You’re waiting for a bus in north London. It’s sunny and surprisingly warm for March weather, but you’re hungover and want to get home. Desperate to find something, anything to think about other than your headache, you catch a glimpse of an advert on the side of one of the new Routemasters. Big Little Lies it says, starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley.
“Looks good,” you think. “I wonder when it’s in cinemas.” But Google surprises you, for Big Little Lies isn’t a film, oh no. It’s a TV series.
But, I hear you ask, what’s a TV show doing with not one, not two, but three award-winning Hollywood actresses? Clearly, there must be some thing about television that is attractive to actors who can pick any role they choose. Big Little Lies is not alone either: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson wowed audiences in the first season of True Detective, and the same goes for Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards and Claire Danes in Homeland – the list goes on.
Until recently, “real actors” wouldn’t even grace television with their presence; now they’re all over it. What’s changed?
Put simply, the material is better. Well scripted, big budget shows have taken over the business during the last decade, because writers and directors have finally realised TV’s potential. JJ Abrams of Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame was one of the creators of Lost in 2004; nowadays creatives have realised that signing on to write or direct one episode in a season means much less work than a film, but still a chance to try out the medium and get paid.
Game of Thrones has been doing this for a while (the writer of the books, George R R Martin, usually writes an episode per season), while anthology series like Black Mirror allows each writer and director even more freedom, maintaining no narrative link from episode to episode.
What’s suddenly drawn in high profile actors though is not only that TV has upped its game since its days of mediocre detective, medical and legal dramas – it’s that film has been going the other way. Whereas television is becoming increasingly interesting and innovative, film is stuck in a rut – pretty much dominated by expensive action movies or CGI filled animated productions.
A look at what topped the box office in 2016 is enlightening – you have to go all the way down to spot 18, past such “delights” as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Kung Fu Panda 3, if you want to see the Oscar nominated La La Land. The small number of “Oscar bait” movies are really the only things keeping good actors in Hollywood, except, well, the big bucks.
Not only is the writing better, but actors have begun to understand that clocking in around 10 hours on a TV show means more time. Yes, more time does mean fewer opportunities to appear in other projects, but the progressive shortening of seasons (Big Little Lies will only have seven, and Game of Thrones’ last two seasons will have seven and six episodes respectively) allow actors to make the commitment to television. On top of that, it means a more time-efficient way to earn cash.
But actors aren’t just money-grabbing maniacs – they want to challenge themselves. It’s hard to present a truly complex character in Hollywood, with three hours being the general time limit. More time gives actors the chance to develop and layer characters not just in terms of actual screening time, but in the mind of the viewer. Subjected to shorter, but more regular exposure, their characters become more real and attached to the everyday, rather than just in your face for a couple of hours then gone. This doesn’t hurt their fame either – in fact, it allows more people to access it. And we all know that (generally) more fame equals more opportunity.
The kinds of roles offered are more attractive too. Strong and empowering female roles in particular seem to be in encouraging abundance, and much more so than in film. The unstoppable force that is Shonda Rhimes is partly responsible, heading up shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, in which all the heads of the surgical departments at the fictional Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital are run by women. Other shows produced by Shondaland include How to Get Away with Murder starring the Oscar-winning Viola Davis, and Scandal with Kerry Washington. That all three of these enormously popular shows contain black women in starring roles and positions of power (Miranda Bailey as chief of surgery, Annalise Keating as kick-ass lawyer and Olivia Pope as the head of a crisis-management agency) is revolutionary.
And of course, no one can deny the obvious technological developments which allow more and more content to be made, without worrying about ratings or box office numbers. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video offer a plethora of content at the viewer’s fingertips – the glaring difference here is that it is cost effective for the audience, unlike cinema tickets, and the recent “binge watching” craze means no waiting for premieres.
Part of this is due to a severe decrease in the attention spans of their biggest customers – us. As millennials, we are impulsive, obsessive, and easily bored. Though this is mainly caused by the fact that we grew up surrounded by a circus of entertainment bombardment and information overload, the media itself is affected as a consequence.
The episodic nature of television is more appealing to us. As far as obsession is concerned, TV matches that, too. Tumblr, fandoms and meme culture allow us to collectively gush over shows and characters, and with exciting cliffhangers leaving us hungry for more, our interest is dragged out for as long as possible. Netflix and HBO are playing us, but we’re allowing ourselves to be played – how can it be a bad thing if so much more great content is being produced?
One danger to be aware of though is overproduction. Supply and demand is a risky business. I consider myself a huge fan of TV, having devoted an embarrassingly large amount of my time to it, yet I still haven’t got into Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead. The medium is on the verge of overflowing, and in the future it could face a self-induced collapse if things don’t slow down.
However, for now this is still undoubtedly the “golden age of television.” But is it enough to constitute a revolution?
I say hell yeah. It’s everywhere, even in subtle ways. The Oscars, awards which specifically honour the film industry, are broadcast on television. Sport. Adverts. Professionally filmed theatre.
Now that TV can be highbrow s well as low, it can permeate everything. It’s personal, but can be social too: Gogglebox shuts down the myth that we don’t watch TV together anymore. It’s short, but overarching. Modern television embodies duality – it brings together opposites, andis a mouldable and ever-evolving medium.
Its future looks uncertain (we’ll see how big an impact 3DTV and virtual reality make) but bright, as long as it doesn’t fall victim to its own success.