When Did Audiences Stop Taking ‘Middlebrow’ Television Seriously?

Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello and Photos by CW, Fox, BBC America

If you paid attention to the conversation around The X-Files’ tenth season, you would probably think the new episodes wrecked the integrity of the original series. But the problem with The X-Files’ new season isn’t that it was outright terrible — it’s that it didn’t evolve to meet the expectations that come with being a “Golden Age” TV show. See, the new X-Files wasn’t all that different from the 1990s version audiences fell in love with: It was always a rather hokey, thoroughly middlebrow show, veering from excellent monster-of-the-week episodes to overarching mythology ones involving alien conspiracies, with plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. Its divisive return was a stark example of how much the medium has changed since the show's original run, the complicated relationship audiences have with middlebrow entertainment, and why shows from House of Cards to Game of Thrones choose to mis-market themselves as prestige TV.

Distinctions like “midbrow” and “highbrow” may seem like awkward descriptors within the current, massive television landscape, but they can provide a useful lens in terms of distinguishing what types of stories we find culturally important. Prestige television, as we’ve come to define it, boasts high production values, an interest in weighty themes, and, more recently, high-profile actors and behind-the-scenes talent. We can see the beginnings of this in The Sopranos continuing in recent years with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Rectify, and The People v. O.J. Simpson. Comedies like Veep and Louie can fall into prestige television, but much of what we deem “prestige” hews toward darker subject matter, presented with literary flair. Looking at some of the shows dubbed prestige over the last decade — the forgettable Bloodline, pure soap opera House of Cards, and exploitation-tinged Game of Thrones — you can see that the label doesn’t necessarily indicate consistent quality or depth, but the appearance of it. Bloodline also shows that looking like a prestige show, or even being one, doesn’t necessarily guarantee you public attention or awards — the problem is that shows like Bloodline seem to think they need to be viewed as highbrow to get the right attention (more on that in a minute).

Good midbrow television shares several important traits. As a viewer, what defines it more than anything else is the idea that audiences (and the show itself) need to have fun. If “prestige” television aims for the intellectual, midbrow is concerned with the visceral experience and pleasure that can come from TV. It cares less for blatantly weighty themes, instead prioritizing personality, directness, and engaging viewers without talking down to them. The 1990s and early 2000s had several midbrow shows that gained dedicated audiences and critical acclaim: The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, cop dramas like Homicide: Life on the Street, and Lost fit the bill. Although their history with the Emmys isn’t stellar — The X-Files and Lost were each nominated for Outstanding Drama at the Emmys four times; Lost only won once — they are still considered part of the TV canon. But around the time of Lost’s last season is when audience expectations began to shift.

The rise of shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, as has been said many a time, ushered in a new era of what television was supposed to be. These shows were full of literary references, white male anti-heroes, serious subject matter, and “important” themes. The overwhelmingly positive public reaction slowly created the idea that these shows offer the sort of drama and craft that adults want, and that American film couldn’t provide with any consistency as the box office became dominated by superheroes and reboots of beloved 1980s franchises. But what happened simultaneously is that shows that fit the definition of midbrow became less culturally validated, even though they were still some of the most interesting television out there.

Much of the best modern midbrow television today exists within genres that are often looked down upon when award season rolls around or people are looking for a more “important” show to watch: science fiction (Orphan Black); romantic period dramas (Outlander); lighter superhero adaptation (The Flash, Supergirl); or even period spy drama The Americans (which is more a show about interpersonal relationships, but its marketing as a spy drama in season-one stuck). Most of these are shows critics love and write about with some regularity. But even when midbrow television is critically acclaimed and beloved by those who watch it, it still doesn’t get much in the way of award recognition or break into the larger cultural conversation. Midbrow is considered good for right now, not for posterity.

Part of this is because of the sheer volume of television today, and the fact that The X-Files was unlike anything else we had seen on television when it debuted in the early 1990s. It mixed influences like The Twilight Zone and Philip K. Dick novels with a will-they-won’t-they dynamic between two extremely charismatic leads, and it’s had a huge influence on television today. But it’s also because how we think about genre shows on television has become siloed more than ever into categories the average viewer disregards as too niche. Game of Thrones is an exception, because it was arguably the first to do big-budget, “serious” fantasy, on HBO no less, despite its being a soapy, midbrow TV show at its core. Vikings, on the other hand, is seen as a good series, but it’s still pigeonholed as a genre show because it lacks the weight of the HBO brand and, coming on the heels of Game of Thrones, was dubbed as a copycat.

