The golden age of TV: has television killed the cinema star?


Peter Silke

We are surely in the midst of a Golden Age of TV – the second Golden Age if you include the period of live TV dramas from the late ‘40s until the advent of videotape in 1956. It doesn’t take an academic to attribute the start of the modern age to the 1999 hit, The Sopranos, a show which many maintain is still the greatest ever made. Soon after came two more HBO trailblazers, Six Feet Under and The Wire, which, no matter how you feel about it (it’s wildly overrated if you ask me, and has been surpassed many times since), undoubtedly changed perceptions of what a TV drama could look and sound like.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention AMC’s Breaking Bad. It combined critical acclaim with phenomenal commercial success, and it became for many people who maybe wouldn’t ordinarily commit to a long-running drama series, the first show they would have seen from first episode to last. When it finished its run in 2013, it left millions of freshly spawned TV junkies behind. But those junkies weren’t about to go cold turkey. By this point, we all had Netflix and streaming websites so all we had to do was choose which series to watch next! We were spoiled for choice; Showtime’s Dexter and Homeland, AMC’s Mad Men and The Walking Dead, and basically anything made by HBO, from Deadwood to Boardwalk Empire. Netflix themselves even joined the party with their his-and-hers smash hits, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Time management became the name of the game. How many hours are you willing to commit to the cause? Your evenings for the next decade are planned out with military efficiency, but at least you’ll never be bored again! Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Well, I aim to have watched The West Wing, The Good Wife and Battlestar Galactica.

So what does all this mean for that other great gift to the couch potato – film? Is there a place for home movie watching in a world with such a quantity of quality TV? Why take a chance on a film when you already know you like Supernatural? And make no mistake – watching a film for the first time is taking a chance. You’re gambling two or more hours with which you could be doing any number of productive things. Like watching 6 episodes of The Office, or two of Peaky Blinders. There is no worse feeling for any serious consumer of entertainment than being an hour into a film that you feel you should have seen because it’s famous, but realising it’s mediocre and you’ve still got 70 minutes of predictable and formulaic storytelling to sit through.

Film just can’t compete anymore with the long-form storytelling that television codifies. How can any film actor get as much into their character with maybe an hour of screen time when a TV actor gets tens of hours across months or years? It’s no surprise that Hollywood’s most respected are entering television under their own free will, despite the fact that being on television was always seen as the ultimate embarrassment for an established actor. The stunning True Detective starred Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey at the height of the McConaissance. Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Eva Green, John Malkovich and Maggie Gyllenhaal have all joined the bandwagon, and one wonders if television is one or two megastars away from causing an exodus. Imagine Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett all starring in their own rival primetime series! It sounds ridiculous, but there’s nothing to stop it from happening. In fact, it’s heading in that direction.

One might argue that television today is catering only to one genre, while film provides us with everything from comedy to chick-flicks to thrillers. Wrong. TV really has all the bases covered. Comedy-wise it’s almost certainly richer pastures. Laughs come much thicker and faster in your sit-com of choice than in even the punchiest feature length comedies, and there’s many times more hours of them. The ‘lighter’ side of TV is the best it’s ever been. Suits and White Collar are definite standouts and even all the CBS police procedurals like Criminal Minds and The Mentalist provide a change of scene from the high drama of Breaking Bad or Games of Thrones. For comic book fans, there are now matching DC and Marvel universes taking place on the small screen. All your watching needs and desires have migrated from the silver screen to its diminutive cousin over the last decade.

We, the audience, starved for so long of instant, infinite and virtually free entertainment, are now ready to forget all about those two hour self-contained oddities we call movies. Why put in all that effort of getting to know the characters, listening intently for plot details and learning the rules of the world of the film? Well, I’m putting forward that movies are worth it. Worth the effort, the extra time and the not knowing what you’re in for. Even worth the too-often disappointments. Movies are worth it because they have a certain magic that all this brilliant but calculated TV doesn’t have.

A good example is the most recent product of the Netflix algorithm, and their first foray into fictional film, Beasts of No Nation. You take a lead actor people love, Idris Elba. You add the director of whatever people liked most on TV last year, True Detective. You make it as shockingly violent as you want because it’s on the internet and it doesn’t have to have a certificate. How could it not work? Well, it very nearly does work, but it suffers from that strange emptiness of feeling mathematical, prescribed, tailored to fit. We know what you want, even better than you do, so here it is, exactly. Beasts of No Nation may win a few Golden Globes or even an Oscar, which is what Netflix want. But it doesn’t feel like any profound contribution to cinema. It is a cold product of an algorithm – a ghost of the machine.

The point I’m trying to make (without sounding completely pretentious) is that film should remain effervescent as a medium, unpredictable and pioneering. Even if that means taking the bad – all the bad – with the great. Otherwise we’d just get a lot of consistently good. And make no mistake, Beasts of No Nation is, and all future Netflix movies will be, just that. Good. But we’d never get great or brilliant or mind-blowing, which is what we trawl through all these hours of mediocrity for. Do you think that Netflilx could spit out something with the ambition of Interstellar, the rawness of Whiplash, the imagination of the best of Pixar or Studio Ghibli?

If everyone did what Netflix does, cinema would stagnate and ultimately be replaced by the hardier TV. So the next time you sit down for a double bill of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, consider a movie instead, and if it leaves you disappointed, just remember that it’s all part of the quest!


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