13 Signs You’re Watching a ‘Prestige’ TV Show

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Jude Law, wearing one of his many hats on The Young Pope. Photo: HBO

Do you need help recognizing whether the show you’re watching is good, serious TV? What if you thought the thing you’d fallen in love with was high-quality entertainment, but actually it’s just cheap trash? Or maybe you’re a showrunner who needs to make sure we all understand that you’re not just sending random episodic pabulum out into the universe? How can you signal to your audience that what they’re watching is valuable and important?

Logan Hill wrote a Vulture list of the 13 rules for creating a prestige TV drama in 2013, and many, many of those rules still stand. But in 2017, there are lots of additional ways a TV show can communicate its importance, and simultaneously, some of those earlier rules seem to have fallen by the wayside. Let’s run down your options:

1. “It’s like a novel.”
This is maybe the oldest, most reliable way to tell us that your show is actually far more important than regular, dumb, mass-market TV. It’s not TV — it’s literature, but with title credits and a ten-episode season order. It’s a trope that dates back all the way to 1995, if you can believe it! The Wire and The Sopranos are probably the shows that really ground this idea in our collective conversation, and in spite of regular pushback from critics, it just will not go away.

2. “It’s like a movie.”
See above, except it includes even more pointed implications of cinematographic sophistication, narrative complexity, and high production values. It probably also implies the ability to swear and depict (usually female) nudity. The most egregious current example is Game of Thrones, which its creators recently described as “like a 73-hour movie.” More broadly, though, the impulse to tie prestige together with “cinematic” covers everything from Mr. Robot to Transparent to Big Little Lies to Fargo, and is regularly used without much precision about what, precisely, it means.

3. They’re not episodes, they’re “chapters.”
An extension of the “it’s like a novel” claim, the important distinction here is that you, as a viewer, should hold off on making conclusions about the series because what you’re seeing is an incomplete piece. You wouldn’t judge a book by a “chapter,” so you can’t judge a series based on one episode. Because it’s not an episode, it’s a chapter! (Or in the case of The OA, it’s not season two, it’s part two.) A sampling of shows with episodes either named or described as chapters: American Horror Story season six, Jane the Virgin, Legion, The Good Place, House of Cards, Stranger Things.

4. It’s not a first season, it’s a “pilot.”
This is particularly pointed at Netflix, which is fond of describing its first seasons as the “pilot” of the show. You know it’s prestige TV when it’s confident you have ten hours of your life to sit through something before knowing what the “pilot” looks like. The most notable example of this is in the Netflix paradigm of TV making, where a show like Bloodline was supposed to have an entire first-season-length pilot.

5. Winking self-awareness.
Is this show in on its own joke? Or not? It’s so deathly self-important, but maybe that’s the point? Welcome to what could also be called The Young Pope category, where ambiguous positions of self-mockery and absent sincerity are transformed into an ouroboros of perplexing, dizzying, self-conscious circularity. Corey Atad described The Young Pope as mostly “an extended, weekly conversation about the absurd fact that the show exists at all,” which must surely be a height (or nadir) of prestige as a project.

6. Darkness.
Hey, stuff is serious! Definitely turn off most of the lights. Ideally your primary color palette is also heavily tilted toward the browns and grays. If you must use saturated primary colors, they’d better be because someone is bleeding in an aesthetically artful way. If it’s absolutely necessary, you may also throw in some beautifully framed, lingering landscape shots with dramatic colors. A short, incomplete list of shows with weirdly insufficient lighting: The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire, Mr Robot, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Walking Dead, and every Netflix Marvel series.

7. What the hell is even happening right now?
Maybe you know you’re watching a prestige show because it’s hard to see. But maybe you know you’re watching a prestige show because you can see it, but you still have no idea what’s going on. To be fair to television, there’s a long-standing tradition of thinking of high-minded, serious art as being the stuff that most people can’t “get,” so it’s not like anyone is reinventing the snobby wheel here. But that doesn’t make it any less pointed when you come away from an episode of Legion and think “wow, this must be a very fancy show, because seriously, what did I just watch?” Notable recent examples also include Mr. Robot, Westworld, The Leftovers, and, of course, The Young Pope.

8. “All the pieces matter.”
Related to “what the hell is happening right now?,” all the pieces matter has grown trickier as a prestige signifier because streaming services, DVRs, and general binge-viewing paradigms have made it much easier for television to assume a high degree of attentiveness from its audience. Gone are the days when you could skip an episode of something and assume you were still pretty much up-to-date on what a TV drama was doing. As a result, “all the pieces matter” is increasingly a part of any TV show, serious and frivolous alike. But if you find that your TV show is especially fond of dropping tiny, Easter-egg clues that require extensive GIF posts to decipher, you’re probably looking at some prestige. The underlying implication of this is that prestige requires your increased attention — as Noel Murray writes in a discussion of “mid-reputable” as a TV category, prestige TV “is often subject to intense scrutiny, with fans and critics evaluating every plot twist, stylistic choice, and coded message.” This is infamously associated with Lost — but, wow, did Westworld ever blow that level of Easter-egg hunting out of the water.

