Derek Thompson with The Atlantic has a recent article up highlighting the emergence of television as the new medium for gritty acting, quality shows and interesting characters. Shows like Lost, Fringe, 24, The Sopranos, The Walking Dead, Dexter, numerous HBO originals and now House of Cards on Netflix, have seemingly reversed a drama industry once dominated by Hollywood.
Edward Jay Epstein provides an excellent explanation on why television has gained transaction, and why Hollywood has largely floundered. Speaking about the example of HBO, Epstein writes:
It did not need to produce a huge audience since it carries no advertising and gets paid the same fee whether or not subscribers tune in. Nor did it have to restrict edgier content to get films approved by a ratings board (there is no censorship of Pay-TV). And it did not have to structure the movie to maximize foreign sales since, unlike Hollywood, its earnings come mainly from America. As a result, HBO and the two other pay-channels, Showtime and Starz, were able to create sophisticated character-driven series such as The Wire, Sex and the City, The L Word, and The Sopranos. As this only succeeded in retaining subscribers and also achieved critical acclaim, advertising-supported cable and over-the-air network had little choice but to follow suit to avoid losing market share. The result of this competitive race to the top is the elevation of television.
Sure, television executives found a workable model for taking advantage of the format, but the simpler answer, I think, that explains the rise of television is the fact that producers and directors began creating “sophisticated character-driven series” and not just for HBO or Starz, but for the networks.
When I was a teenager, in the 20s and even younger, cheesy slapstic, droll and boilerplate sitcom fare was about all from which viewers had to choose. Think: Alf, Who’s the Boss?, Family Matters, Full House, Growing Pains, Home Improvement, etc. As far as comedy goes, the most interesting shows were Seinfeld, Cheers and maybe Herman’s Head. Drama wasn’t much better. The 1980s and 90s had Dallas, Chips, Hawaii Five-O, Matlock, the prime time soap opera, Knotts Landing and others that were rather forgettable. Dallas was probably the most captivating show to come out of my younger years, and even then, the only serious question people were asking was the age-old: “Who Done It?” But even Dallas highlighted the era’s near limitless obsession with shallow soap operas. Law & Order and MacGyver arguably offered the most substance on the small screen.
Conversely, Hollywood gave us such gems as Casino, Heat, Scent of a Woman, Donnie Brasco, Reservoir Dogs, The Shawshank Redemption, Rain Man, Pulp Fiction, Philadelphia and many others. To be sure, Hollywood was offering plenty of trash like Kindergarten Cop and Look Who’s Talking, but if viewers wanted quality acting and sophisticated, nuanced characters, they went to the movies.
Today, they go to the couch. After enduring years of predictable plots, weak acting and lack of interesting and well-developed characters, I largely turned away from TV in the late 1990s, at least from sitcoms and drama. Only a few years ago did I give TV another try after the nearly ubiquitous praise that I was hearing about Lost, 24, Dexter, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and others. And the praise was not unfounded. TV and outlets like Netflix are offering a level of quality that, perhaps, has never been offered previously. We will never forget characters like Jack Bauer, Tony Almeida, Chloe O’Brien, Jack Shepherd, Jin and Sun and Sawyer, and now, Frank Underwood can be added to the list. The small screen, I would posit, is becoming bigger as we speak.