The Tube: If it looks like quality?

House of Cards
House of Cards, an adaptation of a previous BBC series of the same name, is one of Netflix’s most recent attempts at original programming.

Every mall in America has a kiosk full of bright colored, often gaudy purses, intended to mimic designer styles but sold for a fraction of the price. While some of them look quality at first glance, upon closer examination, the stitching usually isn’t quite right and the materials just feel cheaper.

This knock-off purse example parallels what is currently happening with a lot of “quality” television shows; they look like quality, but they’re imposters. Beyond their aesthetics and the star power of some of their actors, they are formulaic, far from being compelling television and probably won’t hold up with time. Some of the quality-imitators I’m thinking of include Boss, House of Cards and The Following.

The term “quality TV” started being used in the ‘80s, and referenced what some, or at least media scholar Robert J. Thompson, considered to be television’s Second Golden Age. Quality shows, such as thirtysomething, L.A. Law and Twin Peaks, stood out as more detailed, complex and edgy (more violence! more sex!) than other “formulaic” and staid television offerings airing at that time. The shows themselves were not only heralded as being different, they were also unique in attracting “quality” audiences, particularly young, affluent and well-educated viewers that were still thought to be developing brand loyalties and had lots of extra cash to burn.

According to TV critic Alan Sepinwall, and his book The Revolution Was Televised, we are in yet another golden age of TV because of shows like Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, The Wire and a dozen more. I agree with his book in that these examples of quality TV content do follow certain trends, such as the popularization of the anti-hero, use of large ensemble casts, increasingly serialized narrative forms (basically making TV akin to a bunch of extended novels or more like daytime soap operas) and greater emphasis on single auteurs or program showrunners as having artistic control.

These characteristics or trends are what most quality and faux-quality shows mimic, and they are how channel executives frame and market their programming in order to lure quality audiences to their productions. And every channel is trying to get into the quality TV game right now, particularly Starz, Netflix and broadcasters like Fox.

For example, Starz’s Boss featured Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago Mayor who hid his degenerative neurological disease that plagued him with dementia and hallucinations. Grammer alone marked the show as “quality,” as did the addition of Gus Van Sant directing the pilot, the on-location filming in Chicago and the Golden Globe nods. Despite all of this, the show suffered from weird narrative pacing, annoying plot tangents and was often too cynical to foster any emotional connection with viewers. Yet, the aesthetics and the accolades marked the show as “quality,” even if the show as a whole didn’t fully convince us of it achieving that status.

House of Cards is one of Netflix’s most recent attempts at original programming. The show features Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a Democratic Congressman from South Carolina who was skipped over for Secretary of State and is now on a path of vengeance. Underwood is sly, power hungry and generally evil–all characteristics I love–but his talking directly to the camera, a style carried over from the original BBC trilogy, and weak one-liner words of wisdom often come across as trivial and void of charm. The show is visually pleasing, with the first two episodes shot by David Fincher (The Social Network), but the show is otherwise a conventional retelling of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. House of Cards looks like quality TV, but its underdeveloped characters and unbelievable plot twists prevent it from achieving that status (and I say this despite the fact that I enjoyed watching the whole thing in one weekend).

Fox’s The Following also uses a familiar face to anchor the show: Kevin Bacon. Bacon’s character, Ryan Hardy is a former FBI agent who is helping track an escaped serial killer, a college professor named Joe Carroll, whom he is credited with originally bringing to justice. The show is visually interesting mostly because of its gratuitously gruesome embrace of blood and gouged out eye sockets, but we’ve seen it all before. Ken Tucker, a reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, nailed one of my biggest pet peeves about the show: “The weakest part of The Following is the idea that Carroll is a college professor who held classes spellbound with lectures about Thoreau, Emerson and, most crucially, Edgar Allan Poe.” According to the plot, these lectures are so powerful,the professor’s mystique so strong, that they inspire his students to kill! Not only is that just outright annoying, but the continual Poe quoting and literature-inspired killings fail at even being pretentious.

These shows just don’t deliver on what their appearances and star powers promise, namely something new, edgy, emotionally compelling and genre blurring, but because they look a certain way we often assume that they’re great. Quality shows are supposed to enlighten and challenge the viewer, and these programs fall short of that, too. Of course, quality shows aren’t perfect either, yet something about them still captivates us. Faux quality TV may have similar visual style and narrative elements to quality TV, but ultimately doesn’t hold up upon closer inspection.

Melissa Zimdars actually likes most of these faux quality shows, but none of them as much as The Real Housewives of Vancouver.

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