’t – their approach of gritty realism and (dark) greyscale morality simply does not fit Star Wars. Star Wars is a mythic tale of heroism with a morality that’s mostly black and white and some fairly light grey. Star Wars done in the style of The Wire or The Sopranos would be more akin to the new version of Battlestar Galactica (my feelings on that show are very well known) than to Star Wars and just as much of an abomination.

Want to make a gritty space mafia show with greyscale morals just like The Wire or The Sopranos, only in space? Sure, go ahead. Who knows, I might even watch it? But don’t call it Star Wars, because it isn’t. If you, however, were to make a caper show in the style of Hustle or Leverage set in the Star Wars universe, I would be all over it.

However, this discussion about a hypothetical Star Wars live action TV show highlights a trend I find troubling, namely the tendency to use a small number of highly acclaimed TV dramas broadcast on US pay-TV channels such as HBO as the benchmark of television quality. It’s good to see television productions finally gaining critical recognition, after decades of television having been dismissed as the Nullmedium (zero medium). However, critical discussions of television these days are determined by the following dichotomy: If it looks like West Wing/The Sopranos/The Wire/Six Feet Under/Mad Men/Breaking Bad/whatever the latest must-see show is, it is quality television. If it doesn’t emulate those shows, it’s trash entertainment for the masses.

This dichotomy completely disregards one important point, namely that there is more than one way of making good television. The HBO-style (for lack of a better term, since HBO seems to have become synonymous with that kind of show) of taking an unflinching look at the uglier sides of America, particularly the dark underbelly of the suburban middle class family, but also the social issues and hypocricies at the heart of American society in general, with a strong focus on crime, sex, violence, swearing and an odd obsession with psychotherapy and drugs*, is just one way of making good drama. It’s not the way.

What is more, if “good” is increasingly defined as “gritty realism or what passes for such” and “a preoccupation with issues of interest to middle class Americans” (even The Wire always seemed to be more popular among the white middle classes than among the urban poor actually depicted in the show, probably because the urban poor cannot afford the HBO subscription fees), then anything that does not match that definition is automatically disqualified. Indeed, it seems to me as if we are seeing the televisional variation on the old genre versus literary debate here. And once again, explicit genre tales, whether it’s police procedurals and detective dramas or SF and fantasy shows, are losing out. It is telling that the closest these highly acclaimed quality dramas come to fantasy were the occasional surreal bits in Six Feet Under, which only worked for me half of the time.

However, even HBO, the bastion of what is called quality TV drama these days, is opening its doors to speculative fiction. For with Game of Thrones and True Blood doing so well for HBO, they are apparently looking for further fantasy novels to adapt and have hit upon Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Which is a good choice, except that I wonder how they will get six seasons out of a single novel barely as long as one A Song of Ice and Fire installment?

Indeed the ThinkProgress article I linked to above very clearly illustrates dichotomy of “quality drama” versus everything else and how this dichotomy overlaps with the neverending genre versus literary debate. The author of the post, Alyssa Rosenberg, clearly is a fantasy fan, yet she worries that HBO’s increasing commitment to fantasy shows will erode the channel’s critical reputation. Never mind that HBO has done genre shows before from western (Deadwood) via historical drama (Rome, Boardwalk Empire) to gangster drama (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and to a certain degree The Wire). Nor have all HBO shows been deadly serious ruminations on socially relevant issues – they did broadcast Sex and the City after all, which is pretty much the definition of fluff.
We even get a bit of inner genre prejudice, as Game of Thrones is lauded as a serious drama, while True Blood is dismissed as fluff, since it’s based on a series of paranormal romance novels. Never mind that the Sookie Stackhouse novels are actually urban fantasy, Game of Thrones is based on a series of big, fat epic fantasy novels. It’s a well written example of the genre, but then Charlaine Harris’ novels are above average for the urban fantasy genre, too.

Nonetheless, there is the unexamined assumption in the post that The Wire and The Sopranos were easy for critics to embrace, because they were morally challenging and addressed important issues and – though this is not spoken out – because they were realistic. Now I grant them the social issues, because at least The Wire did seem genuinely concerned about various social, political and economic ills plaguing a troubled city. Nonetheless, neither show (nor Mad Men nor Breaking Bad nor West Wing) had much to do with my personal reality nor with that of many television critics, I suspect. Indeed, Alyssa Rosenberg hits the nail on the head when she writes: “Championing [The Wire and The Sopranos] was a way to show your sophistication, as well as the quality of your education.” Because it often seemed to me – particularly with regard to those two shows, but also to others – that a lot of people simply liked them because those were the sort of shows educated people were supposed to like.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I have my issues with what is called quality drama in the US. I did enjoy Six Feet Under with some reservations, but most shows of that sort leave me cold. My reaction oscillates between “This is probably very worthy and very important, but if I want worthy and important, I’ll watch a documentary”** and “Why the hell should I care about those people and why are they all so preoccupied with drugs?”***. Part of the reason may be cultural, because with the exception of Sex and the City (which was not exactly serious quality drama, though broadcast on HBO) none of those shows ever caught on in Germany. Time and again, German networks have bought those shows, lured by the critical acclaim, and hyped the hell out of them, only to banish them to late night graveyard slots, when viewers failed to tune in. Quite a few were unceremoniously canceled or never shown at all. I guess the problem is that those programs are very much tailored to issues preoccupying Americans to the point that German viewers just shrug and switch over to House or CSI and NCIS or whatever and turn to homegrown programs such as Tatort for their social issue fix.

So, to bring already over-long post to a conclusion, the sort of social realism presented by HBO-style drama does not have a monopoly on quality in television anymore than contemporary literary fiction has a monopoly on quality in literature.

*I’m trying to sum up what all of those rather different shows have in common.

**It’s not that I don’t like drama that tackles social issues, even the social issues of a society other than my own. But I want a bit of humour and likable characters with my social issues and The Wire or West Wing did not do that for me.

***The preoccupation with drugs in many of those shows is particularly alienating to older viewers. My Mom, for example, hates the drug references, because even though she came of age in the 1960s, she comes from a social background where the fact that drugs are bad was never even questioned.

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4 Responses to The Curse of Quality Drama

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