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We’re in the Golden Age of Mid TV

TV critic James Poniewozik writing for the NY Times:

Mid TV, on the other hand, almost can’t be bad for some of the same reasons that keep it from being great. It’s often an echo of the last generation of breakthrough TV (so the highs and lows of “Game of Thrones” are succeeded by the faithful adequacy of “House of the Dragon”). Or it’s made by professionals who know how to make TV too well, and therefore miss a prerequisite of making great art, which is training yourself to forget how the thing was ever done and thus coming up with your own way of doing it.

Mid is not a strict genre with a universal definition. But it’s what you get when you raise TV’s production values and lower its ambitions. It reminds you a little of something you once liked a lot. It substitutes great casting for great ideas. (You really liked the star in that other thing! You can’t believe they got Meryl Streep!)

Mid is based on a well-known book or movie or murder. Mid looks great on a big screen. (Though for some reason everything looks blue.) Mid was shot on location in multiple countries. Mid probably could have been a couple episodes shorter. Mid is fine, though. It’s good enough.

Above all, Mid is easy. It’s not dumb easy — it shows evidence that its writers have read books. But the story beats are familiar. Plot points and themes are repeated. You don’t have to immerse yourself single-mindedly the way you might have with, say, “The Wire.” It is prestige TV that you can fold laundry to.

Bullseye. Although I also agree with this caveat from Alan Sepinwall:

I’d only take issue with this excellent Poniewozik essay in the sense that not all Mid TV is created equal. Poker Face and Mr. & Mrs. Smith are great examples of the kinds of shows they want to be. I’d rather have those than all these wild swings by people who don’t understand how to make TV.

For me, the problem with Mid TV is differentiating it from actual good TV…finding shows that you actually don’t want to fold laundry to. I’ve gotten burned a few times on shows that I thought were going to be challenging & interesting — Constellation, 1899, and Mrs. Davis come to mind — but were just sort of aggressively fine (so much so that it turned me off).

Two more thoughts, from the comments section of Poniewozik’s piece. I love this re: specificity:

Shogun is by far the best show released this year, and it has an enormous amount to do with its *specificity* of artistic vision. All of the “mid” shows otherwise referenced here are trying to achieve too many things at once or appeal to too many demographics to have much of an impact. They are content, not art.

It’s a contradictory truth that if you want to create something that really connects with people (even a lot of people), you gotta make it specific or personal (or both). Shōgun is right at the top of my to-watch list (after I finish the five shows I’m stinge watching).

Writer of TV here. I won awards for an iconic HBO show. I can tell you that 95 percent of the blame here lies with the executives who are now so scared to lose their jobs that they just go right down the middle — to the mid, if you will. It’s easier to say yes to a show they have seen before than take a risk on something outside the box.

And yes, they are using AI to give us “notes”. I feel very lucky to have worked in this medium when it still rewarded real creativity.

Sounds about right.

Discussion  12 comments

Rion Edited

Shōgun rabbit hole: Evidently the creators went all in on authenticity with Japanese experts on feudal Japan brought in by Hiroyuki Sanada (Toranaga), who was also a producer. These Making of Shōgun BTS videos are delightfully informative. (Possible spoilers. Watch them after you see the show.) Here's Chapter One.


Thank you! I'm also stinge-watching this so will bookmark to watch the BTS afterwards.

Reply in this thread

Mike F.

The new "Ripley" on Netflix managed to escape "Mid" by being developed over at Showtime a few years ago when they were still trying to do/be something.

It is *very* specific and personal, luxuriously framed and filmed, with some standout performances - can't say I necessarily "enjoyed" some of them, per sé, but that's what "specific" looks like, and what makes "Ripley" one of the great shows of the 2020s (if not the 21st century).

Wayne Bremser

Excepted to think “Ripley” was a mistake, theres a near-perfect 2 hr film of the same material (also a 1960 film, with Alain Delon!), how could 8 hours work?! But there are so many different choices in this one, and it’s 8 hours of excellent black and white photography with great editing - could be a silent movie.


