• Who Killed Prestige TV? Toward a “Good Fan” Theory of Television

    M.C. Mah on the Rise and Fall and Rise of Endless Streaming

    Peak TV ended when that first wave unsubscribed from Netflix—a seventeen-billion-dollar crash in small part caused by there being absolutely nothing to watch on it. Or would you prefer a fall from the height of decadence: a climactic season-eight episode of Game of Thrones that certainly sounded poorly plotted though it was so dark it could not be seen.

    The explainers are out: a consensus is forming around “streaming’s busted math,” a “ponzi scheme,” even. Apparently, television has committed some kind of white-collar crime. This time, rather than cook up junky mortgage-backed securities, CEOs flooded the market and took humiliating tax write-offs of dramedies featuring Kathryn Hahn—who was pretty good! But a scheme to what end?

    The perpetrators failed to get their money out. Some victims even remembered to cancel before the close of some introductory period, therefore lost virtually nothing, and in the meantime were treated to Mrs. Fletcher among all the TV you could eat. The diabolical plot, then, was to get away with making the most television. (By the end, they were making so many shows it was almost as if they wanted to get caught!)

    The writer’s strike seemed to mark a system in collapse, with still no word of what a mass audience who’d streamed their way through a pandemic would do without the countless hours of storytelling its producers could not actually afford. Perhaps we would have seen it coming if only there wasn’t too much to see.

    The good fan holds a TV show to the highest standards; they expect nothing less than exactly what they were expecting.

    Peak TV represents something of an end of cultural history—599 scripted series in their final uncontroversial form. The golden age reinvented a mass market medium as popular high art. (In fact, the Sopranos writers’ room was told by David Chase that they were staffing a sitcom called Janet!) The supposed cautionary tale is one where “too much” was made available to us—too many shows, and too little time to fulfill our obligation to watch them. But this complaint about excess is part of the noise, and the signal is lost. We unplugged something, plugged it back in, but it did not turn back on.

    *

    In Emily Nussbaum’s formulation it was the “bad fan” who “fast-forwarded through Carmela and Dr. Melfi to freeze-frame Tony strangling a snitch with electrical wire.” The concept was especially applicable to a show staffed by playwrights and play-by-played the next morning on sports radio; in a TV-therapist-kind-of-way it made progress with the many antiheroes doing numbers at the center of the culture.

    Its corollary shall be called here the “good fan” theory. The bad fans followed the story—they rooted for the protagonist they were given. The good fan is so welcoming of moral complexity that they like everything on HBO. The bad fan wanted violence; the good fan wants to be included. The bad fan demanded “service”; the good fan provides it, posting pictures of Shiv Roy dressed either stunningly well or badly on purpose, in what amounts to a volunteer position in publicity.

    The good fan pretends at tastefulness, but what they are most of all is polite. They “let people enjoy things.” And by faintly praising that which has been passively received, they have, as Brandon Taylor puts it, “all agreed to wear jeans to church.” (Our friends on the TV keep denim in their unused ovens.) The good fan believes their enjoyment is proof of their discernment—an eminently forgivable disingenuousness, for who can afford to refuse television’s absolutely narcotic pleasures?

    Peak TV draws its audience in to a Spotified relationship to art. For a low, low price, lightly bundled streamers offer personalization in lieu of experimentation.

    Netflix has an internal metric termed “efficiency”—adjusted view share (AVS) over cost—and so do we: that smooth transition from feeling this is only the beginning to that feeling, at season’s end, of being done. Basic-cable televisual inertia (“next episode in 10, 9, 8…”) keeps a viewer in their seat and inoculates against forceful critique. How could one think derisively of a show willing to occupy forty-two minutes of psychic real estate on a Sunday night, an anxiety medication in narrative, a fluoride-in-drinking-water advance in the alleviation of public boredom? The hidden costs are in the audience desensitizing itself. Not to sex or violence, but to the suspension of belief, to skepticism, to our pricklier sensibilities, and our sense of discovery. The good fan holds a TV show to the highest standards; they expect nothing less than exactly what they were expecting.

