HBO’s Confederate and the False Promise of Prestige TV

In my last post I wondered why people were so leery of HBO’s upcoming show about the Confederacy–and specifically why they expected it to be bad and vulgar in particular ways.

Here’s my theory.

People love to talk about how peak TV is serious art and great literature and the high culture of our time and so on. But everyone secretly knows (or fears) that these shows are actually glitzy melodramas that sustain interest by dishing out contrived plot twists (who will die? who will bone?) until they gradually collapse into vulgar incoherence.

The shows always start out by raising serious questions. But they inevitably succumb to the Iron Law of Serial Television:

Keep the Surprises Coming.

Has a character earned our sympathy? Surprise! She just did something terrible. Has a character earned our hatred? Surprise! He’s actually sympathetic. Have two characters sworn to love each other forever? Surprise! They just broke up. But wait–surprise!–they’re back together. But no–surprise!–one of them just died in a horrible and arbitrary fashion. But wait–surprise!–he’s not dead after all! Are the heroes almost at their goal? Surprise! It was all just a trick; the goal is farther away than ever. Do you think you know where the story is going? Surprise! It just went in a completely different direction, even if the original but predictable direction actually made perfect sense.

The Iron Law of Serial Television means that a show about evil, scary white supremacists will eventually morph into a show about charming, sympathetic white supremacists who actually don’t seem so bad after all. A show about Black heroes triumphing over adversity will eventually turn into a show about how those Black heroes aren’t actually so heroic and their triumph was just an illusion and their adversity wasn’t quite what you thought it was. A show about serious political questions will eventually get bogged down in petty interpersonal dramas. A show that promises great revelations will eventually deliver only overwrought conspiracies. A show with a cast of great characters will eventually sacrifice several of those characters to gin up media buzz. A show that creates a coherent and compelling world will get picked up for more seasons, run out of gas, and start burning its internal structure for fuel.

The result is that popular shows go through five phases:

I: The Premise. In this phase, the world, concept, and characters are introduced. Viewers aren’t sure they’ll keep watching. There’s a lot to keep track of. Things seem kind of slow. Audience and critic comments focus mostly on technical aspects. Is this a cool idea for a show? How high are the production values? How is the acting? The writing? How does it look?

II: Development. Things pick up. The world starts to take shape. Characters become familiar. Suspenseful situations arise. Commentary focuses on the intriguing questions the show has raised: its treatment of class, race, gender, politics. Big issues have been broached. How will it all end? Viewership increases as recaps and debates draw in curious people who had been skeptical at first.

III: The Turning Point. The show has taken shape. Interesting relationships develop. The actors have come to understand their characters, tidied up their techniques, fallen into a natural routine. The fictional world has taken on a definite structure. The ideas and issues driving the show have now risen to the surface; viewers are convinced the writers have something valuable to teach, something meaningful to impart. And suddenly it happens: a series of surprising twists! Relationships that had seemed stable suddenly grow more complex. Characters aren’t what you thought. The fictional world is even deeper and richer than you formerly believed. The show begins to feel like much more than a work of fiction. In its surprising intricacy, its almost overwhelming complexity, it comes to feel–dare we say it?–like real life.

IV: The Decline. After stage III, commentary is ecstatic. Viewers are addicted, critics are rapturous. Pop media outlets serve up endless critical commentary. The show has become must-watch TV. And now, slowy, subtly, the decay sets in. The twists keep coming … and coming … and coming. Important characters die or disappear. Other characters behave in crazy or inconsistent ways, or slog through improbable crises and traumas that would break the soul of any ordinary mortal, or deliver longwinded speeches that sound an awful lot like a desperate writer’s attempt to tidy up messy plot developments. Promised relevations turn out to be big disappointments. Tonal shifts and stylistic errancies mar potentially dramatic moments. Branching plotlines lead nowhere, or turn back on themselves, or form confusing and overcomplicated tangles. The fictional world feels less and less like a real, organic, living universe, and more and more like a playpen for frantic writers who are running out of ideas. Viewers begin to boast that they no longer watch the show. Critical commentary glides away from serious discussion and settles for gossipy plot summaries. Fans debate when exactly the show began to decline and whether it will ever revive. Causal audiences–the people who don’t rewatch episodes or read recaps–complain that they no longer understand the show’s structure or mythology. Even die-hard fans begin to wonder: do the writers have a plan? Do they know where they’re going with all this? Do they genuinely have something meaningful to say?

