Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Zora Sanders defends Highbrow TV

by Zora Sanders , June 5, 20142 Comments

Last week at the Highbrow vs Lowbrow Cultural Showdown, six of our favourite writers faced off to defend their preferred cultural forms. This week, we’re publishing their speeches in full for your edification. Here, Zora Sanders defends highbrow TV.


I’m going to be honest with you. I feel a little guilty being gifted highbrow TV as a subject to defend. It’s kind of like being asked to defend Muhammad Ali against Sonny Liston, or to defend pizza over kale, or cats over dogs. Highbrow TV doesn’t need a defender! It’s a battle that has been won! Highbrow TV is downright fucking awesome and every single person reading this already knows it.

The only thing that’s even vaguely in question, is how we decide which shows make it into the ‘highbrow’ category. Is Game of Thrones highbrow because it’s complicated and expensive and people sometimes make long speeches? Or is it lowbrow because there are dragons and gratuitous sex and sometimes the CGI is a bit dodgy? Is Girls highbrow because it’s topical and edgy and on HBO? Or is it lowbrow because it’s trivial and exasperating and a comedy?

If we must come up with a definition of highbrow TV, I think the category should be reserved for those shows that really are in a class of their own. To be truly highbrow, a show must: be brilliantly written, genuinely insightful, deeply original, demonstrate longevity and be influential on the medium itself and culture generally.

There aren’t many shows that meet all those criteria, and of course not every show has to be highbrow to be valuable. For the record, I don’t think Game of Thrones qualifies as highbrow, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it any less.

However, shows that do meet these criteria elevate the form above mere enjoyment. True highbrow television transcends pleasure or entertainment. It becomes art.

We are still living through the Second Golden Age of Television, a period that began in 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos and subsequently resulted in a slew of beloved TV dramas such as The Wire, The West Wing, Carnivale, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and my own personal favourite, Deadwood.

Not all of these shows have aged well (it is pretty hard to watch The West Wing in a post-Obama, post-Sorkinism, post-War on Terror world), but at the time they aired, they were revolutionary. They fundamentally changed what television was. These shows demonstrated the most perfect, most sublime use of the television medium: the serial drama.

The serial drama is the most beguiling, intelligent and enjoyable method of satisfying our addiction to narrative. And it is an addiction. Human beings perceive the world through the prism of narrative and we always have. There are psychologists and neurobiologists who believe that consciousness itself would not exist without narrative. Human beings tell themselves into existence through narrative, through stories. It’s no surprise that The Wire has inspired full-blown Dickensian reimaginings of the show as a Victorian serial novel. It’s a form that appeals to something deep and intrinsic inside us.

Highbrow television taps into our deepest narrative impulses and drags us into alternate worlds, worlds we often find it hard to leave. That is something only the best, purest examples of narrative form can do. When you finish an episode of Parks and Recreation, or Scandal or Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you might feel like you simply HAVE to watch another episode. But when you finish an episode of The Wire or Carnivale or The Sopranos, you aren’t quite sure who you ARE anymore. Shows like that upend your very sense of self, they immerse and they obliterate. They do what great art does, they change you.

Deadwood was that kind of show for me.

Deadwood is a show about a lawless gold rush town on the edge of what will soon be America, and the people who make their fortunes there. Except it isn’t quite. It’s a show about capitalism and the violence inherent in a capitalist organisation of labour and wealth. But… only kinda. It’s a show about gender and the often hidden battles for freedom, power, and self-determination that women have been fighting for millennia. Well… partly. It’s about the press and the role of the fourth estate in the regulation of a civilisation. But not only that. It’s about addiction and the psychology of the addict, who draws in their own destruction with one hand, while thrusting it away with the other. But that’s just one element. It’s about power and greed – about the drive to conquer and subjugate that has characterised humankind since the beginning of time.  But it’s also about the opposite impulses, about love and respect and kindness in the face of great and unrelenting evil. And it’s funny too.

David Milch, the genius (and I don’t use the word lightly) behind Deadwood, has a gift for dialogue that is Shakespearean in all senses of the word. It is lyrical and complex, funny and dense. And at times, nearly impossible to understand. Milch, like Shakespeare, was fond of inversion – a grammatical trick where two expressions switch their usual order, as in:

Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
In ills to top Macbeth.

Shakespeare would use this device twice in a single line. Milch uses it three times:

For, Johnny, this is a man when acting from behind and advantaged with a weapon, very much to be feared.

It is hard to pull that kind of thing off. It’s nearly impossible to pull it off consistently over 36 hours of superb drama. But Deadwood does.

Deadwood has been my favourite show for years, and it’s hard to imagine anything better coming along to trump it. But the joy of living in an age of brilliant highbrow television is that something might. A new show might start this year or next, one that will push the form to even greater heights of narrative brilliance and creative vision. And if that show does come along, it will almost certainly fall within the category of highbrow television. No one doubts that the lowbrow has its pleasures and its value. But when you’re at a party and someone asks you what your favourite TV show is (not ‘what you’re watching at the moment’ mind, but what your favourite show is), chances are you will pick from among the highbrow stable when you answer. Lowbrow TV can show us at our best, or worst, or silliest, weakest or strongest or funniest, or cruellest. But it is the unique purview of highbrow television to show us all at once, to show us complexity, to show us truth.


Zora Sanders is the editor of Meanjin.


  • Scarlett Harris

    Why do the “golden age of television” shows never include shows driven by a female cast, creator etc? The Soprano’s may well have ushered in the golden age, but we forget about the impact Sex and the City, which ran on HBO around the same time, had. And what about Orange is the New Black, more recently? Or, indeed, Girls? Many of these shows deal with seemingly “lowbrow” topics, but is that because they’re “women’s” topics…?

    • Zoe Sanders

      Hey Scarlett, you’re right! Sex and the City began before Sopranos and didn’t quite work for the definition I’ve been using of the so-called ‘Golden Age’, but I’ve read some great pieces recently talking about reinstating its place in the TV canon, which I completely agree with. It wasn’t personally my favourite show so I think I overlooked it a little in my talk. I love Orange is the New Black, but one season in I don’t think I’m ready to categorise it yet… we all know what happened with Homeland after all! There are also shows like Enlightened which I have only seen a little of and didn’t include as an example… but I wouldn’t want you to think my examples were meant to be exhaustive! And I did mention Girls briefly, which I love. I think we’re seeing a shift towards high quality shows made by and about women, which is AWESOME, but there are still too few examples. I do think shows like Girls, Orange is the New Black and Enlightened are often included in discussions about the Golden Age, and as more women-centric shows are made and we see that audiences want them, those discussions will only become more inclusive. Hopefully anyway!


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