KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

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!

9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460

James Tierney

Subscriber Stories: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home

As a subscriber to publisher And Other Stories’ distribution model, I am in the unusual position of reviewing a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. 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 »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »