Television used to be the minor league. There was a time when it was the place for actors to attempt to make a living because they couldn’t make it in Hollywood as a movie actor. History in fact is littered with thousands if not millions of actors who found television as the only haven left for them. From the 60’s, well into the 80’s, television was considered a wasteland. Sure, there were a few exceptions like The Twilight Zone, Hill Steet Blues and L.A. Law, but overall it was a low point creatively for the medium. My how times have changed.
What was once a death sentence has now quickly becoming the place A-list actors and Oscar winners/nominees are heading to find stories they want to tell. In just the last couple of years we have had **Holly Hunter(Saving Grace), *Laura Linney(The Big C) and *William H. Macy(Shameless) headline tv shows, not because they couldn’t find work but because they wanted to tell stories and inhabit characters whose arc lasts longer than 2 hours.
While creatively tv offers things that cannot be found anywhere else, the pay is also on par with the highest paid actors in Hollywood. Most big name Hollywood actors command somewhere in the 1-1.5 million per episode range. Taken over the course of the standard 24 episode count, that’s somewhere between 20-32 million dollars. Not a bad pay day.
Couple the rise in tv salaries with the decrease in salaries from even the biggest names in Hollywood, and it’s easy to see how the combination of creative and financial opportunities are luring away big movie talent. There was a time when actors such as Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Brad Pitt could easily command at least 20 million per movie, but these days studios are either hesitant or simply unwilling to pay that kind of salary for just one person.
While the quality of movies and television vary from year to year, it’s not unreasonable to assess that television is in the midst of a golden era creatively. While we are now reaching the apex of this golden era, it all started with Twin Peaks in 1991. David Lynch’s landmark series about the death of Laura Palmer, residents dirty secrets and the supernatural happenings in a small town, it is the show that really told networks and viewers that there was room for heady and intelligent fare on tv that leaned more towards sci-fi and fantasy.
Next came The X-files a couple of years later. Prompted no doubt by the success or Twin Peaks, the Fox Network was desperate and took a chance on the show which would be their signature hit for nearly a decade. What at first was a dabble into the realms of sci-fi and government conspiracies became a show about the belief in something unseen. Like Twin Peaks, it was darker and took chances that other shows would never have done.
As the 90’s progressed, there was an undeniable shift on television as shows started to become grittier. Storylines and dialogue became less candy coated. Shows like NYPD Blue showed nudity and My-So-Called-Life in my opinion, still stands as the most realistic portrayal of teenage life ever witnessed on a television. Internal monologues by the main character, frank talk about sex and an unflinching picture of the hardships of teen life. It also had the first openly gay character on the show. The legacy of that show can be seen even today in some of the better teen-oriented shows of the past decade.
The first big show to really announce to the world that television was changing though was The Sopranos. One of the greatest strengths of the show was it’s depiction of a wide array of characters who all were highly flawed. Every single character operated in moral shades of grey. Perhaps these shades of grey and the shows willingness to get it’s hands dirty and bloody by never holding back, is what truly opened the floodgates. HBO would begin to build it’s brand from The Sopranos and it has never looked back.
Just in the past ten years we have had a glut of unbelievable shows that stand as some of the best ever. Lost, Made Men, Arrested Development, Dexter, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing, Sons of Anarchy, Friday Night Lights, Glee, Scrubs and Breaking Bad are all examples of shows that have set the bar higher in particular ways. All of the mentioned programs are varying degrees of excellence and all have made television better.
One of the biggest, yet most unnoticed and subtle shifts in the entertainment industry is it’s targeting of certain demographics. While it still plays a role in the film industry, there has been an obvious attempt to cater to a wider range of people by becoming increasingly conservative and broad while television has gone the opposite direction. Television now has the ability to challenge you with controversial shows(Dexter, Weeds, etc.) and showcase storylines and characters that are at times more original than anything we have seen in the movie theatres in some time.
Television is also becoming more segmented and niche-oriented. Shows are now created to appeal to specific types of people. HBO builds it’s audience by finding programming that never holds back on violence, nudity and storylines that could never be on Networks like ABC, Fox, NBC etc.
This all leads back to the actors of course. Television now has some of the best writers and directors in the entertainment industry and now it’s beginning to possess some of the best acting talent that film has to offer. Ultimately actors want to create indelible stories and characters that are remembered. The ability to flesh out and grow someone for 100+ episodes of a show is something that film cannot compete with. Sure, for just a two hour period, Cinema can still take you places impossible by even tv’s standards but even that gap is starting to close.
This shift in momentum may one day change. Film may once again gain complete domination but to be honest, I highly doubt it. I think the amazing depth, writing, characters and stories that tv is starting to show us is just the beginning. We are just scratching the surface of what is possible in this medium.
One day quite soon you might just be seeing Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Will Smith headlining a show instead of a movie. It might sound ridiculous but trust me, it’s much less ridiculous and more possible than you might think.
** denotes Oscar winner
* denotes Oscar nominee