American Horror Story. Dexter. The Shield. The Wire. BSG. Boardwalk Empire. Game of Thrones. Mad Men. That’s hardly the start of it. There is a long list of television shows now that are the equal, if not indeed actually superior to, what we see in the cinema.
Back when I was a lad – well, not even anything like that long ago actually- there was a clear difference in quality between television and movies- even ‘big’ shows like the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, tv shows created on the back of the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, were clearly of inferior quality compared to their Big Screen counterparts. There were obvious limitations in budgets and time-constraints that meant that what was on viewers television screens was markedly different to what was on the silver screen. But it went beyond just production values. You’d very rarely, if ever, find an established movie-actor appearing on television, whether it be tv series or a tv-movie. It would seem to be a ‘step-down’. Likewise movie directors wouldn’t work on television projects. If anything, directors would start in television to get experience and work their way up to motion-pictures, seeing the latter as the Big Time and never to return to their humble origins.
Things have changed though. Television is still home to plenty of sub-standard product but some of its quality shows are easily superior to most motion pictures. Actors see better roles for themselves on television than what is available on the silver screen- dramatic, challenging roles with real merit. Even film directors have become used to using their skills on television projects. Mostly this is due to premium cable networks like HBO but even on other, lesser cable channels, or terrestrial networks such as the BBC here in the UK, there is not the old natural perception that ‘made for tv’ means any less quality than a full-blown motion picture, whether home-grown or from Hollywood.
I have just finished watching Hannibal, a prime-time show from the NBC network in the USA. Rarity it may be for that network, it was nevertheless one of the best shows I have ever seen, easily equal to the quality we’d tend to expect from premium sources such as HBO. I’ve never been a huge fan of the various Hannibal-based movies but this 13-part series was easily equal to them. The writing, acting and direction… the location-shooting and the intense soundscape of the music score… it is a remarkable piece of work. Here in the UK it was shown on the SkyLiving channel, aired via cable and satellite networks, so no doubt failed to set ratings-figures alight or gain much attention from tv critics more focused on popular soaps or primetime shows. I only hope its DVD/Blu-ray release will widen its reach, or that I can talk people into giving it a go and perhaps tuning in to the second season next year, because this was really something special. The makers have a five or six-year plan for the series and I’d love to see it manage that.
I recorded Hannibal on my Tivo box, letting the Tivo collect all the episodes each week over the past few months before finally watching them over the past week or two as the showing of the series finale neared. I guess in a way it was like watching it as a DVD boxset, watching it every night or so, and sometimes watching two episodes in a night if time allowed. That way was ideal for following the plot and picking up on clues as the storyline progressed as opposed to waiting for a new episode each week. And of course I was able to skip through the irritating ad breaks. I guess tv chiefs hate people doing this, but it does raise the issue of how people access television content now. If I had watched the first two or three episodes and decided it wasn’t for me, I’d have stopped and deleted the series from the Tivo, but instead I found it was really excellent and devoured it inside a fortnight, never being subjected to a commercial break.
Many of these series have long complex story-arcs, almost like long novels. Seasons may be self-contained very often character-arcs span multiple seasons and events in, say, season 5 might refer back to events of an episode in season 2. They encourage viewers to pay attention and reward that attention, A two or three-hour movie cannot even approach that level of complexity or sense of reward to the viewer.
I know there were television shows that did it before (particularly here in the UK), but I often think that the tv show Babylon 5 was the first real attempt at this kind of programming. Most tv shows prior to that, particularly network shows, had an established model of individual episodes that pressed a magical ‘reset’ button at their conclusion. That way audiences could miss the odd episode but drop in easily. Shows like Star Trek, The A-Team… pretty much any show, they were all the same. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski had a plan for Babylon 5 from the very start, a five-year arc with a definitive beginning, middle and end, essentially a novel for television in the genre of space-opera, and it pretty much succeeded. It wasn’t perfect and has been bettered since, but it proved to be the model for future genre shows like Farscape, Battlestar Galactica and so many others, right up to current series like Defiance and Falling Skies.
I remember being absolutely blown away by Babylon 5. I’d see things in series one that were brought up in series three or four, or something a character would do or say in series five that dated back to something that happened to them in series two. There hadn’t been anything quite like that before. I would re-watch shows to pick up on something I may have missed, and, Lord knows, I couldn’t miss an episode. I remember at the end of each season the agonising wait to hear if the show would get renewed for another (Babylon 5 was always a borderline success and its fans were always subjected to a real-world renewal cliffhanger equal to any of the shows in-series cliffhangers). The series may have faltered toward the end (the storyline proper had pretty much been condensed to the end of season four due to poor ratings) but the emotional pay-off of the final scenes of the last episode of season five was like nothing I had experienced before. I loved that show.
Nowadays most shows seem to follow the Babylon 5 model. They can be victims of it, of course, as once the show is established, it can find it impossible to increase audience ratings. That happened to Farscape and it suffered a painful cancellation, but even its fans have to admit there was little chance of new viewers to, say, season three, having the slightest chance of figuring out what was going on. That’s the real challenge of episodic television like this, how to maintain or even increase viewer ratings with entry-points and the like while maintaining multi-season arcs. I guess DVD boxsets help with this. I missed the initial showings of Dexter, for instance, but I saw the first series one and two on DVD boxset and then followed it from season three onwards on-air, so the shows likely manage to increase viewers through things like that. Of course it also might actually reduce viewing figures, as a lot of people just wait for the boxset anyway, which can prove dangerous to the longevity of the show.
So anyway, this seems a long way of stating the fact that I find many television shows better than what is shown in cinemas now. Its gotten to the point that I watch fewer movies now, and more tv shows, and find the latter more rewarding. Thirty, twenty years ago that would not be the case. But show me any recent social-commentary movie equal to The Wire. Any science-fiction movie of the past ten years equal to the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Anything as endlessly fascinating as Mad Men. Movies have become huge bubblegum entertainment blockbusters, hugely popular, yes, but hardly satisfying in the way so many tv shows are now. Which is another way of saying I am more inclined to be excited about an upcoming tv series than I am any movie. For all the blockbusters coming to the cinema this year or next, I am more hyped for the return of Da Vinci’s Demons or American Horror Story or Mad Men or, indeed, Hannibal. And it seems my Blu-ray shelf is stocked as much by tv box-sets (and I am more inclined to watch and rewatch them) as it is by movies. Unfortunately of course, all these boxsets and series are more time-consuming, which is likely the one negative about them.
But anyway, if you didn’t catch Hannibal on-air, do give the upcoming box-set a go. You won’t regret it- except that you’ll be in for an agonising wait for season two!