What is “quality TV?”

As we inch closer to the end of Breaking Bad there’s some argument as to what real “quality TV” is. Breaking Bad is arguably the best-produced, most meticulous show of the 2010s so far, but it’s not the only show to give us a severely damaged hero, movie-quality writing, and powerful direction.

Television was once the home of the situation comedy or procedural cop show, both formulas that relied on telling essentially the same story every week. Whether the show ran 30 minutes or 60, you could be sure that all the characters went through the same paces like amnesiacs — without any growth, without any sense that their lives were changing. The writing was light and intentionally so — if you missed this week’s episode it was easy to get caught up. Even daytime TV, once the only place to find long-form plots, wasn’t deep or insightful.

What happened? The internet and DVRs meant that people could catch up on programs. As we moved away from the Happy Days model through Lost24, and The Sopranos, we gradually moved into a world where we expected more. We didn’t want flat, boring characters, nor did we want pure drama or pure comedy. We wanted to be rewarded for our intelligence and loyalty as viewers. TV responded, giving us Mad Men.HomelandBreaking Bad and other really well-made shows.

So now there is this whole new category called “quality TV” where we are taught to expect deeply flawed characters in impeccable sets with writing that would put Orson Welles to shame. The problem is, any time that the TV industry thinks it knows what people want, it dumps a whole bunch of cheap ripoffs on us. Remember The Playboy Club and Pan Am? Both tried to be Mad Men and it didn’t work.

Not that any of that is new, of course. Bad TV has been with us for a long time. There were a dozen Friendsripoffs and the problem didn’t even start there. Now that “quality TV” has become a genre, expect tons more bleak-looking shows with great cinematography and moments of unintentional-looking humor. They won’t all be Homeland but they’ll all look like it to some extent.

The Grillo-Marxuach Design Bureau’s tumblr takes a stab at the quality-TV genre and the rapidly forming stereotypes. It’s right on the mark and worth a read, even though it’s a little on the long side. Of course, it’s probably a step in the right direction that TV shows are trying to mimic The Good Wife instead of trying to mimic Lassie but of course such mimicry misses the point.

Breaking Bad is great because it takes a bunch of actors, some unknown but most known for comedy, and turns your perception of them around. It surprises you from week to week because you root for people you hate, and you hate people you root for. It’s not the fake, “will Fonzie make it over those oil barrels” kind of tension… it’s real tension because it’s so good. The show makes you forget for a minute that these aren’t real people and that’s a tough thing to do.

Unfortunately, most so-called “quality TV” shows will shoot for that mark and miss. Some won’t even shoot — they’ll hope the look of the show will draw you in and you’ll ignore the bad writing. Don’t be sucked in… life’s too short.