TV Club

What does “peak TV” really mean?

What does “peak TV” really mean?

Empire, UnReal, and Transparent were among the best shows of the year. 

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Fox Network, Lifetime, and Amazon Studios.

Dear TV Club,

Let’s summit peak TV.

In the last couple of years it has been something of a parlor game among TV nerds— obviously, I count myself one—to try and put a name to the current TV era, the one immediately after the “golden age.” The golden age of television is a descriptive term fraught in its own ways—there was excellent TV before it and garbage TV throughout it—but it has its uses. It identifies a real phenomenon, the boom in ambitious television that arose in the wake of The Sopranos, while also functioning as a gravitas-laden phrase that boosted the medium of television itself—helping it ascend from the strictly lowbrow trenches where the idiot box and its offerings had long been banished. It’s a great slogan for some very good product. Don Draper couldn’t have named it better himself.

But for the last couple of years, the golden age has seemed, well, over. It’s not that television has gotten bad, not at all, but that the banging heart of the medium has moved on from the sorts of shows that defined the golden age, serious dramas about antiheroes and larger issues of masculinity. Mad Men ended this year, but there are still plenty of shows on TV in this mode: good (Fargo, Better Call Saul), bad (Ray Donovan) and ugly (True Detective, The Bastard Executioner). But it is no longer the dominant mode for great television, and it’s certainly not the dominant mode for inventive television. (Even if it is still the dominant mode for the most critically acclaimed television: Fargo and Better Call Saul recently topped the critics’ poll compiled by HitFix for best show and best new show of 2015, and while I think they are both very good, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they both so closely resemble what good shows are “supposed” to look like: men in crisis on esteemed cable channels.)

In 2015 there were great sitcoms, dramas, musicals, telenovelas, cartoons, melodramas, dramedies, period pieces, procedurals, prequels, reality shows, superhero shows, late-night shows, sketch comedies, romantic comedies, stoner comedies, and comedies about depression. Among the most memorable protagonists of the year were not tortured white guys, but two transgender women in later middle age, a bevy of women in prison, another recently sprung, an indefatigable 23-year-old Hispanic mother, a singing neurotic, two wig-wearing Communists, a rape-survivor superhero, a rape-survivor Scotsman, an unknowable and bisexual super lawyer, a hip-hop loving first generation tweenager, a food-loving first-generation textaholic, a stoned copywriter, stoned besties, a depressive, and a depressed horse, to name just a few of the year’s most fascinating characters. The intriguing white guys, meanwhile, seemed to have osmotically sensed their slip from the center of the things because they—the former death-row inmate, the mentally disturbed hacker, the hallucinating survivor, the Coke-loving ad-man, the serial killer, and the burping monster., to name a few—were all deeply, deeply lost.

For obvious reasons, most attempts to come up with a term to describe all this diversity—in format and subject matter, race and gender—failed. And then John Landgraf, the philosopher king of FX, took to the stage at an industry event for TV critics and uttered the phrase “peak TV.”

Like the best neologisms, this one has swiftly taken on a life of its own. When Landgraf said “peak TV,” he was trying to name a problem. Nearly 400 original series aired in 2015, and that number will get higher in 2016. From Landgraf’s perspective, this volume is keeping audiences from finding good series they would enjoy, and this is unsustainable on the network end of things. He went so far as to predict a future contraction in original programming. But peak TV has caught on as a description more than as a warning and that’s because it’s perfectly expressive. There is an insane amount of good television out there, and like Everest (and far lesser climbs), it can be genuinely overwhelming.

The sheer number of decent shows currently on offer is a big part of the whelm, but compounding that is the wide variety of forms good TV now takes and the vast profusion of places it can be found. It’s not just the big show on HBO that a dedicated TVite should be curious about (not that you shouldn’t be amped about Game of Thrones), but also soap operas starring charismatic and deeply flawed black people on network television (Empire, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder), anthropologically specific so-called comedies about angsty white people with minuscule audiences (Girls, Louie, Transparent, Looking, Togetherness) and the resurgent family sitcom (Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Mom, The Middle), to name just a few relevant sub-categories. There are plenty of shows in their second or third or fourth season worth watching (The Americans, Hannibal, The Leftovers, Halt and Catch Fire), even as buzzy new shows are popping up on channels and platforms that once could be safely ignored. And that is to say nothing of the perfectly palatable fare that might be particularly delicious to a specific set of taste buds: I’m not sure I would recommend TV Land’s Younger or VH1’s Hindsight or Bravo’s Girlfriends Guide to Divorce to everyone, but they tasted damn good to me.

There were way more than 10 shows I liked this year. My list could have included Master of None, Last Man on Earth, Project Greenlight, The Leftovers, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones, or Justified, and that is to say nothing of the shows I didn’t get a chance to watch. (I did, to be clear, get a chance to watch Fargo. It’s just not on this list.)

1. Halt and Catch Fire
2. Mr. Robot
3. Catastrophe
4. Jane the Virgin
5. The Jinx
6. Empire
7. The Americans
8. Nathan for You
9. Transparent
10. UnReal

Almost all of this list would not be but for Peak TV. Catastrophe and Transparent air on Amazon, a platform that wouldn’t exist unless TV was rapidly proliferating; USA’s Mr. Robot and Lifetime’s UnReal arrived on channels trying to make a Peak TV splash; Halt and Catch Fire and The Americans would have been canceled in a world where ratings mattered the way they used to; and Jane the Virgin and Empire are shows about people of color, who are finally starting to get their TV due because the hunt for larger audiences has incentivized networks to expand their minds.

And that’s just the shows on my Top 10 list. As the outlets making original content have doubled and then tripled and then quadrupled, TV viewers have been treated to far more varied, far less canceled television than ever before. Good shows from The Mindy Project to The Leftovers to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and less good shows from Dr. Ken to Bloodline to Man in the High Castle have Peak TV to thank for their existence. Without Peak TV, does Mindy Project land at Hulu after getting canceled by Fox? Does The Leftovers get a second season? Does Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ever get made? Like a newborn who comes home from the hospital without a name so her parents can get to know her a little better, Peak TV feels like a phenomenon that existed before it had a handle.

I would love for you guys to tell me about your adventures in peak TV, what you saw this year that you have not seen before. Alan, that’s a set-up for you to wax eloquent about The Leftovers, a show I admire a lot, but do not love the way you do. (And feh on the episode “International Assassin.” I don’t want to hear about your dreams either, TV show!) Margaret, that’s a segue for you to dish on UnReal or BoJack or whatever else delighted you in new ways. June, that’s a polite request for you to expound on Sense8, which you have described as “seven hours of slog (and the occasional orgy), then three hours of utter transcendence.” Why, with so much to watch, did you slog it out? And Joe, as the resident ratings expert in the bunch, can you please tell me: Is peak TV a real thing? Is Landgraf right, that the plethora of original programming is doing a noticeable disservice to networks and platforms? Because I still don’t see how it could be doing a disservice to viewers, who may not be finding new shows they would love, but only because they are busy watching shows they already love.

Guys, somehow I have gotten this far and failed to observe that in 2015 there was not one, not two, but three extended sequences involving a dildo. It really was a banner year.

I remembered to pack the trail mix, so let’s get climbing,


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