How STARZ Perfected the Lowbrow
The network has begun to make a bigger splash in the premium TV landscape.
By THOMAS J. WEST III
Now that we are supposedly living in the “Golden Age of Television,” it’s become commonplace to celebrate TV series that have managed to elevate themselves above the morass of lowbrow offerings populating the crowded TV landscape. After all, for every The Sopranos (1999–2007), there’s another iteration of the Real Housewives franchise.
Of course, some networks have done better than others at capitalizing on the “Golden Age” ethos, utilizing the medium’s newfound (in some cases) prestige to burnish their own brand images. These networks have become almost synonymous with the the phrase “quality TV”:
One cable network, however, has consistently lagged behind the others, both in terms of viewership and in terms of the level of prestige attached to its name:
That said, beginning with its breakout hit Spartacus (2010–13) and its even more successful series Outlander (2014- ), STARZ has begun to make a bigger splash in the premium television landscape.
Spartacus: A Sudsy Romp Through Ancient Rome
Prior to Spartacus, STARZ did not have a substantial hit to call its own, certainly nothing along the lines of HBO’s The Sopranos or Showtime’s Homeland (2011- ). And while the ancient-Rome centered drama seemed to bear some similarities to HBO’s Rome (2005–07), it utilized a very different set of strategies to appeal to audiences.
Spartacus never attempted to put itself on quite the same level of cultural prestige as other offerings on cable. Executives at STARZ touted the series’ action film/peplum aesthetics — “blood-soaked action, exotic sexuality, and villainy and heroism” — seemingly in an effort to distinguish the network’s product from other prestige dramas found elsewhere. Series creator, Steven S. DeKnight, even went so far as to say that such “pay cable” dramas were often a chore to watch.
With Spartacus, STARZ eschewed the literary pretensions of networks such as HBO — who could forget the many, many, many times HBO’s The Wire (2002–08) has been likened to a Dickens novel? — and went all-out in presenting a pulpy, sudsy romp through ancient Rome.
Spartacus was popular (the series finale drew in almost 1.5 million viewers), in part, because it appealed to the baser emotions and bodies of its viewers. It was terrifyingly exciting and titillating with its graphic depictions of violence and nudity.
And as long as you were willing to accept Spartacus on its own terms, you could actually take pleasure in it. And if you were especially generous and willing, you could see it actually had a point to make with its visceral depiction of the ancient world. All of this, of course, required that you accept it as the lowbrow offering that it was.
And then Game of Thrones (2011- ) changed everything…again.
Somehow, the magic of the HBO brand was able to transform epic fantasy, a genre that has always struggled to gain critical recognition or accolades, into not only a ratings powerhouse, but also an engine that produces more thinkpieces than Robert Baratheon has bastards.
Though Game of Thrones had just as many bare breasts (but fewer penises) and as much gore as Spartacus, somehow it managed to become, if not highbrow, at least respectable in a way Spartacus never was. STARZ may have drawn in a devoted fan base with Spartacus, but it hadn’t yet managed to produce a hit that was considered “quality.”
Cue STARZ’s Outlander.
Outlander: Not a Bodice-Ripper, Thank You Very Much
From the beginning, Outlander occupied something of a strange position in the slate of shows offered by STARZ and its desire to solidify its brand identity.
On the one hand, this presold property had the same epic aspirations as Game of Thrones, conveniently blending history, romance, fantasy, and a bit of science fiction. On the other hand, it was precisely this romantic element that allowed it to slip so easily into STARZ’s already established penchant for drawing on commonly derided genres as the peplum (e.g. Spartacus) and the swashbuckler (e.g. Black Sails), to solidify its brand.
The difference, of course, is that the network has taken a different tack with Outlander. Rather than purveying the series as a bodice-ripper, which would have been easy to do, the network has chosen to hold it up as a highbrow offering.
For example, STARZ focuses on the credentials of showrunner Ronald D. Moore, the name behind the series Battlestar Galactica (2004–09) and the recent Star Trek films. Moreover, the network emphasizes well-established conventions of quality television, especially those of the Game of Thrones variety: narrative density (ordering 16 episodes to cover the first novel), complex cinematography, and lush on-location shooting.
Perhaps surprisingly, these efforts have succeeded — at least if the blizzard of thinkpieces that emerged immediately before and after the series’ premiere is anything to go by (see, for example, this post and this, and this one).
Like STARZ, the Outlander novels on which the series is based have struggled to throw off their lowbrow, romance origins. Despite their trappings of romance, author Diana Gabaldon has consistently argued her novels are not romance. And if you go to your local bookstore, you’ll find the series shelved with fiction rather than in the romance section. This, by the way, is at Gabaldon’s insistence.
Though she doesn’t quite phrase it this way, the problem for Gabaldon, I would argue, is that romance still carries with it that taint of the lowbrow, of the appeal to the lower and baser emotions.
And then there’s that trickiest of problems: romance is a genre that traditionally appeals to women. This is why, despite the many pieces talking about the series’ appeal to the female gaze such as The Conversation’s and Anne Helen Petersen’s, STARZ makes sure Outlander appeals as much to men as it does to women. For instance, it centers on non-romantic elements of the storyline such as the political and social events that serve as the romance’s background (the novel takes place in the midst of the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745).
What is especially striking about these two cases is how they represent two different stages in the evolution of the STARZ brand. If the network went all-out in its celebration of the lowbrow in Spartacus — Blood-spatters! Glistening muscles! Nudity! Sex! — it seems to have taken a different approach in attempting to solidfy its own entry into the world of quality TV drama with Outlander.
No longer content to appeal in an unabashed way to the baying TV crowd (as The Los Angeles Times once put it), the network clearly wants to be seen as a purveyor of high quality drama. It remains to be seen whether that reputation will solidify, or whether STARZ will have to be content with its low-brow reputation.
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