The New Wave of Prestige Drama

This past Sunday marked the official beginning of the end for the lauded Golden Age of television. With Breaking Bad beginning its final season and Mad Men’s final season coming this spring, we’re about 10 months away from the end of a television era that’s changed the way we watch, discuss, and think about television. At the center of the vast majority of these dramas is a deeply flawed hero (or heroes). The era made the term “antihero” so much a part of the popular lexicon that it now seems like we’ve been using the word since the dawn of television. So much of what these men (and they were all men) did was attention-catching and constantly captivating. These shows took so many chances, and pushed the limits to levels no one ever thought possible on television. It’s an age that will always be remembered for its compelling protagonists, and its willingness to attack our sensibilities.

Unfortunately, the increased levels of fandom that came with these shows had an unforeseeable consequence: increased fan expectations. Now, instead of being content to watch two detectives solve a murder, we want to know how the showrunners plan to continue the show in subsequent seasons. Fair or unfair, fans of Golden Age dramas watched too many of them clunk the ending. People are still upset about the cut to black. People still fire shots at Damon Lindelof on Twitter. Given the significant collateral put in by fans of these television shows, it’s not unreasonable for the fans to get a competent ending. It’s become part of the hustle with the new wave of television fandom. No longer can showrunners have a great starting point and then figure everything else out later. In 2013, you better have a great hook, and you need to know where the story is going. Into this breach steps the New Wave drama.

The increased demands of fans have led to a new set of dramas ready to take the reins from the Golden Age antiheros. While these series each have distinctive quirks and characters, many of the New Wave shows share common characteristics. With the preponderance of good television, it’s not good enough to simply have a show with strong performances. Much of what makes a New Wave drama feel special is a strong command of storytelling machinations. We’ve seen all of the different takes on the corrupt cop, the unstoppable serial killer, and the emotionally-stunted leader of a group. What’s more, we’ve seen many terrific performances by various actors in those roles. Sadly, it’s just not enough anymore. If you want in the New Wave, you have to tell us a story we haven’t seen before or in a while. Think about the rich setting of FX’s The Bridge, a marriage story encased in a spy drama with The Americans, or even the epic fantasy world of HBO’s Game of Thrones. These three dramas take us places we’ve rarely been, or tell stories that we’ve rarely seen.

While the diverse setting and stories of New Wave dramas have yielded impressive results, the jury is still out on some of the other aspects of New Wave dramas. As the degree of difficulty continues to heighten, an overwhelming amount of shows have begun to rely heavily on source material to give the storytellers an effective roadmap. Grounding the story in something that has worked before does provide the showrunners with a safety net, but source material can also hamstring the showrunners. Game of Thrones is the obvious example of this issue, but other New Wave dramas like The Bridge or Homeland have made decisions based on the series that proceeded their efforts. Having a story roadmap can help mitigate some of the problems faced by the Golden Age dramas, but too many shows are letting them be a hindrance to their storytelling.

Though it won’t be the last Golden Age drama off the air, Breaking Bad is the perfect bridge between these two eras. It took a troubled protagonist and made us love him. It pushed and pushed on the envelope until it ripped the damn thing right in half. It made us think differently about how television is made. And it pushed television cinematography in a direction rapidly approaching what we’d see in a movie. The show is one of the greater shining achievements of the era. However, Vince Gilligan has done more with plot and story than many of our Golden Age showrunners even bothered to consider. From the first episode of the series, everything has pointed us in this direction. Every action has had consequences, and every image has been dissected and discussed by the particulars involved. In many ways, the show is the perfect New Wave drama, but so many aspects (including its chronology) make it a Golden Age drama. Still, members of the New Wave should look to Breaking Bad as maybe the seminal example of what they’re hoping to be, and the feelings they want to illicit from their viewers.

The New Wave of prestige drama is just getting on track, so it’s hard to say how this era will ultimately be remembered. While it would be unfair for viewers to think these new shows would ever compare to The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad or Mad Men (the Mount Rushmore of Golden Age television), but it’s completely fair for viewers to expect this new crop of showrunners to apply some of the valuable lessons learned during the Golden Age. However, some shows continue to try to recapture the Golden Age but fail to measure up. Too many shows have already done it better. A great example is AMC’s weirdly disappointing Low Winter Sun. It has all the trappings of the next prestige drama, but it’s trying to recapture something that’s already been done far too well. The Golden Age is too fresh in our minds for shows like this to work. We’ve been there before, and The Shield did it a lot better.

Instead of trying to lean on the past, the New Wave dramas bravely trudge into the future. With broad appeal almost an impossibility at this point, our New Wave showrunners have gone the other direction. They don’t run from the dark corners of television. They dwell in them. With so many retreads on the dial, joining the ranks of the New Wave requires something different, something rare. The savvier television viewers become, the more shows have to bring it. Learn the lessons, have a plan, and execute flawlessly. Right or wrong, we won’t give you the time otherwise.