You’ve probably heard that we are living in what is known as the age of Peak TV. It’s an accurate moniker. Not only is there a mind-boggling amount of television currently airing in the US and abroad, but so much of it is objectively brilliant. You can say with some confidence that film is no longer the most ambitious medium anymore, as so much boundary-pushing storytelling is being done on the small, rather than the silver, screen.
But while we might be experiencing some of the best television a cable package can provide, it’s hard to deny that there is a certain air about that praise. Television, on the whole, may be great, but if you’re looking for the really good stuff, those shows that take the biggest risks, have the best characters, and tell the most ambitious stories, what you really want is "prestige TV." If it’s not on a channel you have to subscribe to a la carte, is it even worth it?
Don’t get me wrong. Shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, American Gods and the like have been game changers in the television world, but as more and more series look to emulate that prestige model there is something that gets lost in the shuffle: the beauty of a classic television format and an appreciation for a serious message wrapped in a lighthearted package.
The prestige format is simple, a fact counter to its result. These are heavily serialized shows of a deeply serious nature. They play out much more like multi-part movies — or the old-fashioned mini-series they replaced — rather than a more traditional episodic season. It’s not often you encounter a prestige format series in which the episodes easily stand on their own. As viewers, we see this format, coupled with the high production values, and recognize it as quality. The serious tone tells us that this is a show with something to say. We hold these series as the ultimate examples of their genre and eschew anything that follows an older tradition. Perhaps no one says it out loud, but there is a mood, a tone, a general understanding that the lighthearted, lower production value of old-school episodic television is somehow less than.
That is categorically false.
While there is certainly some incredible storytelling happening on prestige, or prestige adjacent series (The Expanse, Orphan Black, Mr. Robot, Preacher, The Walking Dead, Legion, etc.) it would be foolish of anyone to dismiss some of the equally brilliant work being done on basic cable and network television.
Oh yes, I’m going there.
Obviously, we should start right here at SYFY, the OG of lighthearted science-fiction programming (and home to some of the earlier prototypes of those mini-series we were talking about earlier). Note that when I say “lighthearted,” I don’t mean unserious. You can be plenty serious while still maintaining your sense of humor along the way. Loss, ethical dilemmas, betrayal? Those are all much more palatable when they come with a dose of well-placed wit. Some of the most beloved series in science fiction and fantasy walk this line. Think of Farscape, Stargate SG-1, and Firefly in the '90s and early '00s and the way they set the stage for shows today. Series like Killjoys and Wynonna Earp owe much of their format to the series that came before.
But even while both these series crack jokes a mile a minute, they also deal with deeply felt character drama and explore fascinating themes about politics, religion, identity, family, and questions of what makes a good guy and a bad guy.
Perhaps one of the most surprising hubs of quality genre content, however, is The CW. I know. I’m just as shocked as you, but it’s true. I’ve already sung the praises of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, a show which explores questions of morality, redemption, and responsibility, all while building a running motif based around a fuzzy talking doll named Beebo.
The rest of the DC CW universe functions in a similar way, though none quite as successfully, or ridiculously, as Legends. Early seasons of Arrow forced Oliver Queen to learn how to seek justice without murder and face up to the sins of his father and himself. The Flash has struggled with the man he will someday become, while Supergirl has put Kara between her hero life and her normal one. Black Lightning, meanwhile, balances the struggles of family and fatherhood with the complicated issues of being a black vigilante in today’s political climate.
Possibly the best example of this perfect balance between fun and fascinating, though, is iZombie. What might have started as a zombie police procedural based on a Vertigo series of the same name has, over the last four seasons, wrestled with a variety of moral dilemmas ranging from whether zombies are people to the ethics of brain consumption. This last season took things to the next level. Despite the fact that it still thrusts its star into all manner of ridiculous personalities, the fourth season added a level of political discourse to its ethical debate, placing Liv in the center of a zombie/human resistance to a fascist overlord. Sound eerily familiar?
Just goes to show that you don’t need a premium subscription — or a dark and brooding tone — to find quality storytelling, three-dimensional characters, and a point of view worth debating the next morning right alongside the political struggles of Westeros.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.