Prestige dramas have been around for a while now (I think most critics consider its birth around the time of The Sopranos and Oz on HBO, although one could argue that they’ve been around longer), which means there are certain expectations for them. This Vulture article and its follow-up do an excellent job of summing up the established tropes of prestige television. And both touch on what I see as the distinguishing factor between the best prestige dramas and the lesser ones: Tone.
As the follow-up article linked to above mentions, prestige dramas tend to lean toward seriousness, straddling the line (or sometimes leaping over it) of melodrama. Humor can be difficult to find and is often reserved for supporting characters that don’t play huge roles in the show. My argument, then, is that the upper-tier of prestige dramas like Breaking Bad and The Wire actively lean into humor. Yes, there are the supporting comic relief characters (Skinny Pete and Badger; Bubbles), but the main characters are often funny themselves, even if it’s unintentionally. Many of the situations Walter White finds himself in are humorous, especially early in the series. Jesse Pinkman is a legitimately funny person. Bunk and McNulty have a relationship that uses humor to feel more organic.
I think this is where a lot of prestige dramas lose the thread. In trying to be taken seriously and seem deep, they forget that humor is what connects us to one another. His Dark Materials has been a tough watch for me because it’s so devoid of humor. Westworld, too. I enjoyed The Outsider, but my favorite episode was the one where the characters spent the entire hour driving someplace and getting to know one another because it allowed us to see them with their hair down a bit. The rest could be difficult to sit through as dour characters talked dourly about dour subjects.
Shows like Justified or Stranger Things, while ultimately serious prestige television, have humor at their hearts and are that much better for it. When a show takes itself seriously, but the characters are allowed to have fun, it feels more like real life. And that, ultimately, is what a lot of prestige dramas are trying to reflect.
The lesson here is that humor and lightheartedness doesn’t undercut drama (unless done poorly, which is another topic entirely), but adds to it. Humor connects us to characters, gives us reason to like them, so that when the story does get capital-S “Serious” the gut punches land that much more effectively.