You may have heard that we are living in a glorious age of television, one where the biggest movie stars leap unceremoniously from the cineplex to the now-nontoxic small screen. An era of event programming and limited series, where stories of anti-heroes and the underbelly of the American Dream are being revealed simultaneously on broadcast networks, cable channels and streaming services. Television suddenly has become prestigious.
You may have heard all this, but that doesn’t make it true.
“It’s not like TV has suddenly become amazing and great — it’s always been amazing and great,” declares Under The Dome executive producer Neal Baer. He should know, having earned his stripes for almost 30 years on network shows such as Law & Order: SVU and ER. Baer has seen TV’s long arc bend back many times. “There was crap, but I could start listing path-breaking television series that thought about racism and drug abuse,” he says.
What’s new today is that TV is a creation of quantity as much as quality, with many more outlets and platforms to grab high-value consumers’ attention with content that up until just a decade ago would have made its home solely in the movies. We have traditional TV trying to recoup some of the luster it lost to non-advertiser-supported programming, but either way, the economics and creativity sit squarely in the small screen’s favor. One need only look at anthologies such as HBO’s True Detective or limited event series like Fox’s 24: Live Another Day or CBS’ Under The Dome to see that the torch is being carried on.
“TV is big, it’s the pictures that got small,” was the classic line—paraphrased here—from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Sure, today’s blockbusters are anything but small, but the Tentpole-Era thinking they represent is. Film studios have become automated assembly lines, churning out VFX- and action-heavy adaptations and franchises. TV has fed upon movies’ creative retreat and sowed the seeds of a small-screen revolution.
“Even if you’re one of the most successful screenwriters out there, it would take you a decade to get 13 movies made, and we’ve gotten to make 13 in just two years,” notes House of Cards creator/showrunner Beau Willimon of his series’ two seasons on Netflix. “It doesn’t really get better than that.” Similarly, Matthew McConaughey reveled in the extended high from his hugely successful foray into TV. “(True Detective) was like having a great opening weekend for eight weeks in a row,” says the Oscar winner.
Increasingly, movie stars like McConaughey, Fargo’s Billy Bob Thorton and House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, as well as Oscar-nominated scribes such as John Logan—now a creator/showrunner on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful—are no longer exotic figures on the small screen but esteemed natives doing what they do best, with better material and an immediate pathway to a large audience.
Although “eventize” is the buzzword coming out of this year’s Upfronts, the reality is that TV always has been in the event programming business. It’s a disservice to today’s talents and those who came before to say this is all something new. All in the Family, The West Wing, M*A*S*H*, ER and Hill Street Blues sit at the same table as House of Cards, Breaking Bad and Penny Dreadful. What is True Detective on many levels but the bayou bastard step-child of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Files? HBO’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America back in 2003 paved the way for Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart on the premium cable network this year.
As we enter this year’s Emmy season, let us remember that beyond the nominations and the winners, ultimately it is not the message but the medium that is truly worthy—and the medium has been very good indeed.
Below is a list of six new TV shows that are breaking rules and solidifying TV’s creative dominance:
NOTABLES: Stars Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman; novelist and main writer Noah Hawley; producers Warren Littlefield, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
PRESTIGE VALUE: It’s a 10-episode anthology that debuted while anthologies are hot, based on the Oscar-winning 1996 film of the same name by the Coen brothers. It is dark and funny on a cable network that does each well but rarely mixes them.
True Detective (HBO)
NOTABLES: Where to start? Stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson; director Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre); novelist and writer Nic Pizzolatto
PRESTIGE VALUE: Everyone wants some TD juice now. Fox alone is trying to capture that mystique with the upcoming Gracepoint and Wayward Pines. But unless you’ve got the hottest actor on the planet—plus a fearless Harrelson and the poetry-in-motion of Pizzolatto—good luck finding your own magical storytelling blend. Who else could quote Nietzsche like McConaughey’s Rust Cohle?
24: Live Another Day (Fox)
NOTABLES: Stars Kiefer Sutherland and Stephen Fry; producers Howard Gordon and Brian Grazer
PRESTIGE VALUE: In many ways, 24’s early run defined an era as the war on terror took form literally and figuratively. Plus, the hour-by-hour format seemed so fresh for so much longer than one would have expected as Jack Bauer (Sutherland) saved the world again and again. By bringing Jack back in a limited, 12-episode event series, Fox has turned the show’s now-faded glory into a cutting-edge drama—mixing the best elements of broadcast and cable programming—and essentially unleashed a movie franchise upon the small screen.
Sound of Music Live! (NBC)
NOTABLES: Having injected new life into the Oscars the past two years, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan took the reins of this three-hour experiment. American Idol winner and country music star Carrie Underwood and True Blood’s Stephen Moyer played Maria and Captain Von Trapp.
PRESTIGE VALUE: Challenging the territory of sports and awards shows, a live musical was nothing new (NBC aired several live versions of Peter Pan in the 1950s, one of which attracted 65 million viewers). The show’s massive ratings success last December now has NBC committed to several more live productions, including Peter Pan and The Music Man, both produced by Meron and Zadan. Not one to miss out on the big viewership potential, Fox has jumped on the live performance bandwagon with a 2015 production of Grease.
Fleming (BBC America)
NOTABLES: Dominic Cooper (The Duchess)
PRESTIGE VALUE: No fuss, no mess. The four-episode BBC America miniseries about the WWII career of 007 creator Ian Fleming was a sharp and almost too short reminder of how good the Brits have been at this stuff for decades.
Under the Dome (CBS)
NOTABLES: Um, this might be the only project where Steven Spielberg is not the biggest name on the marquee. The series is based on a book by Stephen King, who is one of the show’s producers and also wrote the season two opener.
PRESTIGE VALUE: Originally designated as a limited series last summer, Under the Dome became a victim of its own success. This network rule-breaker and instant money-maker—thanks to deft overseas and Amazon streaming deals—scored so well that CBS had to go in a more conventional programming direction and bring it back for another season. “This is the way television should be,” CBS chief Les Moonves said when announcing the show’s renewal last July.