Critic's Notebook: What Is This "Prestige Popcorn" TV AMC Is Targeting?

The network behind 'The Walking Dead' and 'Breaking Bad' told TV critics they're trying to make 'prestige popcorn' television, but what does that even mean?
Gene Page/AMC
'The Walking Dead'

In TV criticism, as in most lines of work, classifications are helpful and classifications are confusing. Give me a phrase like "Peak TV" and I'll run that terminology into the ground, even if year after year we continue not to be anywhere near "peak." Somewhere along the line, TV determined that half-hour shows are "comedies" and hourlong shows are "dramas" and, for the most part, we go along with that to the point of blindness. Award-givers pretend episodes of limited series are movies and it's all chaos.

Over the weekend at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, AMC's new programming president David Madden — making his TCA debut for the cabler — introduced a somewhat new bit of terminology, and it's been rattling around in my head ever since.

"We’re looking for things that we are internally calling, for want of a better phrase, 'prestige popcorn,' thoughtful genre shows that are truly human but are immersive and fan-focused," he said. "I mean, after all, The Walking Dead isn’t just about spurting craniums ... . But it’s also about deep relationship and big emotional themes. And we already have a few shows that fall into this prestige popcorn category, like Fear the Walking Dead, Into the Badlands and Preacher. But on the other hand, the network has built an extraordinary reputation for rich, character-driven, tonally ambitious shows like Better Call Saul and Halt and Catch Fire, not to mention those first couple of shows that launched AMC."

Like I said, I enjoy classification, and "prestige popcorn" is a good name, not necessarily for what AMC is aiming for any more or less than any other cable or streaming network, but it's a good name and a great way to avoid just saying, "We're looking for the next Game of Thrones," even if that's exactly what "prestige popcorn" really means.

Let's unpack the term, not that Madden didn't give a reasonable enough explanation.

What do we mean when we say "popcorn"? Basically: Is it popular? Is it the sort of thing that has been popular in the past? If this TV show were a movie, would the studio release it in 2,000 theaters initially or two? I think "popcorn" is the more easily definable part.

What do we mean when we say "prestige"? This is tougher. Is there a pretension of "quality"? Are the creative auspices elevated? Is the source material of repute? But that's all about intent. So then ... Is it actually good? Are reviews good? Is it in award conversations? Probably not all of these are required, but it helps.

It's a great aspiration, because who doesn't want to make something that's both popular and good? But a lot of it is uncontrollable. FX's The Americans is a superb show that's also a pulse-pounding spy thriller. There's no reason why it shouldn't be a paragon of popcorn prestige other than that the ratings have just never been there. On the big screen, I'd say that by all rights, Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight should be the popcorn-iest most-prestigious movie ever. It's a deliriously fun movie based on a best-seller featuring two movie stars at the absolutely peak of their powers. And it was a box-office dud.

So does this line up exactly with what AMC in particular has done in the past, present and future? I'd say that Breaking Bad is almost a poster boy for TV prestige popcorn. It's an Emmy-winning drama that's part of the TV pantheon, but it's also a tremendously fun show that lived up to its "Mr. Chips becomes Scarface" pitch completely. (The prequel series, Better Off Saul, maybe isn't so popcorn-y, since it's an almost genre-free comic-tragedy about a flawed man eventually embracing his worst instincts. It still does well for AMC. If you want to call it "prestige popcorn," I won't fight you.) Mad Men, in contrast, was never really a hugely popular show because "Boorish '60s ad man goes through a midlife crisis over and over again" is never going to be a sexy logline, even when it's embodied by Jon Hamm.

Is Preacher prestige popcorn? I'll allow it. Barely. And for now. Mount Rushmore graphic novel. Big-name creative team. A couple stars of some stature. The critics haven't been enraptured, though many of us have been appreciative of many aspects of the show. No awards love. This one is right on the edge. One more season without breaking through on one level or another and it's probably doomed.

