Today, we’re awash in high-quality television series – they are the staples of streaming-based everyday screen culture. But not long ago these “quality series” were seen as exceptional treats, and critics did their utmost to convince us that they were fully legitimate artworks, on a par with novels and auteur films.
In the beginning of this summer, with vacation around the corner, I was looking forward to finally have time to dig into Mare of Easttown. And catch up on the latest seasons of Better Call Saul and The Handmaid’s Tale. And the new Lupin episodes.
Perhaps I could give Startup a chance too, or just go for the sure-fire mood-booster: A repeat viewing of Call My Agent (Dix pour cent).
This list could go on, and I still wouldn’t need to look beyond Netflix and HBO Nordic, the two portals that give Swedish and Nordic viewers access to the shows just mentioned. If I were to throw Disney+, Amazon Prime and Apple+ into the mix, I would be in real trouble. And that still leaves out local options ranging from SVT Play to Viaplay and C More.
My problem, it seems, is that there is too much great serial TV and too little time. Or this is what much of the cultural conversation in Sweden about serial television would have me believe. Consider the infinite lists of “must-see” TV series published in Swedish newspapers in recent years, and the frequency of headlines such as “Sixty TV Series to Watch this Spring – Everything New that the Streaming Services Have to Offer” (”60 tv-serier att se i vår”, 2018) and “The Binge Viewer’s Guide to the Galaxy of Series” (“Sträcktittarens guide till seriegalaxen”, 2015).
Or consider the generosity with which Swedish media provides us with information about the streaming services that make quality serial TV available, from straight-up consumer guides to more in-depth takes on the so-called “streaming wars.”
I am hardly the only one who has come to take for granted cheap, easy and instant access to a supply of first-rate serial TV that will always vastly exceed my binge-viewing capacities.
To some degree, then, the opening paragraphs above make up a discursive pastiche.
But I think they also capture significant aspects of television today, not only in terms of how the medium takes shape as a cultural imaginary, but also in their allusions to changes that are quite material and real – redefined modes of viewing and new media habits; the unprecedented plenitude of content; an ever-intensifying competition for the time, attention, and money of the users of streaming media; and so on.
All of these changes also resonate on the level of the everyday experiences of media consumers. I am hardly the only one who has come to take for granted cheap, easy and instant access to a supply of first-rate serial TV that will always vastly exceed my binge-viewing capacities.
Denigration of the ordinary
Once so habituated, we might find it difficult to remember a not-so-distant past when “quality TV series” were regarded as rare exceptions in a vast wasteland of mindless TV entertainment.
And we might have already forgotten the extraordinary passion with which cultural critics and journalists used to make the case for “quality TV” – American prestige series of the HBO ilk in particular – as legitimate artworks. Which would be too bad, as these previously dominant discourses are well worthy of our recollection and scholarly attention. They contain a fascinating story about cultural consecration and they offer a window into the transformation of television in Sweden in the post-monopoly era.
Or that’s the basic contention of my recent Nordicom Review article Renegotiating quality TV in the Swedish press, which explores the reception of American quality serial TV in leading Swedish newspapers from 1999 to the early 2010s.
One peculiar aspect of the public conversation about serial TV in that period was the way in which journalists and culture critics tended to extend their claims about a highly specific form of programming to the entire medium of television.
For many of these writers, the artistic excellence they detected in (or, rather, ascribed to) shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad proved not only that such series were legitimate artworks on a par with great novels or auteur films, but also that the cultural status of television had been upgraded “on all levels,” as one critic put it (Häglund, cited in Hultman, 2007).
But a closer look at the discourse shows that the embrace of quality serial TV largely came at the expense of a denigration of the rest of television, including “ordinary” programming, “ordinary” modes of viewing, and “ordinary” viewers – that faceless mass of TV viewers who lacked the sophistication of culture critics or were reluctant or unable to assume an aesthetic disposition to television and apply the standards of literary criticism that many cultural journalists of that era were well versed in and simply began to redirect toward a new favorite cultural object.