    Not coincidentally, one of the newest TV genres seems to be nostalgia. In addition to the steady stream of reboots, Yellowjackets’ and The Bear’s Gen-X bait headphone needle-drops harken back to a day when it was still possible to sell out—an epithet requiring a clear distinction between monoculture and subculture. (Would Kurt Cobain have loved Succession, or would he have considered it so “swaddled in the style of its reception,” as Phillip Maciak writes, as to have a difficult time “disaggregating it from its social life.”) If social media collapsed the difference, it did so with an army of television shows—five-hundred-odd foot soldiers that would lay down their one-to-six-years-long lives for our entertainment.

    Peak TV draws its audience in to a Spotified relationship to art. For a low, low price, lightly bundled streamers offer personalization in lieu of experimentation. And even when new ground seems broken, TV is undercut by the binging style of its consumption. Good Fans of The Bear have remarked upon how satisfying it would have been to converse around the “virtual watercooler” week-to-week. Imagine, even in late August 2023 our friends could have been yelling at one another in a language they’d just taught us. “Cousin, get on the TV, I’m alone with my fucking thoughts here. Hands!” The complaint points at what seems to be a baffling anticommercial move on behalf of FX on Hulu—after all, they had viewers’ attention: a commodity the TV business has been after for Pepsi generations. It’s almost as if streaming companies cared about something else.

    *

    A recent article in the New York Times, “As Hollywood Strikes Roll on, Viewers Have a Chance to Catch Up,” featured beautiful portraits of people who have not seen Breaking Bad. Seemingly slight, its reporting is essentially accurate—excess inventory is the main thread of discourse on the most popular art form of our time. “Too much!” cried a generation. But if this is a morality play, it is not about self-indulgence; it is about falling behind, making too few trips to the buffet. Keeping up is all that is asked of Peak TV’s audience. The subscribers, however “out” on House of the Dragon, are not solicited for an opinion on the post-antiheroic aesthetic, or this new wave of showrunning auteurs. A woman went on the record saying she enjoyed Bluey even though she is not herself a child.

    A new show arrives like the thump of extra-soft toilet paper on the porch, tossed from that black Amazon van summoned by clicking the new “soon, in the dark of night” option.

    The streamers’ priorities are in a few ways clear: keep their subscribers on the platform, manage “churn,” beat the other guys. A profile of Netflix Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria confirmed a utilitarian attitude toward their product. (Not to be outdone, two workbots with their morale set to “psychotic” later took the New Yorker on a tour of Mattel.) Less clear is what to make of the data collected from the discrete consumption of televisual “content.”

    Who will watch the watchers? Well, a lot of companies. Streaming services profile viewers with stop/start keystroke-level granularity; companies such as Parrot Analytics monitor “search engines, wikis and informational sites, fan and critic rating sites, social video sites, blogs and micro-blogging sites, social media platforms, peer-to-peer apps and open streaming platforms” to see how the content absorbs.

    But there’s a Netflix-led obstinacy around viewership data—another tic of an industry so recently unbeholden to advertisers. The conventional wisdom is that there’s no upside for Netflix: it either makes shows that people don’t watch or it owes producers more money for the ones that they do. It begs the question: What relationship, anyway, exists between popular shows and revenues? A genuine hit is watched by an audience that is subscribed to everything already. Hits aren’t necessary when you can never really miss.

    This isn’t second screen enough,” said a masked villain in a note relayed secondhand to Justine Bateman. In other words, a show can be good or bad, but should not distract its audience from their primary—and actually monetizable—screen. To sell a kind of TV that conscientiously splits one’s attention with their phone is one thing, but what does it say about an audience that this is a desirable way to watch television?

    Our true national pastime has become masturbatory, “ambient”; a culture of posting reaction GIFS; of writing emails during; 5 mg of melatonin for $12.99 a month. The conversation the Good Fan seeks begins with “Have you seen?” and promptly ends with the answer, the great binary of television: yes, or no.

    When all is said and done, Apple TV is a “probable billion-dollar loss leader.” The audience for prestige TV is told that entertaining them is an “arms race” where the nukes are shows you wouldn’t bother to pause while folding laundry. As a kind of metaviewing experience, peak TV is demoralizing. The idea according to Bajaria is to “Super-serve the audience”—to break through subjectivity. To annihilate taste, good or bad. Only then will we have television for everyone.