Is The Walking Dead prestige popcorn? No. It might have been for a season or two. Maybe. After several years of killing off original characters and replacing them with thinner characters, the idea that this is a character-driven show at this point perplexes me. Fear the Walking Dead was never prestige for a second. These are popcorn shows, and that's fine.

Into the Badlands is aesthetically elevated, for sure. Still, I fell far behind on martial arts odyssey because I often had to mute the dialogue, or at least ignore it. If that's the case, you're not "prestige." Sorry.

As for AMC's upcoming slate, the slate that reflects Madden's sense of development? I can see the potential for popcorn prestige. McMafia is a gangster show. It delivers some international intrigue and has some tense action. That's coupled with a meaty take on globalization and some top-tier actors. Based on the pilot alone, I'm not sure if it's either popcorn or prestige so far, but I can see how it might be both?

I think The Terror is on its way in that direction. On one hand, the limited series is a "There's something lurking in the ice" horror show, but it's also a fact-based historical drama and it's based on a best-selling novel and it featured a trio of acting heavyweights — Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies and Ciaran Hinds — as its leads, plus the first episode is very promising.

(It's also worth noting that Madden did not develop either The Terror or McMafia as both pre-date his arrival at AMC.)

The reality is that prestige popcorn is really hard to do, even though everybody's trying. Of the shows in my top 10 for 2017, I probably wouldn't apply the label to most of them. Halt and Catch Fire, as much as I love it and recommend it to viewers of many types, isn't popcorn-y. The Leftovers gave some viewers the illusion that its semi-apocalyptic scenario would be popcorn-friendly and then alienated those viewers as it became increasingly less of a beach read. FX's Fargo is reasonably close, since it's fundamentally a crime story set in the universe stemming from a surprisingly popular film and featuring a cast of familiar faces, but it isn't always the most easily digestible show.

Branching beyond my top 10, there are plenty of prestige popcorn shows to be found. No matter how tough to watch Hulu's award-gobbling The Handmaid's Tale is sometimes, it's based on an enduring classic novel and can be easily approached as science fiction, even if Margaret Atwood doesn't love being categorized that way. Netflix's The Crown is superb prestige popcorn. I buy Netflix's Narcos and Mindhunter as prestige popcorn. If Fargo counts, then FX's American Crime Story counts, in both of its two installments. WGN America's Underground and MTV's Sweet/Vicious are two shows that should have been prestige popcorn if only their respective networks had convinced audiences to watch them, which they didn't. In my review of Netflix's Ozark, I specifically criticized it for leaning too heavily into the prestige and not embracing the pulp, though others have disagreed.

The broadcast networks aren't completely out of this game. CBS' The Good Wife was prestige popcorn and its CBS All Access spinoff The Good Fight is as well. Thanks to a Golden Globe nomination, ABC could probably pretend that The Good Doctor is and Grey's Anatomy and Scandal have been prestige popcorn at times. Fox's The X-Files was top-tier prestige popcorn in its prime.

It's easier for a drama to be both prestige and popcorn than it is for comedies. Apparently. What comedies would you include? FX's Better Things? Baskets? All prestige, no popcorn. ABC's Black-ish is prestige popcorn. Netflix's GLOW is prestige popcorn; One Day at a Time is stealthy prestige popcorn. ABC's Modern Family used to be and probably still counts. Can a show that frequently name-checks philosophers be popcorn enough? Asking for NBC's The Good Place. Can a show that asks viewers to be aware of Italian neorealism be popcorn enough? Asking for Netflix's Master of None. Fox's The Simpsons is a legacy prestige popcorn choice. Is a show about depression popcorn, even if it's full of talking animals? Asking for Netflix's Bojack Horseman. Put Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in that category of category that should be popcorn, if only The CW could get people to watch.

I may be trying to apply empirical values here — measurable popularity, measurable critical consensus or awards juice — but more subjective values always apply. One man's prestige popcorn is probably another man's dull, unsalted rice cake.

Even if the list of shows that Madden and AMC consider popcorn prestige differs slightly from mine, I like the values the silly term reflects. And I like musing on silly terms.

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