The golden age of TV

 

Is cinema in its death throes? Movie stars and directors are decamping to the small screen, and The Sopranos, Simpsons and other unlikely heroes are making this an era of ground-breaking TV. When the quality's so high, asks John Patterson, why step out of the living room?

I haven't seen a movie that's inspired me as much as The Sopranos has. A lot of our one-hour episodes are as good as any movie out there today. Lorraine Bracco (Dr Jennifer Melfi, The Sopranos), to Entertainment Weekly, March 2006.

The days are long gone when the makers of famous movies about TV, such as A Face In The Crowd, Network, Broadcast News or Up Close And Personal, could sneer at the money-grubbing pinheads of network television. Also gone are the days when formulaic trash such as All In The Family and Sandford And Son, alongside Happy Days, Welcome Back, Kotter (which spawned John Travolta), Dallas and Dynasty, were considered the cream of what the three big US networks - CBS, NBC and ABC - were producing.

Today, US television is where cultural debates are sparked, and where popular culture renews and reinvigorates itself. Over the past 10 years, TV has slowly seized the creative initiative from the movies and run with it, all the way to the Emmys - and to the bank. With entire seasons of TV shows available on DVD and cheap iPod downloads of popular shows online, television is now teeming with beautifully written, well-made programmes, including The Sopranos, Deadwood, Law & Order and its many spin-offs, Lost, 24, Six Feet Under, The Shield and Nip/Tuck.

Umbilically connected to the internet, TV is also able to attach itself swiftly to new currents in subterranean culture and bring them to viewers in a matter of days. This inventiveness affects all areas, from news to drama. And it is because of the sudden upsurge in TV drama, along with the immense fortunes to be made in it, that so many names we associate with the cinema are moving to television.

James Woods, the star of new legal drama, Shark, is part of this year's mass migration to the small, well, smaller screen. His main reason: better material. "I've been lamenting the horrible state of the movie industry the past few years," he told the LA Times in March. "When I was young, everyone pooh-poohed television, and now every time I turn [ it] on, I see some extraordinarily interesting series." The transition should be easy for Woods: he'll be surrounded by plenty of movie people - Shark is produced by Brian Grazer (Ron Howard's producer) and the pilot directed by Spike Lee.

The shift has been going on for a while. Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland in the White House drama Commander In Chief, and Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker in The Shield offered 2005's most obvious examples; with 24, meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland beat them to it by four years. Two feature directors, Doug Liman and McG, crafted the look and feel of Fox's hit The OC, and Liman is a guiding force behind Heist, ABC's new thriller. Directors Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich, Lee Tamahori and Mike Figgis have all worked for HBO (Home Box Office), the latter trio on episodes of The Sopranos. But, as the spring 2006 pilot season unfolds, casting agents are astounded at the sheer numbers of major movie players now intent on making careers, and fortunes, in TV.

The traffic between movies and television used to flow all the other way. TV has seen many of its talents become movie stars: Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Johnny Depp and George Clooney spring to mind.

Directors Sydney Lumet (12 Angry Men), John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), Arthur Penn (Bonnie And Clyde) and countless others got their start in the late 1950s and early 1960s production boom that we should call the First Golden Age of American Television. But for a good three decades after that, moving from movies to TV was considered slumming it, a suicidal burning of one's bridges. Not any more. Actors, like many others, have cottoned on to one fact: we're now in the Second Golden Age of American Television.

To understand how everything changed so drastically, one must go back 20 years to the foundation of Fox TV in 1985, an insanely expensive gamble by Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller, one the upstart new owner of 20th Century Fox, the other the recently retired boss of Paramount Pictures (and, not incidentally, inventor of the made-for-TV movie).

Fox put US culture on notice with The Simpsons - which has since established itself as an ongoing masterpiece of public art, a satirical Bayeux tapestry of the past 20 years of US history and culture - and was set to dominate the 1990s as the most aggressively innovative and creative (though not always the most successful) network on TV. ( Murdoch defined his credo thus: "These will be shows with no outer limits. The only rules we will enforce on these programmes [ are] that they have taste, they must be engaging, they must be entertaining and they must be original." Setting aside the question of taste (Who Wants To Marry A Midget, anyone?), this is a good prescription for what actually happened in all of network television (in TV drama at least) over the next two decades.

A change was under way already. The slow-building success of Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues from 1981 onwards on NBC TV suggested something to which network suits had long seemed blind: that television shows could be intelligent, provocative and superbly written, yet still draw audiences and make money. In short, quality was no longer a bad idea.

Fox set off another tremor through the industry with its attitude to censorship. Whereas, for instance, ABC had spent the late 1970s dispatching inspectors from its "standards and practices" department to the set of Soap to ensure Katherine Helmond's cleavage was not too drastically exposed, Fox happily embraced vulgarity, originally with the gutter-dwelling Married With Children, and then made it an essential part of the subversive Simpsons.

