Why We Keep Having The Same Debates About Prestige Television Dramas


Over the three years I’ve been at ThinkProgress, I’ve become intimately familiar with the cycle of debates over prestige television shows. A new drama arrives to great fanfare, and is embraced even more passionately by viewers than fans, who parse every detail of it. Some viewers, however, start to feel irritated by the parts of the show that don’t feel fresh, be it the invisibility of people of color, the flat portrayal of women, or a plot that’s not actually much different from anything we’ve seen before. That criticism is interpreted as a backlash, and the show’s fans insist that all the things the dissenters see as flaws are actually intentional. A stalemate results. Occasionally, something genuinely new arrives on the scene, is greeted with wild outpourings of devotion by underserved fans, and is promptly treated like a fluke rather than a new model. And the beat goes on.

None of this has prevented me from enjoying plenty of new shows that fit in this cycle, including True Detective. But it has made me increasingly grateful for shows that break the mold, including Orange Is The New Black, with its marvelous bounty of fantastic female characters of color, and The Americans, which has given us the best woman anti-hero of the anti-hero era. The former’s the creation of a woman, Jenji Kohan, the latter by two men with an unusual amount of interest in and attention to female psychology, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who should stand as a constant reminder that chromosomes are no barrier to writing beautifully realized people who are unlike yourself.

Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan, who shares many of my frustrations in this area, decided to look at the creative rut we’re stuck in from another angle. She crunched the numbers on who’s made prestige television over the last several decades and found that these shows look the same way for a reason: they’re almost all created by the same kinds of people.

“With one exception over the course of four decades, HBO has not aired an original one-hour drama or dramatic miniseries creatively led at its debut by a person of color. That exception is more than 21 years old,” she wrote. “Just under 8 percent of HBO’s original dramas and miniseries came from women, and 2.6 percent came from people of color. Less than 5 percent of its one-hour dramas — one of the most high-profile entertainment products in the world — were created by women. That’s over the course of nearly 40 years…Even in HBO’s current, post-Sopranos era, as the network endeavors to craft a new identity for itself, the picture hasn’t improved. Actually, it’s gotten worse. Guess how many women or people of color have been a creator or narrative architect on a one-hour HBO drama or miniseries since 2008 (the year after The Sopranos ended)? None. Not one.”

At a certain point, that’s not a coincidence. That’s a choice. And it’s a choice that, to a certain extent, it makes sense for HBO and other networks to make. Across all platforms and time-shifted viewings, 11 million people are watching True Detective every week. But HBO also has many fewer excuses than any other network not to try to develop new forms of stories, and new kinds of main characters for audiences to obsess over. It doesn’t have designated slots it has to fill. It doesn’t have to push anything off the schedule to make room for a new experiment. And Netflix, which has even fewer constraints, has done it already with the breakout success of Orange Is The New Black.

Cable and premium cable networks have been able to amass enormous cultural cachet over the last decade and a half by making many, many similar shows, made by many, many similar people. But even though it sometimes seems like we can have these debates over and over without anything ever having to change, the sheer weight of numbers like the ones Ryan’s amassed are hard to deny.

Netflix may only have one show like Orange Is The New Black. FX may be moving slowly away from the women-as-wives model that predominates elsewhere, and still be balancing out its strong, strange female characters with male co-leads. Innovation may be confined to smaller networks like Sundance Channel, which is experiencing the excitements and missteps of its own heady early days of scripted original programming. Shows that originate online, like Jane Espenson and Brad Bell’s Husbands or Issa Rae’s The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl may not have the promotional power behind them that’s granted their network counterparts. But if prestige television wants to maintain its reputation as a bastion of boundary-pushing, ground-breaking storytelling, at some point, it will have to acknowledge that the stories its telling and the people who tell them are settled in growing towns, while other pioneers are the ones actually mapping new frontiers.