Television

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.

deadwood-03-1024

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.

highbrowvslowbrow




  • 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!

daniel-handler

Kate Harper

‘I think about terrible things happening’: An interview with Daniel Handler

Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive can be read as tales of wonder. Kate Harper chats to Handler ahead of his upcoming Melbourne appearances. Read more »

o-MAGGIE-NELSON-900

James Tierney

Usefully Uncertain: A review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in nine fragments

I first read Maggie Nelson in the April of last year, during the early feverish stages of an autumn cold. Her slim 2009 volume Bluets is a bare and consonant appraisal of blue – as a colour, as music, as meaning sexual content and the fuzzy indigo of depression. Read more »

2010_03_29

Nathan Smith

Writing about the New Yorker: A genre unto itself

In the introduction to her 1999 book Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, the famed American journalist and essayist Renata Adler opens with: ‘As I write this, The New Yorker is dead.’ Read more »

One-Direction

Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1

Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »

wolfpack-1024

Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »

f9a2809e-97eb-400d-b491-b4b6a6f09930-2060x1236

Clem Bastow

Telling Stories: Women screenwriters and the obligation to represent

There is something in the recent call to arms for female writers and directors to ‘tell your story’ that leaves me feeling bereft, not vindicated. The idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell. Read more »

golden-age-of-television

Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »

family-hour

Anwen Crawford

By Screen Light

Television and depression have a history together. We’re all familiar with the trope: the person who stays in on a Saturday night watching TV in their pyjamas is the sad schlub with no life. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Resized__863

Jane Howard

A Mess of a Brain: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

In some ways it seems like an impossible task to take Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and translate it to any other art form. How to find a life for a book that is so internal, so unrelenting, in anything other than the pure words of its narrator as they appear on the page? Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »

2015GISELLE_Artists of The Australian Ballet. PhotoJeffBusby

Jane Howard

The Beautiful and the Dated: Australian Ballet’s Giselle

The weight of history sits heavily on the Australian Ballet’s Giselle. One of the most enduringly popular ballets from the romantic period, there is much to delight in its presence on stage and its lasting lineage. But 175 years after its debut, in a production that premiered 30 years ago, the sheen of Giselle has been dulled. Read more »