Censor-baiters on other networks picked up the challenge. Bochco was always keen to put one over on his network, even if it was something as silly as naming a Japanese character on LA Law Fukuto. Later, he would pioneer partial on-screen nudity and push the limits of acceptable TV profanity on NYPD Blue. And while America's religious sensibilities mean it's still true that, as West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin once put it, "We'll hear the word 'cocksucker' on TV before we ever hear the word 'goddamn'," the range of realistic usable language has broadened significantly. Television has finally grown up.

One of the main fields of conflict between television and movies has always been technology, and the quality of the sound and image. When TV first put Hollywood on notice in the 1950s, the suddenly beleaguered studios responded with the razzle-dazzle of CinemaScope and TechniColor to retain their audiences. The foot-wide, oval-shaped, black-and-white TV screen of 1952 was no match for a movie screen the size of a warehouse wall in vibrant colour. Though the technological gap between TV and movies still persists, it's narrowing all the time.

A recent TV commercial - a bit of self-promotion by LA's main local cable provider, Adelphia - shows how things have changed. A kid eats his Coco Pops in front of his TV when, suddenly, the worst thing imaginable happens: his living room turns into a movie auditorium. His remote is gone. There's only one channel. A tall guy in a cowboy hat sits in front of him. A few rows back a baby yowls, people are making out, arguing, eating loudly and talking on their mobile phones. Then we cut to what Adelphia - and other large cable suppliers - can offer you at home: hundreds of channels providing an unprecedented range of programming; video on demand, which lets you watch cable shows and movies free whenever you wish; and a recording facility that will record your favourite shows automatically on to a hard drive and let you watch them ata time of your choosing, while skipping the commercials.

The glory days of cinema, mourned in a recent LA Times article by Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show, who, incidentally appears in The Sopranos as a shrink) - the days of communal enjoyment in great movie palaces, of submerging your identity into that of the congregation-like crowd - are, sad to say, gone for ever, along with newsreels, animated shorts, B-features and ashtrays in the seat-arms. But that's not entirely TV's fault. As Bogdanovich says, "Better movies would help."

Meanwhile, television has become infinitely more cinematic, just as audiences have progressively become more cine- literate. Gone are the static cameras of the old made-for-TV movie, to be replaced, often, by superbly kinetic and inventive film-making, shot on film, often in wide-screen formats and on location, using big budgets (Lost's opener, for example, cost a record-breaking $10m), special effects and hit-parade soundtracks.

As you're sitting watching, the livingroom TV experience, with giant plasma screens, HDTV and Dolby SurroundSound systems, is looking more and more like a serious improvement on the tatty old fleapit and sterile multiplex. And don't think the studios aren't worried about this threat to their much diminished hegemony. At this year's Oscars, after yet another montage of ancient and venerable movie clips, presenter Jake Gyllenhaal self-consciously delivered a few scripted remarks about the superior quality of the movie image: "You can't properly watch these on a television set, and good luck trying to enjoy them on a portable DVD." (Which raises the question: So, who's manufacturing these DVDs?) In his LA Times piece, Bogdanovich expanded on Gyllenhaal's theme: "What is there to say about seeing movies of quality on an iPod? Chilling." The two of them sounded like embattled studio executives circa 1952, scorning the upstart TV while hymning the glories of 'Scope and TechniColor.

The studios are mired in a fading paradigm of bloated budgets and creative inertia. Unlike TV, especially the cable outfits, studios seem unable, or unwilling, to make movies for intelligent adults. And this is at a time when movie releases are becoming more like trailers for the inevitable DVD release.

All this year's Oscar-winners were available on DVD in the US less than a month after the ceremony (several were available before it). The wait is now down from a year or six months to as little as six weeks. Steven Soderbergh upset a lot of Hollywood top-table types by releasing his latest movie, Bubble, simultaneously in cinemas, on subscription cable and on DVD. Within a few years, he may be doing the same with Ocean's 15.

A movie gets one chance to fail (unless it becomes a cult on DVD, which happens to good movies that flummox the studio's marketing honchos). It's a large and inflexible investment, a behemoth that need not concern itself with building customer loyalty as TV must, but has to strut into the marketplace with the almost impossible task of making a huge splash over a single opening weekend.

Studios are also notoriously slow to respond to new trends and cultural phenomena. They have the laborious, 50-mile turning circle of a fleet of oil tankers. By contrast, TV is a speedboat, zipping and weaving in response to ratings, reviews, fan clubs and the zeitgeist. In an age of interactivity, spawned by home computers and video games, TV is better able to make adjustments on the hoof, and the frenzied evolution of one genre into another - from, say, a trashy reality show such as Survivor to a stylish drama such as Lost - is dizzyingly fast.

