The Golden Age of Television

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Martin Scorsese once remarked that talented writers had become scant in Hollywood since they were holed up working for the small screen. TV shows have evolved over decades to become one of the most unique storytelling mediums where the scope for broadcasting content remains unparalleled. Although novels are known for its incredible depths, detailing and storytelling technique, for people like me who remain uninitiated and scantily read, TV series happen to be the next best substitute. Several shows/series function as a unique amalgam of the depths associated with a novel and the visual experience associated with a motion picture serving us the best of two worlds.


Creators like David Simon have repeatedly reiterated that their preferred medium would be the small screen. Certain stories require time to unfold like the ones involving a broader story arc, a specific time in history, the journey of several characters, interaction of various institutions & the cause-effects of a subject matter. To encapsulate such dense, intricate narration in a time span of 120-180 minutes is near impossible and that luxury of time is the biggest asset that the medium possess. With such advantage by one’s side, it invariably results in sincere, focussed storytelling while establishing a sense of time-place and an in depth exploration of the characters that reside therein culminating into the display of the ‘core’ of a teleplay to its fullest.           


The large screen canvas has always been at the top of the chain and that position remained unchallenged over the major course of its history. Television shows earlier were associated with being episodic soaps in general. Although, there have been several ground breaking shows as early as 1955 with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and shows such as I, Claudius, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, House of Cards, over the years, TV shows were never considered on the same plane as that of films. The reasons for such limited reach are attributable to the limits that existed in communication at that point in time. All that was about to change!!  


At the dawn of the new millennium, the horizon of the television had started to undergo one of the most important shifts in its story aided, fuelled by the digital revolution which changed Cinema and which now opened new doors to the small screen. The said medium was no longer considered as subservient to the big screen canvas. Many groundbreaking shows bloomed at the twilight of the 90’s including the likes of Homicide Life on the Streets, Oz, Six Feet Under, Seinfeld, Sopranos etc. The one show which highlighted to the entire world the real depth and potential of the said medium was HBO's 'Wire' (2002). The scope of analysing an entire system, its various institutions and their associated problems from the point of view of Baltimore drug trade inspired from real characters/events was almost breathtaking. Yet, because of the creator David Simon’s immaculate writing and pitch perfect performances by a brand new cast, it turned out to be ”one of the greatest not just television shows, but pieces of art, in the last couple of decades" in the words of President Barack Obama. Although, the viewer ratings/TRP of the show was not good at the time it aired due to the scope of the show and the traditional notions associated with a TV show, it had demonstrated the full potential of the medium and had set a benchmark.
Another huge landmark for television and its potency happened when, at the time of making Saving Private Ryan, both Steven Spielberg - Tom Hanks in Association with HBO produced the 10 episode mini-series 'Band of Brothers’. The production values and making was mammoth that it was as good as any war film ever made. After a few years, TV shows started making, producing stars and some of the examples of them would be Benedict Cumberbatch, and Martin Freeman from BBC's Sherlock, Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad, Idris Elba from Wire and in fact to an extent Matthew Mcconaughey in True Detective since Dalls Buyers Club came out around the same period. That again propelled the importance of television as a platform and became even more prominent as a story-telling medium.
There have been several periods in history which have been referred to as the 'golden age' of television but the present phase that began few years ago and the one expected to peak in 2017 is monumental. Earlier HBO was the undisputed champion of TV shows and to an extent still is, but its position as the leader has some real challenges now. FX has been providing some good content on television and many other players like Starz, USA Network, ABC, and Sundance etc are investing huge into many shows in the upcoming years. Outside of USA, in Europe, BBC alone held the forte for productions of what is generally termed as 'British Drama'. Again, as phenomenon of TV shows grew, other players such as Itv, Studio Canal production which focuses on intra Europe collaborations are making a big mark on the arena. Scandinavian shows like Borgen, Bron/Broen & The Killing are gaining mileage among viewers. In fact, Italy with its recent Young Pope created by Academy Award winning Paolo Sorrentino starring Jude Law is also making waves on television. Korea, known for their 'crime thrillers' unfortunately up to now have mostly restricted themselves to ‘feel good’ romantic comedies and teenage shows, are now slowly advancing into other territories with shows like 'Signal'. Turkey and Australia are also keen to pick up on the TV revolution with shows such a 'Rake'.

The reach of TV shows has now become so huge that now big directors and actors are now making their foray into the small screen. David O Russell and Robert De Niro are collaborating, David Fincher is directing the 'Mindhunter', James Franco is playing a dual role in 'Deuce', Tom Hardy stars in 'Taboo', Jonah Hill, Emma Stone, Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, Pierce Brosnan etc.  will be seen on the telly and this is just in the year 2017. In the recently concluded HBO's Westworld, we saw Anthony Hopkins on a TV show, the very thought which nobody would have dared to entertain few years ago. The potential and growth is quite glimmering.


Mini series are now gaining more ground, attention as they span between 8-10 episodes and cover the subject in depth almost like an extended movie or a director’s cut. Anthology series is also gaining popularity as they deal with one separate story each season with a common theme like True Detective, Fargo and American Crime Story. Ever since the success of FX's Fargo, which was based on the movie written and directed by the Coen Brothers, the idea of expanding and adapting movies for television have been catching up. Already movies like Training Day, Let The Right One In and Departed are being adapted for television. Animation has also arrived on TV with movies like Tangled & Big Hero 6 being expanded upon and in fact, the movie Dark Tower coming out next year based on the novels by Stephen King will have a companion series being made for television. Long lost projects like David Lynch's Twin Peaks is being revived on Netflix and so were Arrested Development and Black Mirror. Long pending adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods is showing early next year. The horizon of the television/online content is growing relentlessly.