Art is subjective and people enjoy what they enjoy, but I can't agree with Wayne more on this. I'd argue Ripley is as "mid" as it comes, its 1999 counterpart towering over it in almost every conceivable way. If I think the series is prettier, it's only because Antonioni has conditioned me to prefer Italy in black and white.

Wayne Bremser

Fair enough - this series is mid for people who like “Last Year at Marienbad” and “Hiroshima mon Amor.” I watched half of “l'avventura” again after starting Ripley because I was curious to compare with what certainly is a major influence. For all the reputation of cerebral and cold, there’s some very unexpected and messy moments, while Ripley feels completely controlled and polished. To some degree, the 1999 film is the mid “Plein soleil.”

Reply in this thread

Trent Seigfried

This is how late capitalism destroys art.

Tom Robertson

I agreed with so much of this column except the Mr and Mrs Smith / Poker Face criticism. Those shows were excellent almost precisely because they bucked the trend of most mediocre Netflix/Apple TV “prestige” stuff which are mid to terrible:

- Each episode was a relatively self contained story with a satisfying beginning, middle and end (while still pushing forward a larger storyline a bit)
- They were captivating and fun

The trap so much of these mid shows fall into is they all seem to want to be the next Game of Thrones by telling this big over arching story where in each episode we check in with different sets of characters and move their plots forward a little. GOT did it will but it’s very hard to do well.

I keep coming back to old comfort TV like Star Trek TNG and Law and Order (and even new shows like the excellent Elsbeth) because even though they can be schlocky they are good overall at telling interesting, satisfying stories.


"Mid" is such a good word.

It wasn't a thing when I was growing up, but I knew exactly what it meant the first time I heard it. Even in print, you can feel the contempt and disappointment.

It's right up there with "Miss me with that shit!" when it comes to new words and phrases that were always inside us, but just silent until now.

And the moment in Mrs Davis when she shouts out "This is all so stupid!" was my favorite time in the series when it briefly broke the barrier between mid and good. Which it did from time to time.

You woulda thought that shows like Leverage or Psych were second tier shows in their time. But they would be ruling the airwaves today.

Mike F.

"Meanwhile, Netflix’s “Ozark” showed that you could ask, “What if ChatGPT rewrote ‘Breaking Bad’?”.
That's why Poniewozik is a writer and I'm just a clown over in the comments section.

Jason KottkeMOD Edited

The Harper's piece I posted yesterday is a good explanation of why we're seeing so much Mid TV right now.

As for what types of TV and movies can get made by those who stick around, Kelvin Yu, creator and showrunner of the Disney+ series American Born Chinese, told me: "I think that there will be an industry move to the middle in terms of safer, four-quadrant TV." (In L.A., a "four-quadrant" project is one that aims to appeal to all demographics.) "I think a lot of people," he said, "who were disenfranchised or marginalized — their drink tickets are up." Indeed, multiple writers and executives told me that following the strike, studio choices have skewed even more conservative than before. "It seems like buyers are much less adventurous," one writer said. "Buyers are looking for Friends."

Bo Brock

This article — and the comments from writers about the risk-avoidance of television executives — reminded me of the famous Nico Colchester column in The Economist:

Crunchy systems are those in which small changes have big effects leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive. The going was crunchy for Captain Scott as he plodded southwards across the sastrugi. He was either on top of the snow-crust and smiling, or floundering thigh-deep. The farther south he marched the crunchier his predicament became.

Sogginess is comfortable uncertainty. The modern Scott is unsure how deeply he is in it. He can radio for an airlift, or drop in on an American early-warning station for a hot toddy. The richer a society becomes, the soggier its systems get. Light-switches no longer turn on or off: they dim.

So Russian Doll and PEN15 are crunchy, while mid shows like Ozark are soggy. This is one useful way (for me, anyway) to think about artistic risk.

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