9. The sad man.
This is such a familiar trope by now that books have been written on the topic, and it was the opening gambit of Vulture’s 2013 prestige TV rule book. We’ve already taken some steps toward dismantling the white-knuckled grip that sad, violent men have had on prestige TV protagonicity. Nevertheless, the idea has carried such juice over the past decade, that the contours of it are absolutely still etched into our collective unconscious. Serious TV is about probably middle-aged, probably white, probably deeply flawed men who are just struggling to make their way through the world. Chances are decent that they treat women poorly; chances are also good that they’ve got some anger-management issues. See: True Detective, Ray Donovan, Feed the Beast, Billions, Mr. Robot, Legion, Better Call Saul, The Leftovers, along with the by now endlessly familiar raft of these series from the past several years.

10. Breasts.
Hey, do you know what you can show on prestige TV outlets like HBO or Starz or streaming services, that you just cannot show me on CBS? Breasts. This is particularly handy for your sad man protagonists, who need breasts to gaze upon and then cast aside in despair when their inner emptiness has not been fulfilled by the arrival of breasts. In concert with sad men, this trope is being dismantled ever so slightly with the tiny uptick in male nudity, but it’s still a good idea to throw some breasts in there. Corollary: Can you watch this show in front of your kids without flinching? Not prestige. Oh, Game of Thrones. Oh, Westworld. Oh, Girls.

11. Literally nothing is funny.
You know what’s a dead giveaway that you’re watching something unimportant, something that’s light and flippant and fluffy and ultimately meaningless? You’re laughing. At most, prestige TV should induce a wry chuckle or possibly a single, derisive snort. If you find yourself openly giggling, or — heaven forbid — actually full-out belly laughing, what you’re looking at is unquestionably not meant to stand the test of serious TV time. Is there a laugh track? Send it straight to the ephemera pile. (Note: This list is focused on signifiers of prestige for fictional TV only. Prestige nonfiction TV commentary à la John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and select Seth Meyers bits are allowed to be funny, but if you find them diverging into real silliness you’ll know you’ve exited the most critical bits.) American Crime is a strong example of this genre, as well as shows like The Americans, the new Shots Fired, and even shows with more opportunities for humor, like Outlander, Feud, or Masters of Sex.

12. It’s not just not funny; it’s deeply depressing.
Did the thing you just watched make you feel simply, openly, emptily happy? How about gleeful? Joyful? Thrilled with the human condition? Tickled? Open to the transcendent experience of being alive? How about just cheerful? Yeah, that is not prestige. Prestige comedies can exist, but they should be checkered with moments that make you distinctly uncomfortable, or at least, very mixed (See: Baskets, Last Man on Earth, Divorce, Louie, Girls.) Likewise, comedy can feature into prestige dramas, but your dominant emotional response should be something much more muddled and complex than simple joy. “Solemnity,” writes Elizabeth Alsop, “feels less like the exception than the rule.” I dare you to watch The Leftovers and surface feeling anything other than existential despair; I look forward to similar feelings about Hulu’s upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale.

13. Movie stars (and directors).
Maybe one of the biggest shifts since Logan’s 2013 “13 Rules” post on prestige TV, the incipient boom in movie stars (and directors like Steven Soderbergh) who are making the jump to television is now one of the surest ways to communicate that what you’re about to watch is no mere episode of NCIS. Nicole Kidman wouldn’t waste her time on something schlocky or poorly made! So why should you? See: Big Little Lies, Feud, Billions, Westworld, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and upcoming series like HBO’s Sharp Objects.

None of the things on this list exist in a vacuum — they’re all the result of a complicated, multifaceted cultural and institutional system, including everything from the rise of streaming platforms, the earlier boom in cable and “it’s not TV” programming, the still-pervasive sense that serious, male-focused, dark, and violent content is more important than fiction about women or comedy.

There are also tons of exceptions. There are TV series that use darkness well (love you, The Americans), comedies that break through into critical “prestige” status (come through, Search Party, BoJack Horseman, and Atlanta), series about sad men that also include complex, dynamic female characters (I miss you, Mad Men), and shows that call their episodes “chapters” and nevertheless manage to make those “chapters” thoughtful, well-edited, well-constructed pieces of TV storytelling (snaps forever, The Good Place and Jane the Virgin).

But the new bulk of peak TV also means that there are ever-increasing hours of TV, which means ever-increasing opportunities to apply prestige signifiers to a narrative without probing what they do for an audience, or why (or whether) they’re necessary. Unbearably dark, humorless, overly baroque “movie-like” TV or series that take forever to get to their points, become a shorthand for prestige without necessarily including the basic storytelling building blocks or essential humanity that make a story work. (You know I’m looking at you, Westworld. You know I am.)

And even when these signifiers are being applied to shows that are excellent, it’s led to a weird flattening of the TV landscape. At a moment when there is so much TV, it’s a little annoying that so much of it still looks, sounds, and frames itself so similarly. Even more frustrating, too many of these prestige signifiers actually work at cross-purposes to the thing they’re trying to accomplish. TV that tries too hard to be “novelistic” too often results in baggy, messy, poorly paced seasons where the opportunities and advantages of episodic storytelling have been discarded. Rather than coming across as distinctive, a series with the aesthetic innovation of Mr. Robot can quickly become a parody of itself, or worse, just dull. Series that place undue emphasis on intensely elaborate plotting too often lose the forest of sense within the endless examination of every tiny leaf. And rampant, unmitigated humorlessness is exhausting.

There are exceptions to all rules, and there are lots of reasons why we got to this place. I’m ready to move on, though. I’m tired of prestige getting in the way of good TV.

Why Are We So Sure ‘Prestige’ TV Looks Like a 10-Hour Movie?
13 Signs You’re Watching a ‘Prestige’ TV Show