The Tyranny of Prestige Or: Why I’m Only Slightly Embarrassed About What I’ve Been Watching Recently

 Miranda Davis, Columbia University

As a person who watches an egregious amount of television and talks about television roughly constantly, it’s an occupational hazard that people are always coming up to me with recommendations for shows that they think I should watch. I’ve decided to be rather self-serving in this article and use it as a PSA to said recommenders. Here goes: PLEASE STOP TELLING ME TO WATCH THINGS SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY’RE “GOOD.” It hurts me and, more importantly, it hurts televisual culture.

I promise I’m not fangirling Pierre Bourdieu, I don’t particularly want to get into the politics of taste or cultural capital here. I’m no maverick. I’m not going to deny that there are good shows and bad ones. There are certainly shows that are objectively better than others. But this is a slippery slope, because at some point, valuing quality becomes overwhelming and begins to preclude taste. We get to that cold impersonal place of “I like this because it’s good,” rather than “this is good because I like it.” Film is like this – not being a Bourdieu fangirl, I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing. We see movies because they’ve been nominated for awards or because they have high scores on Rotten Tomatoes. (I myself am hugely guilty of choosing movies based on their RT scores.) This works for movies. The same goes for literature. I read books that are well-crafted. I watch movies that are well-crafted.  It’s like going to a museum to look at a piece of art. I’m going to see something good, something I can admire, with no further expectations.  But this only works because we relate to books and film very differently than we relate to television. When I sit down to watch a movie or read a book, I want to appreciate it, to feel that I’ve gained something from the experience. It’s like an interesting conversation with a stranger. You engage, you work your brain a little, and you go your separate ways. When I watch a television show, I’m not just looking to have an interesting conversation. I’m looking to fall in love.

Watching a show is so much more personal than sitting down to a two-hour movie. To choose to watch five, six seasons of something is to agree to experience half a decade with those characters. It is to commit to welcoming strangers into your life and to emotionally investing yourself in their problems. I’m reminded of my friend’s sister who would excuse herself from the dinner table to go be with her “real family” – aka go watch Parenthood alone in her room. Sometimes “good” isn’t good enough. Technical quality will not capture a piece of my heart and make me feel invested.

Last year I pushed through two seasons of The Sopranos and then gave up, because I felt nothing for it. Watching a show requires cumulatively giving over full days of your life to it. To continue our metaphor from before, it’s like buying the painting you saw in the museum and hanging it in your living room. There’s no impetus to do that without an emotional connection. I just watched all four seasons of Revenge. Objectively, Revenge and The Sopranos aren’t even in the same league (in case you were curious, Revenge has a 75% on RT, Sopranos has a 97%) Love is blind. (Although I am enough of a snob to have hated myself a little bit the whole time I was watching.)

I appreciate when shows are smart, well-written, beautifully shot, but those are qualities that I can only recognize intellectually. To commit to having these stories and these characters in my life week after week (or hour after hour if I’m binging), I need a more spiritual connection. The other month, Alan Sepinwall tweeted in response to an inquiry into whether it was worth it to watch Lost, “A lot of lows, but the highs are insanely high.” Lost isn’t prestige television. It’s not “good” in any objective evaluative way. It’s often laughably heavy-handed and nonsensical. It’s not sophisticated or filmic.  (It’s probs objectively still better than Revenge though.) But if you like Lost, you like it despite its flaws; it’s not an intellectual connection, but something more visceral. We must not allow taste to become objective, because we’ll all end up slogging through critically acclaimed Netflix dramas when we’d much rather be watching something else.

As a person who watches an egregious amount of television and talks about television constantly, I also get a lot of requests for show recommendations. As a rule, I only give recommendations when I have a solid grasp on someone’s personality and a comprehensive picture of their previous viewing history. I will not ask you to watch a show simply because it’s good. “Good” is definitely an incentive, but it is not and cannot be the only criterion for taste.