Is Tricking the Audience into Watching Harrowing Material and Diverse Casts the Future of Prestige TV?
Yesterday, Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress boldly predicted the imminent end of the anti-hero hour and the rise of a new prestige genre: the “Trojan Horse” show. Using Showtime’s Ray Donovan and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black as this new genre’s pioneers, Rosenberg hypothesizes a brave new TV world where viewers might be lured by a conventional white protagonist, then bait-and-switched into watching a much more emotionally complex or racially and sexually diverse show than the one they’d been sold.
Ray Donovan, for instance, began as a slick procedural about a professional problem-solver for the rich and famous, but has evolved into an altogether different creature, a psychological drama that explores, among other themes, the long-lasting effects of clerical abuse – a hard sell to any audience demographic.
Likewise, Orange is the New Black follows the WASPy Piper Chapman into prison, but the show quickly loses interest in her. Orange creator Jenji Kohan told NPR, “In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women, and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.” After just the first season, Orange’s empty wooden shell has become so disposable to her own show that it’s easy to imagine how the series might continue after her release from prison.
Interestingly, while Kohan lays the blame for the necessity of a Trojan horse on the networks, Showtime president David Nevins implicates the audience: “What makes a show great, what makes a show last, and what makes a show meaningful tends to be very different than how you bring people in the door.” Whoever is to blame, implicit in the “Trojan horse” technique is the none-too-flattering suggestion that viewers have to be tricked into watching good TV.
If that kind of narrative deception turned out to be the future of TV, critics and fans might soon be caught up in a guessing game of what a promising new show might really be about.
Rosenberg’s history of “Trojan Horse” television omits a significant predecessor: HBO’s soon-to-be-staked True Blood. Like Orange is the New Black, summer’s goriest guilty pleasure is nominally centered around a wide-eyed, white-lady protagonist, but boasts one of the most racially and sexually diverse cast of characters on TV, as well as what must be a significant percentage of the small screen’s interracial relationships.
HBO developed True Blood at the height of the bloodsucking craze and exploited the chilly sexiness of vampires to lure viewers in, but creator Alan Ball had other plans for the show; he used his undead characters’ “condition” as a metaphor for a decidedly non-mainstream thematic goal: to explore the civil-rights struggles of a minority group and the various strategies they might use to gain acceptance by a scared and disapproving majority.
Though still very popular, True Blood is likely to be used in the future as an example of how not to run a Trojan Horse show. The risk of the genre, of course, is that the bonus bait-and-switch material will lead to an overstuffed series lacking in cohesion – exactly the complaint Bill and Eric and Sookie and Sam and Jason and Jessica and Alcide fans have been voicing for years. (Just kidding, there are no Alcide fans.)
For better or for worse, though, “overstuffing” is the name of the Trojan horse game. Nevins admits, “Every show I’ve done has always been a little bit overstuffed and has multiple angles to it, like on Homeland.”
For my part, I don’t mind. An extra storyline here and there is a small price to pay for finally getting the non-white and non-hetero characters TV so desperately lacks today. Open the gates and let the gifts pour in.