Hollywood has recently focused too much on 'Big' films with heavy-duty visual effects and eye-popping stunts so much so that Mr Scorsese and other actors like Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield are cutting their scale/salary to get the long gestating passion project ‘Silence’ made. Everyone does enjoy the Avenger Films, Batman Films and the Jungle Book but one has to introspect as to why millions of dollars were put into films like Independence Day Resurgence, Pacific Rim and the likes. Mind you, in the very same fantasy and super hero genre, visionaries Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings and Batman trilogy. Big studio flicks today doesn’t ooze out hope that movies of such calibre will get made again. The ever-persisting hands of the big studios have been obvious in films like Fantastic Four Reboot and Suicide Squad, which is being frowned upon by even its makers.


Throughout many decades, Hollywood was able to balance two streams of Cinema both excelling in their craft while pushing its boundaries. It is an undeniable fact that still great films are being made every year but their numbers are dwindling. Consider this, in the year 1994, Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump was released and all them were screened at the cinemas halls simultaneously during the October of that year. Movies like Bridge of Spies, Hell or High Water & Spotlight bring in the much needed respite in a time where the so called 'big films' are overpowering, suffocating the other more important and enduring stream of cinema. The line up of huge films in the year 2017 is bigger than ever with Marvel, DC, Disney and 20th Century Fox battling it out throughout the year. Beyond a point, the hollowness of this exercise will come through and such films will reach a tipping point. Any film will require writing laced with innovation, Imagination, intelligence and solid film making techniques to make the ticket’s money worth. In such a climate as this, it is even more important for the big hats of the industry to fund and back changes like the one, which the visionary James Cameron is working on for Avatar sequels, ‘Glassless 3D’.


There are some great exciting combinations coming through next year including the likes of collaboration between Daniel Day Lewis & Paul Thomas Anderson, Spielberg with Mark Rylance, Christopher Nolan with an ensemble cast. Martin Scorsese is expected to begin production of his next with Al Pacino and Robert Di Niro. Likewise, Di Caprio will begin working on his next venture and so will Coen Brothers, Dennis Villueneve, Alfanso Curan and Ashgar Farhadi. However, the far cry for more space in original writing and content is as loud as ever. Of course when compared to the 'smaller' medium, movies have the constraint of time, which has been made even more difficult by the 'pop corn' film average pegged currently at 120 minutes.


Technologies, which were once made available only for the movies, have now become accessible to the small screen spurring development. Since both television and streaming platforms are subscription based services, the expectation of satisfying a global audience cutting across countries is absent and the said condition allows creators to stay true to their idea. It has become even more pronounced with the recent awareness and the acceptability brought about by the small screen medium. A shining example of that would be the script written by Nic Pizzolatto exploring the character Rust Cohle for the first season of true detective.


Few years ago, suddenly came another important leg of the digital revolution, streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu who have now ventured into putting out original content. They are now a parallel competition to the big TV networks especially, Netflix with the increase in subscription and introduction in new countries, the budgets of their shows are skyrocketing to about 100-150 Million dollars for one season of a show which is practically equivalent to a Hollywood motion picture production. HBO’s Game of Thrones and Netflix’s The Crown stand testimony to it. This is being taken even a notch high by creators like Louis CK who produced a ground breaking series like 'Horace and Pete' and made it available to be purchased, streamed on his website without being tagged to any network or streaming service. The platform for independent TV shows with full creative freedom is now endless. Nobody knew a series called ‘Horace and Pete’ was being made until its creator just dropped its first episode online one Sunday. The impact is such that even Gautham Vasudev Menon in a recent interview said he plans to create a web series in Tamil. Just as I was writing this article/column, Netflix just dropped a trailer for a series named ‘OA’ which would be available for streaming in a couple of days after the said announcement. 


This sudden explosion in originally scripted programming does pose its share of problems. There is only so much content that one can absorb and since shows/series demand more investment in time, it could adversely affect any number of good shows. Recently concluded poignant and profound Rectify got lost in a crowded room. Marvel, DC comics have also joined the bandwagon with their Daredevil, Defenders, Flash and the many others that are lined up. The comic book franchise wants to claim territory and the big studios are vying for their share of pie. The very problem affecting cinema might also seep into television. Parallel streams of storytelling have to be necessarily preserved even though the small screen medium is preferred for content by many.


Talents which have been viewed one dimensionally now has attained the space to make breakthroughs like Rowan Atkinson (best known as Mr Bean) who now plays Maigret the detective, quite opposite to what he was known for. The best part of it all being, all of this astonishing content, made available at the comfort of everyone’s home. For television shows and web shows, 2017 will be the biggest year where the content put out by them can surpass that of the motion picture counterpart. As we have seen earlier in this article, the expansion is exponential, possibilities are endless and very many stories, enthralling characters await us in the upcoming year. We have heard the term 'golden age of television' getting used in Emmy’s often and I truly believe that the ‘GOLDEN AGE’ is upon us, which is no more evident than in 2017.


Here are two lists, which I have made at IMDB consisting of the most anticipated new and returning TV shows of 2017. Do check it out


Thank you for reading


Sriraman Srinivasan
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