Wilcox and Lavery (2002) identify 9 defining characteristics of ‘quality TV’ – can you apply (with justifications) any of the 9 characteristics on this list to another TV series (including those on Netflix, etc.) that you have viewed recently ? Are there any other characteristics that you could add to their list?
Atlanta (2016-present) is an American TV show created by comedian, actor and musical artist Donald Glover. It is a comedy-drama series set in Atlanta, Georgia and follows Earn, a college dropout, turned manager for his cousin Alfred, an up-and-coming rapper known as Paper Boi. Alfred’s best friend Darius and Van, the on-off girlfriend of Earn are the other mainstay characters of the show.
Below are some of the characteristics of ‘quality TV’ defined by Wilcox and Lavery (2002) and how they can be applied to Atlanta.
- Quality TV usually has a pedigree
According to Wilcox and Lavery (2002) this characteristic refers to the credibility and calibre of the creator (or creators) of the series. Atlanta’s creator Donald Glover earned a degree in Dramatic Writing from New York University Tisch School of the Arts in 2006 and spent the next three years as a scriptwriter on NBC’s sitcom 30 Rock (2006-2013). Glover’s contribution in the third season led to the series earning the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Series. Glover then left the series to act in the sitcom Community from 2008-2014 before leaving to work on his own projects, including Atlanta. Glover’s formal training in scriptwriting as well as numerous years of experience in award winning television series add to Glover’s credibility as a creator as well as Atlanta as quality TV.
- Quality TV has a memory
The characters of the Atlanta have memories as this is necessary to the progression of the overall arc. Although episodes contain a smaller story, it occurs within the overarching narrative of the entire season. In the first episode Earn shoots a man after an altercation resulting in both him and Earn being arrested. The next episode details their experience in the holding cells before being released on bail. Further in the season, the shooting actually gains Alfred notoriety and respect from others. Alfred’s actions are applauded by some characters as Alfred is a “real gangster”.
- Quality TV creates a new genre by mixing old ones
Atlanta combines many elements typical of drama, comedy as well as supernatural shows and juxtaposes them with a modern soundtrack influenced heavily by hip hop. “The series veers between deapan realism, existential melancholy, and wild absurdism.” (Press, 2018). There is gun violence, a prototype invisible car and even an episode shot entirely as a television interview show. The cast is majority African-American and this representation is important for telling some distinctly unique stories. However, just as importantly Atlanta tells stories that are relevant to all Americans, using the same characters, challenging attempts to as an African-American show.
- Quality TV is self-conscious
Atlanta is full of intertextual references to other texts and popular culture. In the episode Alligator Man, Earn learns his uncle is actually keeping an alligator in his house for protection. Darius makes joke saying “This n**** got a full-grown Caiman in here surrounded by chicken carcasses. It’s like an Azealia Banks Snapchat”. Two years prior to the episode airing, rapper Azealia Banks was criticized for cleaning up blood splatters in her house. The blood was from sacrificial chickens as part of her practicing witchcraft.
- The subject matter of quality TV tends toward the controversial
Many episodes have controversial subject matters and themes weaved throughout them. The episode Streets on Lock, where Earn is awaiting his bail touches on police brutality, homophobia, transphobia and mental illness. With a combination of humour and disturbingly raw interactions it brings these subjects to the forefront of the mind of the viewer. Other episodes like The Streisand Effect, touch on relevant subjects such as internet trolling and exploitation on social media by influencers.
- Quality TV aspires toward ‘realism’
The Hollywood version of the stories about record industry are often epic journeys of extreme highs and lows with an evitable commercial success being achieved. This is a stellar opposite to the journey to stardom within Atlanta. “The slow-going, aimless nature of Paper Boi’s early career is precisely what makes this series the most realistic portrayal of the Atlanta music scene to date” (Lee, 2018). In The Streisand Effect, Darius tells Earn he can get more money for phone than pawning it. Earn agrees but is disappointed when Darius reveals it is an investment that would take some time to return the much higher profit. Earn understands the logic, but is frustrated because he needs money in the present, not the future, even if it means taking less money now. The characters and their struggles are more relatable to everyday people than infallible characters that were always destined for success This is what gives Atlanta its sense of realism.
Lee, C. (2018). What does Atlanta Hip-Hop think of ‘Atlanta’ the show? Retrieived from https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/what-does-atlanta-hip-hop-think-of-atlanta-the-show/
Press, J. (2018). Atlanta Is the Best Show on TV and Hiro Murai Is Its Visual Mastermind. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/08/atlanta-is-the-best-show-on-tv-and-hiro-murai-visual-mastermind
Wilcox, R., & Lavery, D. (2002). Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.