Are we nearing the end of prestige TV? Many such headlines ran last year as a slew of the biggest shows on streamers and cable networks came to an end, from Max’s Succession to Netflix’s The Crown to AMC’s Better Call Saul.

In his latest book Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV (400 pages, William Morrow, 2023, $32.50), Peter Biskind brings his critical attention to the phenomenon of prestige TV (also known as peak TV). In general, prestige TV refers to the “Golden Age” of television, starting from the turn of the millennium to now. It was named after the first “Golden Age in Television” from the 1950s, and describes television programming marked by its high production values, innovative storytelling, and complex and morally ambiguous characters. In Pandora’s Box, Biskind argues for an understanding of contemporary television history that considers how changing business models and technologies impact storytelling and viewing audiences’ habits.

Biskind is a cultural critic and film historian who served as editor in chief of American Film magazine and as executive editor of Premiere in the 1980s and 1990s. His writing has appeared in several national publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, and he currently serves as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He’s published eight books, including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood and Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film.

Pandora’s Box looks at the contributions made by HBO, cable networks, and streaming services to prestige TV. The network was merged with Warner Bros. in 1989, and in 2023 the streaming version of HBO was rebranded MAX.

For Biskind, HBO laid the groundwork for establishing a new model of TV with programming and audiences that could be described as “anti-network.” Biskind offers historical background into the development of HBO as it’s known today, and he explains that because HBO was not beholden to advertisers and sponsors in the same way as traditional broadcasters, this allowed the company to tell stories that couldn’t be told elsewhere. HBO cultivated programming and viewers with a taste and high tolerance for violent anti-heroes, self-deprecating humor, shock value, black comedy, jocular vulgarity, and a crudeness bordering on sexism and misogyny.

Early successes included The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted in 1992 and lasted six seasons, a sitcom about an insufferable comic with a late-night show and an acid tongue who lords over the cast of characters. Then, before there was The Sopranos, there was Oz, a prison drama that ran for six seasons starting in 1997, which proved that HBO showed what the networks wouldn’t touch: an intensity of blood and violence, and a compelling penchant for narrative dilemmas that might seem impossible on the networks (such as killing off the lead character). A year later, Sex and the City premiered. Based on the sex columns of Candace Bushnell, the show followed the metropolitan travails of four modern women and discussed topics that had hardly skimmed the surface of broadcast TV: women’s sexual autonomy, homosexuality, sexual health, and cancer, among other topics. Incorporated into the discussion of all these shows is the importance of the executives who shaped HBO, such as Michael Fuchs, Sheila Nevins, and plenty more.

In response to HBO’s critical success with The Sopranos, the crime drama that broadcast for six seasons starting in 1999, basic cable had to step up to the plate. Basic cable channels like FX and AMC were forced to rethink their programming, which in turn elicited edgier programs, such as FX’s The Shield and Nip/Tuck, and AMC’s Mad Men.

When Netflix hit the streaming stage of TV, Biskind notes that its achievements came in part from disrupting the industry by instituting unconventional business tactics (for example, releasing an entire season’s episodes for viewers to binge-watch) and from the quality of the programming that harkened back to the grittiness and edginess of The Sopranos. The streaming model allowed for new narrative possibilities through a show’s pacing and plot. “Streaming, and bingeing in particular,” Biskind writes, “revived season-long and even series-long story arcs that allowed us to have story and character at the same time. Moreover, whereas network gospel dictated, ‘Don’t confuse the viewer,’ eliminating the intervening week between episodes meant they could fracture their narratives.” Shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black (both of which started streaming in 2013) found success in humanizing the bad-good guys (or girls) who resembled morally gray characters like Tony Soprano.

Pandora’s Box offers an intriguing perspective on the developments of TV programming. Biskind’s writing voice is informative, entertaining, and wry, a combination that pleasantly matches the irreverence of many of the shows under discussion in the book.

Now, as many have pointed out, prestige TV might be in its final days, and this might also be due to the changing dynamics between networks and streamers. Streamers appear to be in a state of crisis. Netflix, for example, inflates its programming with A-list celebrity talent, which comes at a premium, and lures network and cable producers with record-setting deals (Think: Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy). To compete and bring in some money, streamers have also incorporated ad-supported tiers for subscription, which might have an adverse effect on the type of programming available on these platforms. “As the streamers become more heavily dependent on ads, expect that the sponsors will want to exercise control over content, just as they do on the networks,” writes Biskind. The overall TV landscape appears to be that streamers’ programming is looking more like the network shows of yore while the networks are getting marginally more edgy. As Biskind puts it: “To some degree, streamers and networks are trading places.”

(By Luis Polanco)

Audio Version (a DV Works service)

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