Peak TV

By Jo Phillips

If you’re a fan of television, the kind who gets online to talk about it with other TV-lovers and who reads reviews of all the latest shows, then you have most likely come across the term “peak TV.” Usually, this is a phrase used to refer to specific shows, often those with a lot of hype around them, often critical darlings of a sort. But what does it actually mean, and what counts as peak TV?

Here, we’re going to take a closer look at the term “peak TV,” what that actually means, and what the current trends we see are in the arenas of peak TV.

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What is peak TV?

Peak TV is not an easy term to define, as you might imagine. It’s a term that has been used since roughly the mid-2010s but can also talk about shows that aired throughout the 2000s that might be called the precursors of today’s peak TV. It’s used to describe a few things, the first of which is a time period: usually over the past ten or fifteen years in which TV has gradually shifted to include more Showtime/HBO-esque prestige dramas, of which The Sopranos could arguably be called the first example of.

However, Peak TV also refers to a specific kind of TV show, those that usually tend to be more ambitious than traditional TV dramas or soap operas, telling stories that would typically be too large and audacious for film. Peak TV also represents, to some people, the moment in which we get the highest amount of highest quality shows, and that we will (or have already) at some point pass this peak into a decline.

Though definitions can vary, we can point out some of the trends of the shows that typically get lumped into Peak TV categories, as well 

Crime and grit

As the debatable origin of the storytelling trends that went on to define a generation of Peak TV after it, it should be no surprise that The Sopranos has been emulated time and again by gritty crime dramas centred around morally ambiguous (or downright villainous) gangsters, kingpins, and crooks. However, while many of these shows, such as Sons of Anarchy and Peaky Blinders have fallen more into the niche of genre fiction in their own right, there have also been those that managed to forge their own identity as breakout hits.

The Wire started only three years after the Sopranos and, while it did not reach the same levels of success as the former show, it has since come to earn a place on just about every critic’s list of “top 10 TV shows,” providing they have stuck around past the second season. More recently, Breaking Bad has shown that the modern audience still very much has a place for the dangerous and the deadly fuelling real societal harm, often with unflinching looks at the effects of the protagonists’ actions that undermine what justifiability they may try to express for themselves.

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The latest nostalgia cycle

Though one could debate whether they could really be called a part of peak TV, there’s no denying that some of the latest round of nostalgia bait has found their place amongst the praise being heaped at modern TV. Anyone who watches media will be able to see that nostalgia comes back in cycles. The 20 and 30-year cycles are the most famous, which is why the best 90s crazes that take us back have been dominating our screens for the past twenty years. This can be seen in quite a few of the breakout hits of the past few years, especially.

Cobra Kai is an example of the latest 90s film franchise to get a revival, but this time in a TV form that doesn’t attempt to fully reboot the original, but rather tells a story that deepens it and builds upon it. Then you also have shows like the mega-hit Stranger Things, which might cover 80s nostalgia, but does it in the wrappings of 90s Steven King book adaptations.

The place for genre

Genre fiction has always enjoyed a special place in cinema, resulting in the very occasional boom, along the lines of Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, but mostly it tends to be relegated to the realm of being a cult hit but a commercial flop. Peak TV may, in part, be responsible for changing that to a large degree, however. There have been several break-out genre TV shows that have broken past the usual critical and audience barrier to enjoy the very heights of success.

In the fantasy genre, the clearest example of this can be nothing else but Game of Thrones. However, historically driven shows like Rome, the Last Kingdom, and Vikings have fitted into their own niche. Whereas in sci-fi and speculative fiction, Westworld is perhaps the strongest example of a success story. Critically, there is always the opinion that these shows aren’t like other stories of the same genre, but the simple truth is that they just get the treatment and budget that genre stories typically did not enjoy outside of a few films.

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Rise of the anti-hero

The crime dramas that cemented the birth of peak TV and have run through it since the very beginning are one popular example of how the anti-hero has become the protagonist of the generation. However, there has been shown to be a hunger for anti-heroes even outside of that particular arena, as well.

Few characters represent this trend greater than Don Draper of Mad Men. He shares a lot of similarities with characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White. There is an admirability to his determination, his seemingly unshakeable set of masculine principles, and the aesthetics of chauvinism. However, what becomes more apparent with these characters is how often they’re used as a lens reflecting the societal expectations on men, or toxic masculinity, and how they tend to end up ruining every aspect of their lives because of those expectations.

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Making TV as digestible as film

One of the trends that have shaped the generation of Peak TV has nothing to do with the shows themselves, but rather how we watch them. Many of the shows mentioned above were not originally aired in this format, but the fact that we rely less on traditional TVs and more on streaming services have changed how we engage with the shows that we love.

Nowadays, it’s easy to binge an entire season in just a few days, and few series, in particular, have enjoyed a new level of success because of this, such as Orange Is the New Black, Jessica Jones, and Cobra Kai, for instance. TV is replacing film because it has become as easy to digest as film previously was. It might require more of a time investment, but that time is now the viewer’s to decide and, as such, many viewers are using more of that time to watch TV than films.

Peak TV is not an easy term to define, nor a helpful one in many respects. However, it does represent an overall trend that we’re becoming more and more aware of. Long-form prestige dramas, as well as genre romps, are increasingly moving from the small screen, with the silver screen finding it harder and harder to attract an audience beyond the big blockbusters. This may not be a trend that everyone likes but, for now, it looks like peak TV is here to stay.