In Defense of the Pretty Good Show

palm royale
In Defense of the Pretty Good ShowApple
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Palm Royale feels like a TV show that was created in a lab specifically for (gay) people like me, who love watching actresses do actressy things. The flamboyant Apple TV+ series stars Kristen Wiig as Maxine Dellacorte-Simmons, a plucky social climber in 1960s Palm Beach who is determined to infiltrate high society through her newfound membership in an exclusive private club. Maxine faces off against the often-shirtless Robert Diaz (Ricky Martin), idealistic hippie Linda Shaw (Laura Dern), and judgy old-money matriarch Evelyn Rollins (Allison Janney) as she claws her way to the top.

Watching Wiig and the many fabulous wigs of Palm Royale, I know I won’t retain much memory of what happens. Even now, as I await the next episode, the plot is a blur of soaplike twists, 1960s fashion, hair-ography, “Mother!” monologues, and Ricky Martin’s abs. Is it life-changing television? Not by a long shot. But Palm Royale is a type of TV that viewers are increasingly drawn to: the Pretty Good Show.

As that name suggests, these shows aren't aspiring to be the pinnacle of high art, but there’s nothing guilty about their pleasures, either. In fact, they’re firmly above average—even if they’re not exactly driving social media discourse or cleaning up during award season like their prestige peers. With an overwhelming amount of streaming shows to choose from, including some that can be high-maintenance to watch, a series like Palm Royale feels relaxed and reliable. Like all Pretty Good Shows, its aim is refreshingly clear: to entertain us.

Look, for example, at The Morning Show, which has carved out a niche for itself by leaning into its own ridiculousness. (Writing for Slate, David Mack said that the show has become “must-see TV by going absolutely bonkers.”) In the third season of the Apple TV+ drama, Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson—a troubled TV anchor in the midst of an identity crisis—goes into space with the help of an Elon Musk–inspired tech billionaire. She also reports on the show’s retelling of January 6 and discovers that her own brother was one of the insurrectionists.

The previous season? That ended with a truly unhinged scene between Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell, in which their characters slow-danced in a Lake Como villa while talking about “cancel culture,” before Carell’s character, Mitch Kessler—a former news anchor and workplace pervert—plunged off a cliff to his death.

The Morning Show is one of the most expensive TV shows ever made—proof that money alone doesn’t make a show “prestige.” Palm Royale is similarly ludicrous. Watching Wiig learn to communicate in whalesong to coax a marooned mammal back to the ocean, then falling overboard from a ship, only to be saved by an astronaut, I was reminded that Pretty Good Shows don’t have to play by the same rules as prestige TV, because our expectations aren’t the same. It’s sort of like pizza: Sometimes you want to savor a pizza with a thin crust and gentrified toppings. But other times, you want to inhale something with stuffed crust and stringy packaged mozzarella. They’re both pizza, but they’re two different foods for two different moods.

the morning show
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in The Morning ShowErin Simkin

Netflix is the home of Stuffed Crust TV. This is the appeal of Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes’s period drama that premiered during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. The show isn’t pretending to be particularly highbrow—it was like Ye Olde Gossip Girl, featuring Ariana Grande bangers on string quartet. That didn’t stop Bridgerton from becoming Netflix’s most-watched show ever, with season two breaking its own record in 2022. The first part of season three drops on May 16. There’s a similar draw toward Ginny & Georgia, a mother-daughter show that arrived on Netflix in the same year. (It’s like Gilmore Girls, with some murders and embezzlement thrown in.)

Earlier this year, Netflix dropped Fool Me Once, a slightly trashy thriller series set in the U.K. (I binge-watched all 10 episodes and I couldn’t tell you anything that happened, except for Joanna Lumley screaming “Fuck off!” in an outrageously posh English accent.) The series received mixed reviews but topped Netflix’s charts, becoming one of its biggest-ever debuts. More recently from the streamer, we’ve seen 3 Body Problem, a sci-fi series based on the Liu Cixin novel of the same name, which sees its characters navigate artificial dimensions and aliens, and The Gentlemen,Guy Ritchie’s posh and perilous drama, which paints the British aristocracy as the original gangsters. All these shows are united by being pretty good, but not great.

Shows made by other networks are also finding a second lease on life on Netflix. Since being added to the platform in mid-2023, Suits—a fast-paced, hot legal drama starring a pre-royalty Meghan Markle—has shattered streaming records and became one of the most-streamed shows of last year. And soaplike medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (another Shonda Rhimes creation) has consistently been in the top 10 most-streamed shows in the United States since its back-catalog arrived on Netflix, according to Nielsen data.

If Netflix is dominating Pretty Good Shows, HBO is more closely associated with prestige TV. (It basically invented the concept with The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999.) Shows like Succession and Game of Thrones have defined the streaming-era norm of watching TV and dissecting it together on social media. The stakes felt so high toward the ends of both these series. Succession delivered a truly stunning ending, but after the trauma of GoT—a final season that pissed pretty much everyone off—I found the viewing experience stressful. Avoiding spoilers was virtually impossible, and at one point, the discourse was so intense that it seemed like the fate of Shiv Roy would be a metaphor for the future of all womankind.

Pretty Good Shows are a reaction and antidote to these stresses. It’s not that they are entirely without tension—more that there isn’t quite so much riding on them. As a viewer, I don’t feel a compulsion to discuss them with the masses afterward, like I did after watching The White Lotus or Mare of Easttown. I rarely feel the need to argue with strangers about how, actually, it’s the writers who are wrong. Pretty Good Shows are shows you can watch while scrolling through your phone or decompressing from a stressful workday. They don’t demand as much from you.

Writing in 2020, Anne Helen Peterson identified a similar trend toward “pretty good movies” like Knives Out, which surpassed box office expectations. (More recently, the same can be said for Anyone but You, a pleasingly good rom-com starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell.) Peterson argued that movies like this were thriving because our “expectations for the movies are so damn low.”

When it comes to TV, I think the opposite is true. Prestige TV has raised the bar across the board. (Even Bravo’s “low art” reality shows are now serving up moments befitting an HBO drama.) The streaming era has made TV more accessible, yet the transparent number of shows on so many different platforms has turned picking a new one into effort. With so much choice, it can be freeing (and a little nostalgic?) to pick something that you know is going to be decent, but hasn’t been hyped up as life-changing.

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A pre-duchess Meghan Markle and the cast of SuitsUSA Network - Getty Images

Otherwise, there can be a gulf between expectation and reality. I think this is why there was so much backlash toward The Crown in its later seasons. Fans tuned in expecting a prestige drama version of the Foy-Colman reign, but instead they were given a very expensive soap opera of Charles and Diana theatrics. It wasn’t just a dip in quality, more like a change in category—as if the show had reneged on its contract with the audience and was now living under false pretenses. By comparison, Pretty Good Shows like Palm Royale have a more honest relationship with viewers. There is still room to exceed expectations when you’re not overselling yourself.

None of this is an argument against prestige TV. I’d go as far to say that it’s life-affirming when the best writing and acting comes together to create exquisite television. (Entire media studies essays will be written about the final shot of Succession alone.) Still, after an era in which prestige TV has been so dominant, I think there is an inevitable fatigue—or at least, a desire for more options between “incredible” and “terrible.” For shows that don’t give you heart palpitations or lead to online altercations with strangers. Shows that Jonathan Groff has probably guest-starred on, or at least auditioned for at some point. Shows that are transparent about wanting to entertain us and not much else. Shows that, like a stuffed crust pizza, are really great at being pretty good.

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