V: The Windup. The decline lasts for weeks, months, years. True believers try to reassure their friends: yes, the show was bad for a while, but now it got good again, honest. Personnel changes spark brief revivals of interest. Critics write premature postmortems, discussing the show as if it’s already over. Viewers drift away, drift back, drift away again, claiming that they once took the show seriously but now see it mostly as a guilty pleausure, or stick with it out of loyalty, or simply need to find out what happens. People blame new showrunners or casting changes for ruining a once great work. And at last, mercifully, the end arrives. The final season airs. The finale is announced. Interest briefly revives, driven by a consuming question: can the writers pull it all together? Can they save their faltering show? Do they have tricks in store that will redeem the sensationalism, reward deserving characters, untangle the Gordian plotlines, clear up the bafflingly opaque backstory? The longer the show’s decline, the bigger the pressure. Can this giant, creaking train-wreck possibly drag itself into the station?

And, more often than not, the answer is: sort of. The finale airs, some people find it satisfying, some people don’t, some people think it’s horribly disappointing, and some people are more interested in saying goodbye to beloved characters than in understanding what the heck the whole crazy story was about. But everybody agrees on one thing: overall, the show was a disappointment.

Ah, but have you heard about the new show that just aired? The one with the great premise, the amazing cast, the high production values? Not only does it look fantastic, it’s tackling the big issues of our time. Critics can’t wait to see what the writers are planning. And if it’s this good at the start, just imagine what’s coming. After all, this is prestige TV. It’s the literature of our time. Sure, everyone gave up on that last absurd fiasco, but this one–this show is really going to deliver the goods …

Everyone knows this is what TV is like, even quality TV. We all know we’re being strung along by deceptive promises and sensational twists. We go on watching anyway, because being strung along like this is addictive and fun, especially when we get together to gossip about it with friends. But there’s a tension between riding this kind of media-induced hormonal rollercoaster–spending twenty-five hours a week watching flashy soap operas, with extra helpings of wordplay, eye-candy, nudity, and gore–and the grandiose cultural claims used to justify the habit.

“It’s true, I don’t really get outdoors much anymore … or to musuems, or the gym, or the movies, or concerts … yeah, and I don’t read as much as I used to … or pick up my guitar, or paint, or write … I would like to see my friends more … or study a second language … or work on that project I started … or even just take some time to sit and think. But I mean, how can I, when there’s so much good TV?

“And it’s genuinely good, right? It’s not an idle pastime, like TV used to be. It’s not light entertainment these days–all that brain-rotting, boob-tube nonsense our parents used to complain about. TV today is intellectually demanding. It’s real culture. It’s serious business. And the commentary! I mean, you at least have to keep up with all the smart commentary. And to do that, you have to watch the shows. That’s what’s relevant, now. That’s what it takes to be informed, in-the-know, up-to-date, engaged. To be part of the conversation. That’s what marks you as a serious person. Watching serious TV shows.”

Not everyone talks that way. But some people do. Serious people do. Enough people say these things that it’s always tempting to whisper a few of the arguments to yourself, after you’ve been sitting on the couch for six hours waiting to see who’ll get eaten next.

Until a show like Confederate comes along. Until the real serious issues land with a beg wet plop on the living room floor. Until the creators try to fall back on the old high-culture apologias. “Of course our show is controversial. Of course it’s risque. Of course it’s provocative and challenging and difficult. We’re making art, people. We’re tackling important issues in a deep and relevant way. This is vital, even necessary. We’re making serious television.”

And suddenly you start to see those nervous glances. Because, sure, we’ve all been talking about serious art, here. We’ve been saying all those nice inspiring things. But we know, deep down where it counts …

If you’re making serious art, you go in with serious convictions and a serious devotion to craft and a serious respect for your audience.

