The rise and rise of television

It was 1999 and everyone was flocking to the cinema. The hits kept coming. There were dramas – American Beauty, romcoms – Notting Hill, action – The Matrix, comedies – American Pie and Star Wars Phantom Menace for…Star Wars fans.

All were huge successes and made big box office bucks.

As for TV, it was the usual fare. If you had time and could be bothered you might tune in to a few of the staples. ER, Friends, Frazier, Law & Order…the same old gang. Or you might not. There were slim pickings on TV and many people held out for the next cinematic blockbuster.

And then along came a show about a mafia boss who was seeing a psychiatrist. It was to change everything.

The Sopranos was on the cable channel HBO so not everybody could see it. However there was rapid word of mouth and if you didn’t have HBO you made sure to befriend someone who did. Or wait impatiently for the VHS / DVD rentals.

There had never been a show like it, at least on the small screen. It was dark, people swore frequently (and naturally) and then there was the violence. Realistic violence and often sudden.

It was also incredibly well written with several layers to the characters and plenty of incongruity. It wasn’t simple and that was the point. It was addictive.

The Sopranos was like a film.

Creator David Chase originally planned to make it as a film. He’d been writing for TV for years (Northern Exposure, Rockford Files) and wasn’t a huge fan of the medium. Film was where it was it at.

He was persuaded by his agent to instead write his idea of a mafia don and a shrink into 13 episodes. Chase couldn’t imagine how it could work but it did. The characters grew and he and the writing team realized the serious potential in the story-telling you could achieve with a series as opposed to a movie.

And so the blueprint was set. From that pivotal moment on, television was set to explode.

Next came crime dramas The Wire and The Shield, which each brought their own brand of gritty realism and ever-evolving storylines.

Sci-fi fans were in for a treat with Battlestar Galactica and the UK started to serve up comedy gold. The Office, Extras, Peep Show.

People were getting excited. Suddenly there was a lot more choice on the small screen and viewers were no longer restricted to whatever the networks deemed watchable.

It was the mid 2000s and although streaming hadn’t yet taken off, it was clearly only a matter of time. VHS was obsolete and production companies were starting to look at alternatives to DVDs.

The heavyweights started to take over. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black and Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Narcos…stop the fight!

Meanwhile the film industry was watching on nervously, pretending there was nothing to worry about.

But there was. Big names in the movie business were already putting up their hands to contribute to any number of television series.

Television was cool again.

Steve Buscemi directed an episode of The Sopranos, Samuel L Jackson, Kate Winslet and Ben Stiller all made notable cameos in Extras. Billy Bob Thornton said “yes please” to Fargo and Laura Linney was a tour de force in Ozark.

Film actors and writers were lining up to join a television series because it just offered their talents so much more than than 90 minutes on the big screen.

A series allowed for greater character depth and a chance to explore their backstories. Storylines could take any number of paths because there was always room for another season if need be.

Chase had originally planned to kill off Tony Soprano’s mother early in the piece but when Nancy Marchand began stealing every scene they kept on writing her in.

To spice things up most good series also use their biggest advantage over film – the introduction of new characters. A well-timed and carefully written character can breathe fresh life into a series and really crank up the excitement and interest factor.

Television production companies quickly realized they no longer had to cater for the masses. They could make a series focused on very specific audiences. Walking Dead for gore fans, Transparent about a literal trans parent, animated comedies such as BoJack Horseman and the fantasy colossus Game of Thrones.

Censorship has become less of an issue. Cable and streaming series feature a multitude of adult-themed series with sex, drug use, colorful language and violence making ER seem like Leave It To Beaver.

Best of all has been the binge factor, especially on streaming sites.

Watching just one episode of Breaking Bad would be weird. Most people at least watch episodes back to back and when under house arrest the truly dedicated can churn through an entire season of a show in one afternoon.

Let’s not forget the convenience. Depending on the region, a monthly Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription averages at about $10 a month. Compared to $20 for one film at the cinema and it looks like a losing battle.

Much of the rise of television can also be attributed to the lean offerings at the cinema. It would seem to many movie-goers that unless you’re into superheroes or unfunny comedies then there ain’t much motivation to hand over your hard earned.

There will always be a place for a well-scripted and skillfully-acted movie. The same applies for woefully-scripted and crappily-acted movies.

However the resurgence and dominance of the television series has shown this medium will be the people’s choice for the future.

Let’s face it – being able to drink a bottle of wine in your underpants while pausing every 20 minutes for a toilet dash is hard to beat.

Sorry cinema.

1 Comment

  1. Depends where you are in the world as to the value of free to air TV it seems. A few gems pop up from time to time, like those you mention. Netflix has twigged & replays older SBS TV shows which we might have missed – which is a bonus.
    Can’t beat TV shows about Nature though.
    I feel for the cinemas with lockdowns, as there’s nothing like the intimacy of a “picture theatre” to experience a movie.
    Now to find replays of The Sopranos.

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