Most shows broadcast their first eight episodes and then take a break. A successful show will at this point often recalibrate itself, responding rapidly to satisfy audience expectations or, these days, to confound them. South Park proved itself fleet of foot, killing off Isaac Hayes's character, Chef, less than a week after Hayes himself quit in protest at the show's treatment of Scientology (they tore him limb from limb and did everything short of boiling his bones). Try doing that with a movie.

On TV, writing by committee is a blessing, the secret of US TV's present greatness, whereas at the movies one groans inwardly when a movie has six or more writing credits. The result, often, is a dog's dinner of a script, and a dog of a movie, because there is no single governing intelligence to hold everything together.

TV writers, perhaps 10 or more on some shows, work together with a supreme guiding force - usually the show's creator - working up story arcs, character profiles and so on, before handing individual episodes to one or two writers. Their work is then tweaked in committee.

Somehow, it works. And the person who benefits is the viewer. As CBS- Paramount TV president David Stapf said recently, "TV is as good as it gets because the form forces the writers to be better. You don't have time to meander. So writers hone their craft on 22 little movies a year."

Then there is the sordid matter of coin. Movie people heading to television expect to get rich sooner or later. The fortunes to be made in television often dwarf the incomes of all but the most Olympian movie stars and producers. Aaron Spelling could buy and sell most of his studio peers, which attracts such savvy entrepreneurs as Jerry Bruckheimer, David Mamet and the Scott brothers into television. Kelsey Grammer's personal profits from the syndication of Frasier - $40 million-$70 million by various estimates - could gag the New York Stock Exchange, a fact that surely motivates ambitious young actors.

It used to be that TV producers made 22 shows a year while grinding towards the magic number, Episode 100, when syndication of a successful show on local stations commences. At that point, with residuals kicking in and points finally being counted, the major players all stood to make a fortune. Today, the money starts to pour in the moment the first season has its DVD release, usually in the run-up to season two. And iPod downloads for a couple of dollars mean that a hit show can start minting money the morning after it is broadcast.

This year's flood of pilot directors suggests that more of them are becoming aware of how lucrative TV can be, compared with notoriously undependable movie projects.

Perhaps the most influential player in recent television history has been HBO. Originally, HBO showed uncut, commercial-free studio movies, closed-circuit sporting events and a lot of sex-based programming, but it began to get the hang of producing original material - leading to superb, adult-oriented shows such as The Larry Sanders Show, Mr Show With Bob And David, Sex And The City and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And then there is The Sopranos, which many, consider the greatest television drama made (it remains so in its new season). The knock-on effect of the show - its violence, its peerless writing and acting, its effortless channelling of the zeitgeist - were felt not only at HBO, which has had a further string of critical successes with Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire and Big Love, but also at former most-innovative network Fox.

In 1999, Fox debuted a short-lived half-hour comedy for adults called Action, starring Jay Mohr as an utterly amoral movie agent (an early example of a TV show paying back some of the scorn of those movies about TV). It was foul-mouthed, scatological and sexually sophisticated - a lot like the conventional HBO product of that period - and Fox liked it enough to film it uncut, then "bleep" it for transmission. Action was well reviewed but lasted only a single season. All the same, like Homer Simpson when he excitedly discovered "a new meal between breakfast and brunch", Fox had revealed a hitherto undetected interzone between a constrained, mainstream network, such as itself, and a no-holds-barred cable pioneer such as HBO.

After pondering the riddle of this middle-ground between Fox and HBO for several years, Murdoch's people developed the FX cable network and started investing heavily in smart, innovative programming, pushing the envelope in terms of language, violence and nudity. FX is like HBO with commercials and without the F-word. The Shield was so well written and compellingly made that it started attracting actors of the calibre of Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker, while the agreeably demented Nip/Tuck snagged no less august a thesp than Vanessa Redgrave (perhaps because her daughter Joely Richardson stars in it). FX, or HBO-lite, with its emphasis on intelligent, exciting drama for adults, has had a knock-on effect on the major networks, too, including Fox itself, which continues to produce exciting work such as Prison Break and the hugely successful House.

One of the people who superintended the success of HBO, Brad Grey, recently became the head of Paramount Pictures, reversing the movies-to-TV career trajectory of Barry Diller, the Paramount honcho who built Fox TV. Perhaps Grey can return the favour and bring a little of HBO's magic and inventiveness to the once-great, now fading studio pioneer of the 1970s, as innovative then as his old employer is today.

In the meantime, stay home and grab that remote because, like the lady said, it's "as good as any movie out there . . ."