How prestige TV mistook coarseness for ambition
When the whole country went bonkers for Stranger Things this past summer, the media spilled thousands upon thousands of words on why the Netflix sci-fi series was such a big hit, obsessing over the cast, the music, the mythology… you name it. But one big factor was largely overlooked. Yes, creators Matt and Ross Duffer tapped deep into 1980s nostalgia; and yes, they cleverly recombined the work of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Hughes, and John Carpenter. But there's also this: Stranger Things is rated TV-14. Parents can share it with their older children — or at the least they can watch it without keeping one finger on the pause button in case their kids walk into the room.
Let me state upfront that I'm no prude. I'm in favor of Game of Thrones packing as much gratuitous nudity as it can fit into an hour. I want Ash vs Evil Dead to be more disgustingly violent than any show that's ever aired on television. Veep wouldn't be Veep if 75 percent of the dialogue weren't unprintable in a daily newspaper.
I'll add that I'm not an especially restrictive parent. My wife and I try to stay aware of what our kids are watching and reading — mainly by talking to them, not by snooping — so we know they watch YouTube videos with foul language and probably worse. I'm not overly concerned. I remember what I was looking at surreptitiously when I was their age. A lot of growing up happens without parental guidance.
But over the past couple of years, I've had many conversations online and in person with TV-loving parents who admit that they've fallen behind on critically acclaimed "prestige" television, and not just because there's too much of it for any one person to follow. The problem — for them and for me — is that just about every "best of the year"-type show on the air right now has to be watched after the kids are securely in bed. And given that we also have to sleep at some point, that leaves us a window of about 90 minutes a night to catch up on Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, Survivor's Remorse, Silicon Valley, The Americans, and every other outstanding series that's packed with profanity, violence, drugs, and/or sexuality.
Again, I don't want any of those shows to change to suit my schedule. One of the best new series of the fall is FX's Atlanta, which is set in a milieu populated by rappers and drug dealers, and earns every pro-marijuana sentiment and f-word. That's exactly how it should be.
Still, I'd argue that there's an under-recognized demand for the networks, cable channels, and streaming services to develop more properties like Stranger Things, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or another of this season's exceptional newcomers, OWN's Queen Sugar. None of these are "for kids." But they're mature, well-made television programs that grownups can feel comfortable watching at any time.
It's not like "quality" and "TV-MA" are inexorably linked. Before The Sopranos made adults-only drama both commercially and critically viable, television spent about 50 years generating the likes of Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Combat!, Star Trek, M*A*S*H, Barney Miller, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Seinfeld, The X-Files, The Simpsons… the list goes on. Superior writing, directing, and acting didn't spontaneously arrive on the tube in 1999, nor did the medium suddenly find the will to deliver nuanced takes on morally complex social issues. I wouldn't say that any of the shows I cited above were creatively neutered by their inability to swear.
So why does seemingly every ambitious, critically acclaimed new series these days come with an "LSV" warning (for adult language, violence, sexual situations, and nudity)? Is this just a "because we can" scenario, or is the mature content aesthetically warranted?
Some of it is just standard-issue showbiz copy-catting. Remember when Lost became a hit and so the major networks ordered up series packed with flashbacks and teased-out mysteries? Post-Sopranos, we saw a boom in amoral anti-heroes. In the wake of Mr. Robot, television directors are becoming overly excited by off-kilter framing. How television looks and what it says is often determined by the impression the producers want to give. The quickest way to position a new drama (or sitcom, these days) as "serious" is to keep the lighting low, the pacing slow, the acting muted, and the language coarse.
Let's not discount either that social mores have changed considerably over the past two decades. Primetime broadcasts on network television in 2016 contain words and references that would've been cut at the script stage in 1996 — or in some cases even 2006. Family Feud is now engineered to generate smutty answers. Commercials for razors openly tout what they can do to trim pubic hair. Female pop singers these days are apparently required to bump-and-grind onstage in skimpy bodysuits. Last December, I started watching a silly "best Christmas commercials of all time" special and turned it off early because the hosts were making drug jokes — I guess because even a simple exercise in nostalgia has to be "edgy."
The result is that, quite honestly, my wife and I have never watched much TV with our teenage son and preteen daughter. We watch reality competitions like The Amazing Race and The Great British Baking Show with them, as well as family-friendly superhero shows like The Flash and Supergirl. But even something as innocuous as The Big Bang Theory we save for ourselves, because there are too many sex jokes for relaxed multi-generational viewing. (Though at least we can watch BBT in the early evening, rather than waiting until 10 p.m.)
From my conversations with friends, I don't think my viewing habits or skittishness about mature content are all that unique. Which raises some questions: Is the decline in TV-watching in the younger generation solely because they're all glued to their phones and computers? Or is it maybe because the television industry has made it unnecessarily difficult for modern parents to bond with their kids in front of the set?
I don't know that there's a "solution" to offer here, because I doubt that the media companies or even the vast majority of TV fans see this as a "problem." The goal for producers and viewers alike is must-see television. Often, that means shows that push the envelope in terms of how explicit they can be.
And I reiterate: I don't have any beef with that. I'll be watching The Walking Dead when it comes back in a few weeks. I'm looking forward to Westworld. I hope the second season of Master of None is as earthy as the first.
But as someone who grew up in an era when television was genuinely a mass medium — and not just a clearinghouse for niche programming — I'd also like to see the gatekeepers broaden their definitions of "great" a bit, to allow for more variety in tone, intent, and potential viewership. And I'd like to see clearer divisions between what "TV-14" and "TV-MA" really mean. Let network sitcoms be unambiguously mature (like CBS' excellent Mom) or pitched to a general audience (like ABC's equally superb Black-ish). Ditto dramas, action-adventures, game shows, or what-have-you. The rapid creep of grown-up material into what used to be called "the family hour" has been dismaying.
More to the point, I think it may be bad for business. Right now there's more A-level television being produced than at any other time in the medium's history. But too much of it is tailored to the same groups of young adults, which ultimately alienates the demographic with fond memories of watching The Honeymooners, Cheers, or Good Times with their parents. Inevitably, that may leave the children of those older viewers with no memories of watching TV at all.