    As for that great data-fed algorithm controlling the stream—Bajaria laughs it off. Indeed, Parrot’s metrics are junky and arbitrary bean-counts of views on tweets about Shiv Roy absolutely slaying in plutocrat chic or looking like shit in clothes that don’t fit well (the suit doesn’t fit, see?). The Good Fan knew this already, and had always eschewed the vulgar recommendations supposedly made “For You.” There’s no map of the conscience painstakingly drawn, no AI Joseph Campbell behind the curtain. So, is it about time we dress up for church again? To raise our hands and ask awfully hierarchical questions like: What makes art good? What is a show trying to say and how is it trying to say it? Is love blind?

    “None of these individual shows are the product they are selling,” an anonymous source told Rachel Syme. “They are just selling more Netflix.” But this isn’t quite the cloak-and-dagger reveal it seems to be. The streamers’ attempt to brand themselves has always been doomed. Even Netflix’s ostensibly precoital “chill” amounts to an utterly generic technological service. Shows are shows. Niches are blockbusters are nichebusters. It’s all television. This time with a faux-participatory aspect—a parasocial media. (What do we think: Can Kendall Roy listen to Wu-Tang?)

    A new show arrives like the thump of extra-soft toilet paper on the porch, tossed from that black Amazon van summoned by clicking the new “soon, in the dark of night” option. “Streaming is the ability to commodify attention in an ecosystem where attention went from being very scarce to infinite,” said Parrot’s Julia Alexander on On the Town. “Infinite attention,” she specified, paid to “infinite content.” No notes indeed.

    Our culture’s loss is compounded by subterfuge. Prestige TV plays both sides: at once a weighted blanket and our most vigorous artform.

    “An audience with a high level of connoisseurship is as important to the culture as artists,” Fran Lebowitz said, the rest of the anecdote about the ascendance of a second rank of less fuckable NYC artists during the AIDS crisis aside. Today’s broadest audience of connoisseurs is set to receive; its medium of choice is programmed to console. Our culture’s loss is compounded by subterfuge. Prestige TV plays both sides: at once a weighted blanket and our most vigorous artform. Nostalgia for the 90s is a pining for power chords and Lilith Fairs but essentially it is for art that is encountered outside our homes, art from which we make our own rites of passage.

    A television audience is left to reconcile a volume strategy, having been so blithely, deeply entertained by the merch heaped at the checkout aisle. At least the advertising model trafficked in the corrupt flattery that there is something important about our individual attention. Turns out there’s not. Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers because they don’t care about the numbers. Peak TV was a thoughtless gift, debt-financed, and addressed to no one in particular. As it descends, and shows are made cheaper, longer, worse, we are returned to a natural state of televisual spectatorship: We watch anyway.

    *

    “End of TV” essays make two arguments and both have alibis. The first to start circulating was that the shows, past-peak in total, were also demonstrably bad, that it’s all been “a gold rush of trash.” Look, we’ve all seen some things: The Morning Show going hard on Covid; Ted Lasso believing in itself. Other things we haven’t seen, for example Game of Thrones Season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night,” because it was virtually invisible. But the shows have Ayo Edebiri showing her range; Rachel Fleishman’s point of view, in unwellness and in wellness. And if we’re between shows, the Good Fan, with textbook dramatic irony, rewatches for Carmela, to see if she leaves him this time. (“One thing you can never say is that you haven’t been told.”)

    What’s more likely—that the shows are bad, or we’re bad? The second narrative is all about how the streamers dragged the studios into economic quicksand, turning billions in old-school advertising and box office into tech-start-up hype and cyclical layoffs. And yet that peril of 80s cineplex monoculture cannot sink two corporations in particular that can and have set a billion on fire, neither of which corporation being the one that paid 200 million for Benioff & Weiss to recommend optioning one of the most popular sci-fi novels in recent memory. Netflix’s stock rebounded, and after this downturn most forecast a banal consolidation, perhaps leaving us with five mostly indistinguishable streaming platforms and not an unwieldy eight.

    In the end, Peak TV caught the bad guy: the critic and their hateful “criticism.” First, the team assembled: Defensive pop stars and pro athletes heroically ignoring naysayers; the combo of advance screenings and review embargoes sidelining critics and coddling influence; MovieTok creators on a “mission to combat film snobbery”; Goodreads reviewers undeterred by the lack of an ARC; the “disruption” of newspapers and their expendable books sections, obviously; Pixar’s Ratatouille, obviously. The reversal of the nerd from knight protector of subculture to rabid defender of billion-dollar franchises from mild criticism didn’t help. The meek inherited the earth; they “review bomb” movies with woman directors.