If you’re dealing with serious art, the audience goes in with serious levels of patience and attention and critical distance.

If you’re talking about serious art, the critics go in with serious arguments that also demand serious levels of time and thought, and it’s all, you know, very serious and demanding and what-not, and often rather boring, and now that we’re on the subject, it’s actually pretty darn exhausting to get serious about anything, and not at all like kicking back in a half-stupor with a bag of Cheetos after putting the kids to bed and letting Netflix serve up content until you pass out with orange fingerprints on your underpants, which is what we all actually feel like doing this Tuesday night.

But now suddenly here these people are with their serious TV show talking about serious social issues and serious this and responsible that, and no one quite wants to come out and say it, but everyone’s thinking the same things …

Uh, wait a minute. How many listicles am I going to end up reading about which evil white supremacists on this show are the most attractive and which of the slaves seems like good boyfriend material and whether the guy who hunts runaway slaves for a living will ship with the sexy journalist?

Wait a minute. Am I going to be stuck watching seventy hours of ridiculous cliffhangers and plot twists for the delayed cathartic satisfaction of seeing a few psychopathic slaveholder assholes get their comeuppance, only to be sucker-punched at the last second by some bullshit twist revealing that the slaveholder assholes weren’t so bad after all?

Wait a minute. Am I going to find myself taking online quizzes about which hero of the Confederacy I most resemble, or reading Uncle Tom slash fiction, or seeing creepy whipping-post fan art pop up in my Twitter feed?

Wait a minute. Is this going to be one of those things where we’re all gossiping for six years on social media about which character got raped or mutilated or eaten last week and whether this was problematic or actually kind of okay?

Wait a minute. Are certain psychopathic evil white supremacists on this show going to unexpectedly transform into brave beautiful white saviors, because they happen to be played by super-hot actors and that’s what the fans wanted?

Wait a minute. Is this show going to offer us a roster of inspiring, convincing Black heroes and heroines, then subject them to an endless gantlet of contrived traumas and pointless humiliations, or have them turn evil for no particular reason, or have them do absurd things that real human beings would never actually do, all for the sake of sustaining viewer interest?

Wait a minute. Is this whole show about serious issues going to eventually become a campy debacle rife with winking meta-gags that poke fun at its own tired tropes and hackneyed peripeties? Is this going to be the kind of show that curries favor with the smart set by making fun of its own poor taste?

Wait a minute. Do the people making this thing even know what they’re doing? Or are they just going to tease us with a bunch of provocative scenarios that eventually degenerate into an embarassing, self-indulgent, sloppy yarnball of reversals and complications and non sequiturs, because, come to think of it, this describes pretty much every single TV show that has ever existed, and now that you mention it …

Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute! Could it be that serious TV isn’t actually so serious at all? That in fact, in assuming the prerogatives of serious art, TV has actually gotten increasingly tawdry and sensational, with an ever-growing reliance on the visceral thrills of disgust, lust, rage, and dread? Could it be that a lot of these shows depend heavily on padding out their content with sexual titillations and protracted revenge fantasies? Should we all have been doing something different with our weekday nights?

Have I wasted my life?

But no, wait, it’s okay. Remember The Wire? The Wire was good, right? Except for, you know, that final season, in which it got ridiculous and contrived and everything went to pieces. But wait. Remember Breaking Bad? Breaking Bad never went to pieces. Except for, well, the uncomfortable fact that Breaking Bad is the most protracted revenge fantasy ever conceived. Ah, but remember Tina Fey and Amy Poehler? They’ve made some good shows. Except that, come to think of it, those women are perfectly content to make snappy, light entertainment in the old prime-time mode, and don’t bother much with claims to seriousness or highmindedness …

Well, no worries. Sure, peak TV isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we have been deluding ourselves about its artistic merits. But there’s still hope for serious, demanding art that also happens to be shamelessly diverting and compulsively addictive.

After all, we’ll always have video games.

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