Similarly, and related, what many critics at the time framed as an assault on cultural hierarchies looks in the rearview mirror like the exact opposite – the norms of what we could call “bourgeois” aesthetics (see Bourdieu 1984) were perceived to pertain to certain forms of television, but this was a testament to the resilience of those dominant norms, not an indication of their dissolution.
A closer look at the discourse shows that the embrace of quality serial TV largely came at the expense of a denigration of the rest of television.
Television as “art”
As discussed in some detail in my article, such discourses read as an index of the reconfiguration of the television landscape in Sweden along increasingly niche-based and commercially oriented lines. Indeed, discourses on serial TV as “art,” and ideas about a “golden age” allegedly ushered in by The Sopranos, were deeply enmeshed in the media industries’ efforts to carve out profitable market niches. For instance, when Swedish cultural journalists proclaimed that HBO was “God’s gift to television” (Larsson, 2009), it was not exactly clear-cut where criticism ended and promotional discourses began.
Arguably, journalists are stilling doing a lot of the culture industry’s bidding, although not always as blatantly, and obviously in the context of a different transitional moment.
Today we are moving from a broadcasting-based multi-channel system into a more fully-fledged on-demand culture in which increasingly large portions of the audience (or, if you will, a growing number of algorithmically forged taste clusters) enjoy their television content à la carte. Much of the cultural conversation about this process locates these cord-cutters at the vanguard of a new and exciting digital screen culture that offers limitless possibilities. This is not entirely off the mark. But overly celebratory perspectives on digital media, and unabashed support for an ideology of untrammeled individualized consumerism, also raise red flags. Are these discourses not to Netflix, Amazon, Google, Disney, and Apple what discourses on serial TV as “art” was to HBO a decade or so ago?
Rephrased in more general terms: Discourses on serial TV as “art” spoke to the logics of nichification, commercialization, and de-nationalization of television in the multi-channel era, just as fantasies of ubiquity and utopias of free choice in our present moment of streaming-based “peak TV” seem to speak to the logics of on-demand culture. (The point can probably be extended to an earlier time—consider, for example, how the trope of “dumburken” [“the boob tube”; “the idiot box”] captures not as much a dismissive and retrograde view of television as a basic raison d’être for the benevolent, paternalistic incarnation of public service broadcasting that once defined and dominated the Swedish television landscape.)
I will admit to the generality and tentative character of the connections I’ve made here between critical discourses, transformations of the TV medium, and ongoing renegotiations of the cultural status and preferred social functions of television.
But if they’ve piqued your interest all the same, then perhaps my Nordicom Review article is for you. If you can make room for some reading in between binge-viewing commitments, that is.
Sträcktittarens guide till seriegalaxen. (2015, December 18). Dagens Nyheter.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Hultman, J. (2007, September 23). Morgondagens tv är redan här. Sydsvenskan.
Larsson, M. (2009, March 8). Jag är besatt av HBO:s tv-serier. Expressen.
60 tv-serier att se i vår – allt nytt på streamingtjänsterna. (2018, Jan 15). Aftonbladet.
Frykholm, J. (2021). Renegotiating quality TV in the Swedish press: American serial television and Sweden’s post-monopoly television landscape. Nordicom Review, 42(1), 59-78. https://doi.org/10.2478/nor-2021-0012
Frykholm, J. (2021). From the extraordinary to the everyday: Discourses on American quality serial television in Sweden’s leading newspapers and the breakthrough of streaming TV. New Review of Film and Television Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/17400309.2021.1922260
Frykholm, J. (2021). Netflix, HBO Nordic, and ‘glocalized’ TV series: The view from Sweden. Short Cuts blog, New Review of Film and Television Studies. https://nrftsjournal.org/netflix-hbo-nordic-and-glocalized-tv-series-the-view-from-sweden/