A History of the Prestige Drama in 7 Episodes

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The Sopranos kicked off the Era of the Prestige Drama in 1999 on HBO, setting the template for what was expected of a serious, quality television show—a standard much higher than any that came before it. In its wake, complicated and beautifully told stories, often about troubled men, flourished, including standard-bearers Breaking Bad and Mad Men, while even broadcast television got in on the act with the cinematic and sweeping Lost. And in the decades to follow, streaming only bolstered the genre, as services hoping to make a watercooler hit poured money, resources, and star names into the effort.

But that doesn’t mean that The Sopranos appeared out of the ether, with no predecessors. Even at the very dawn of the medium, anthology shows like Kraft Television Theatre—guess who the sponsor was!—aimed to air high-class dramas acted by quality casts. From 1947 to 1958, James DeanHelen HayesJack LemmonGrace Kelly, and Cloris Leachman were among those who turned in performances directed by the likes of Sidney LumetRobert Altman, and George Roy Hill. Miniseries like Roots stepped in to serve a similar function in the 1970s. In between then and The Sopranos‘ debut, occasional flashes of brilliance lit up the genre, like Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks (see below).

Here, a look at the evolution of the prestige drama (a Peabody favorite), from The Fugitive to Succession, in seven key episodes. (Be warned, some spoilers ahead!)

The Fugitive, ‘Escape Into Black,’ season 2, episode 9

The Fugitive was one of TV’s first heavily serialized prime-time sensations, following Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), who is wrongly convicted of killing his wife and headed to death row when his train derails, occasioning his escape and allowing him to search the country for the real killer, known as “the one-armed man.” In this 1964 episode, Kimble is in Decatur, Illinois, when a gas explosion wipes out his memory, and the one-armed man alerts the police to Kimble’s current location before getting away himself. It’s a gripping hour that exemplifies the series’ command of drama and suspense, demonstrating that TV could be more than mindless distraction. Kimble’s story would last for four seasons, culminating in a finale that became the most-watched television episode at the time, with 78 million people tuning in. The series also, of course, inspired the 1993 Harrison Ford film of the same name.

Where to Watch: Pluto TV

Though the ’80s are remembered mostly for their cheesy sitcoms and over-the-top nighttime soaps, some dramas at the time began a turn toward the more sophisticated, thanks in large part to this gritty, realistic, and complicated police show. The Peabody winner follows the police department of an unnamed city—with a headquarters on Hill Street—and takes cop stories beyond the procedural, focusing on the private lives of officers, the real dangers of law enforcement, and the conflict between what’s right and what’s effective. This inclusion of the morally gray, along with handheld camera techniques that made it feel like a documentary, would have an indelible influence on TV drama going forward. A great place to start is the 1981 pilot episode, which perfectly lays out the template for what’s to come.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

Twin Peaks‘ 1990 arrival single-handedly shoved TV drama in the direction of the weird. Ostensibly a murder mystery, Mark Frost and David Lynch‘s masterpiece follows FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) as he investigates the death of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). But all his investigation really turns up is the darkness, horror, soap operatic tropes, and extreme camp lurking just beneath the surface of this ordinary Washington town. The third episode of the series begins to reveal what we’re really in for, showing us the town’s criminal and mystical underpinnings, while still delivering comedic moments and deeply strange imagery unlike anything seen on television before.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

The Sopranos, a multiple Peabody winner, is the fulcrum around which the history of the prestige drama pivots; it is, in fact, the origin of the modern concept of “prestige television,” or TV that is as good as or better than film. By this point in The Sopranos‘ run, it was well-known for its no-nonsense approach to killing characters, what with it being a mob series. But the 2004 death of Adriana (Drea de Matteo) after she confesses to informing on the family to the FBI, hits like no other, driving home the stakes of the show. From here on, anyone is fair game in the ruthless realm of not only David Chase‘s game-changing show, but in all of 21st century drama.

Where to Watch: Max

Game of Thrones became an instant sensation by taking Sopranos-like drama, fueled by familial relations and power grabs, making it medieval, then adding dragons, armies of killer zombies, and a psychic kid. The resulting pomp and carnage made The Sopranos feel like a quiet day at the library. If one episode exemplifies this Peabody winner’s brash, literal take-no-prisoners approach, it’s this 2013 episode, widely known as “the red wedding,” due to the sneak-attack slaughter of several significant characters at what was supposed to be a peaceful nuptial ceremony. This is quintessential Game of Thrones, the kind of episode that set the internet aflame in shock and deafening buzz.

Where to Watch: Max

Watchmen‘s Peabody citation says it best: “Consider what viewers confront in the bold and original first episode: a pastiche of a silent film about a black sheriff, an intense re-enactment of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, an all-black performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, a vision of a future society where Robert Redford is president, and the lynching of a white cop.” From Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, this 2019 riff on the classic comic book series ingeniously twists a superhero story into a meditation on Black American history, racial violence, and representation, all while telling a compelling story with improbably grounded characters (thanks, in particular, to Regina King‘s lead performance). Watchmen shows how big the prestige drama can get, using advanced film and storytelling techniques and respecting its audience’s intelligence while taking on major issues, enlightening us on our past, and thrilling us every step of the way.

Where to Watch: Max

The flawless final season of the grand family drama Succession, which aired last year, feels like the end of an era for prestige drama as the Peak TV of the streaming wars winds down amid budget cuts. Perhaps the funniest deadly serious drama in TV history, it puts a simple conceit at its center, not unlike Game of Thrones: Who will inherit control of fearsome patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox)’s media empire? The handheld camera work recalls Hill Street Blues, and the cast full of antiheroes draws on The Sopranos‘ legacy, but the result is all its own. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final-season episode “Connor’s Wedding,” billed quite obviously as the long-awaited union of eldest son Connor (Alan Ruck) and his trophy-ish wife Willa (Justine Lupe) only to fake us out—this isn’t just another grand Roy family set piece. This is the moment the title has teased, the death that makes a succession plan mandatory. The series’ uncompromising portrayal of the shock of death—particularly that of a father figure who has instilled more hate and fear than love—makes this one of TV’s finest hours ever.

Where to Watch: Max

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