Some shows, like Jane the Virgin — which airs on the CW, a network where “midbrow” is built into its brand identity — are harder to define. Jane gracefully handles themes of motherhood, femininity, and Latino culture, while also clearly working hard to make every minute of the show blissfully entertaining. It isn’t that Jane the Virgin isn’t high quality or that its meta take on the telenovela isn’t as inventive as anything on prestige television. But Jane the Virgin’s problem is that it centers on themes and a genre that don’t fit neatly into the prestige narrative, and thus isn’t taken as seriously by mainstream audiences (though Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globe win for her performance as the titular Jane, and critical praise for the show, did go a ways toward getting people to consider it more than they otherwise would have). It’s indicative of a larger trend: Female-led shows that play around in more stereotypically masculine genres like noir, or look at the burdens of female existence by detailing themes like rape culture, are more likely to be deemed “prestige.” Just look at Top of the Lake, or the radically different responses, critically and culturally, to Jessica Jones and Supergirl.

This dynamic explains why certain modern midbrow shows market themselves as serious television and attempt to emulate the surface-level qualities of highbrow TV. House of Cards is at best midbrow, and, increasingly, a ridiculous soap opera that fancies itself much smarter than it is. It may have the acclaimed film actors and high production values we associate with highbrow television, but the show is as weighty as a piece of cotton candy, and when it incorporates heavy ideas, it treats them as a way to get to the next ridiculous twist. It isn’t alone: Bloodline, most of Showtime's lineup, including, most recently, Billions, Hulu’s new series The Path, and True Detective season two also exhibit a vast gap between what they are and what they perceive themselves to be. This trend is understandable: Shows want to be a part of the cultural conversation and, to a degree, they need to be to survive. But if series like House of Cards would embrace their true, pulpy nature, it would just make for a better show. Shonda Rhimes has created an empire out of bringing a sense of grace and ridiculous fun to what are essentially nighttime soaps. At her best, Rhimes respects the genres she works within, knows how to intimately speak to her audience, and even to handle serious themes without it coming across like empty grandstanding.

UnREAL perhaps illustrates the best of what midbrow TV has to offer. Part of its breakout appeal last summer was because no one was expecting it to be good. It’s a Lifetime show, with no A-List name talent in front of, or behind, the camera. The premise — the behind-the-scenes drama of a Bachelor-esque reality-television show through the eyes of an emotionally messy, prickly producer played by Shiri Appleby (known for her turn on '90s midbrow show Roswell) — has “guilty pleasure” written all over it. But UnREAL ends up cleverly critiquing the same ethos that Lifetime is built on — an arguably sexist view of what women are into and where their worth lies. It’s an incredibly smart show that has an honest understanding of race and gender dynamics when it comes to beauty and dating in ways that continued to surprise me throughout its first season. It’s also a very dark show in how it approaches domestic violence and mental illness. But UnREAL doesn’t advertise its darkness or feel gritty, and lacks the studied air and slower pace of many prestige shows. On another network, like HBO, with a higher budget, bigger talent, and presumably different marketing, the conversation around UnREAL would be dramatically different.

Serious, so-called prestige television isn’t bad. There are many series I love that fall into that category. But the obsession with these types of shows — and our cultural tendency to see a certain type of show as having artistic worth — has put a stranglehold on television’s creativity in terms of what types of stories are prioritized. Midbrow television has so much value beyond shameless fun. The Flash has some of the most interesting takes on modern masculinity; Jane the Virgin is the best example of balancing a meta take on a genre with incredibly rich, sincere emotional landscapes; UnREAL is perhaps one of the most intelligent examples of the way we harm one another and ourselves in our quest for success. Midbrow television has given us new takes on themes prestige television often isn’t as interested in, from sweeping romances and new motherhood to body politics. It's still really good — and it also just breaks the monotony.