    But it was television’s sabotage that proved decisive. All of the above contributed to criticism’s retreat as a profession, but none had so great an impact as Peak TV when it came to numbing the critical faculties of the audience. “Spoilers” made for an awkwardly silent watercooler, virtual or not. Recap culture had the effect of drawing writers to the medium and then closing the circuit: plot synopses for people who just watched the episode.

    Already critic-proof, shows were made invulnerable by engagement on social media. A compelling show was worth posting about, or temporarily making an entire personality out of. An unequivocally watchable show would justify its own podcast, and a bad one would not. There was Blue Apron money out there. People did what they had to do.

    In the absence of a critical mass to take exception, art became “content,” as it is now commonly referred. Everywhere a market, anywhere a publicist.

    There is nothing wrong with your television. Everything aspires to be something it is not quite. Watch Barry’s tender satire of amateurism as it gives way to cartoon violence. Or the Queen’s Gambit’s portrait of addiction as the sudden urge to dance in one’s underwear. What we see is authored by committee and predominantly produced from a great advantage of money and grossly concentrated power. Criticism is bearing witness to simultaneity; it is ideas made legible. It is the ability to make distinctions in a homogenized world, with its ballooning central sameness. At its peak, Peak TV regularly built adulatory unspoiled consensus around shows too-already-on-TV-to-fail. Criticism, then, is simply to rebel. And having taken such a stance, to have no fear of caricature.

    We should tear each other down, not build each other up. We cannot let people enjoy things—there’s too much at stake. We have to focus on our differences; for too long have bulky sociopolitical categories lumped us together. We are, after all, so much more different than we are the same.

    *

    In season 2, episode 7 of The Bear, Richie is sent to stage at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. He is made to polish forks with the kind of military discipline Carmy and Syd were once determined to reject. The convening moments of Richie’s psychological journey are spent with the head chef, who is found peeling mushrooms on the principle of “time well spent.” They told Olivia Colman to play “Chicago restaurateur” but to keep her accent and she’s absolutely incredible in the five minutes she has. That is but one scene among the countless indelible moments given to us by television, a mass-market high art at last. Watching TV during the Golden Age seemed to be “time well spent.” It was, largely, and that was the problem.

    “What implications are there in our sustained, voluntary immersion in something we hate?” David Foster Wallace asks in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction,” an essay so dated it’s tempting to substitute antonyms to see if it still works to opposite conclusions. What implications are there in our rapt if not virtually motionless immersion in something we enjoy? What happens when you give the people precisely what they want, and more often than not, all at once? This is not a premise for a dystopic Black Mirror episode but one we simply watched play out in real time—working on our night cheese, watching our stories. If we had to do it all over again, we should have asked for more, which means, of course, we should have asked for less.

    In the absence of a critical mass to take exception, art became “content,” as it is now commonly referred. Everywhere a market, anywhere a publicist. The strikes confirmed our suspicions that, as bad pandemic habits go, banging out half a season of White Lotus lay somewhere on the spectrum of ethical dubiousness along with three-square-daily Doordash meals. Today, a perilously naïve practice of criticism is more relevant than ever: a wariness toward pop; an insistence on “independent” subculture; absolutism in favor of live experience. In a desperate, futile, last gesture against mediation, to see things for ourselves.

    What was prestige television? It was what was on. There was too much of it, and now there won’t be as much ever again—there will only be some. Already, we look back on our Sunday nights with the sex dragons with bafflement. This sense of exhaustion will not stop the streamers from making sex-dragon prequels and sequels, and when they do, they will say they are doing it to quench our undying thirst for them.

    But we cannot watch. The peak is past, and the future is here. They are our stories to tell, and they will be untelevised. Time to be as human as possible. Time to be unrequited, unfulfilled. Our true enemy is revealed, and it is prestige itself. We cannot afford television regaining it.

    Colman is called away, having yet to impart her father’s credo. Richie runs after her to no avail. Looking absently upon the wall he realizes his answer has been there the entire time, on a plaque under the clock: “Every Second Counts.”

    Of course they do: only one life to live, only give or take eight episodes per season to make a mark on the American psyche. In the production of prestige, every moment, every frame, every second counts. And yet: No, they fucking don’t. Every second does not count. There is nothing you must see.

    M. C. Mah
    M. C. Mah
    M. C. Mah is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The Millions, Full Stop, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Tweets bimonthly at @byMCMah.





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