In praise of middlebrow television: the go-to-shows to watch with Chinese takeout

From 'Castle' and 'The Flash' to 'the Blacklist', there's something about shows that are safe and comforting to our overworked brain cells

September 13, 2019 02:32 pm | Updated September 14, 2019 07:21 pm IST

Grant Gustin as Barry Allen at his mother’s grave in ‘The Flash’.

Grant Gustin as Barry Allen at his mother’s grave in ‘The Flash’.

Last week, as I was watching one of my favourite Castle episodes for the 101st time (fans, it’s ‘To Love and Die in LA’, the one where Dominic Purcell’s the bad guy), it struck me that every single OTT platform invests heavily in shows like Castle — basically, middlebrow fare. You know the type, for everyone has a go-to middlebrow show. Where the writing is good but not too challenging. Where the leading cast relies more on charisma than character development. Where the occasional moment of against-the-grain wisdom must be sandwiched between stretches of maudlin sentimentality.

Castle , being a police procedural about a homicide detective and her partnership with a bestselling mystery novelist, was obviously well-suited to the needs of middlebrow television — with a ‘monster of the week’ in place already, it allowed its charismatic leads (Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic) plenty of room to keep the wisecracks coming thick and fast. In fact, some of the weakest episodes in the show, especially towards the end, are multi-part stories. Middlebrow isn’t too good at arcs — middlebrow lives for the moment. It seeks to be what you watch even as you’re scarfing down Chinese takeout straight from the box. It deploys its mildly clever one-liners strategically, until you start to remember certain episodes shot by shot, line by line, cliffhanger by predictable cliffhanger.

Superhero family drama

Among shows currently on air ( Castle signed off a few years ago with a shoddy final season), my middlebrow favourite is The Flash , which is, at least on the surface, a superhero show.

The story follows Barry Allen, CSI investigator by day and costumed crusader by night, the so-called ‘Fastest Man Alive’. However, as anybody who’s watched it knows, The Flash is actually an ongoing narrative about parenting, where the hero is a noble orphan and the villains so far have included the hero’s evil stepdad-of-sorts and a literal evil twin. (I refuse to call it a ‘time remnant’ or any of the other cutesy Nickelodeon science terms from the show.) The most recent villain is a grieving father out to avenge his comatose daughter by any means necessary.

At its strongest, like the Kevin Smith-directed episode ‘The Runaway Dinosaur’, The Flash combines Big Superhero Energy with emotional sincerity and well-timed melodrama — basically, a competent soap. At its worst, its story arcs are shrill, derivative and go absolutely nowhere. Plus the supporting cast keeps making the same basic errors over and over again, just so the darned plot can actually move. It all averages out into classic middlebrow territory.

Fathers and daughters

There are others as well — The Blacklist , starring James Spader, comes to mind. Once again, the monster-of-the-week format is followed, with Spader’s Raymond Reddington providing the FBI with an all-new, high-value criminal target every week. But underneath all that, it’s really about fathers and daughters, with Elizabeth Keen’s (Megan Boone) parentage and childhood being the show’s enduring mysteries.

Over seven years ago, I trashed a novel for being frustratingly middlebrow in one of my first book reviews in print. Khaled Husseini and Paulo Coelho were offered up as middlebrow analogues.

And while I continue to steer clear of that particular literary subgenre, its TV counterpart has its uses, as I’ve discovered. Say you’ve just finished watching that harrowing documentary on climate change, or that brutal, intense miniseries about a serial killer. Wouldn’t you want to tuck into something familiar, something safe and comforting that’d both clear your palate and entertain you without threatening your overworked brain cells?

Of course you would. Which is why I’ll be watching ‘The Runaway Dinosaur’ and its glorious, near-Bollywood levels of melodrama tonight. Some Chinese takeout wouldn’t hurt either.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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