The TV’s decadePosted: Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Other than the anomaly of the golden year of 2005, what else has this decade given us in film? You got the Lord of the Rings triology and Million Dollar Baby. And then …? The Departed was OK, but it ranks well below Scorsese’s other stuff. What else you got? Studios sending out flicks like 21, last week’s big money-maker, the film based on that allegedly fictional non-fiction book? (link to Boston Globe thanks to Gawker)
No, this is TV’s decade. As I said before, this is decade that’s given us great shows, almost all dramas, many of whom I haven’t even had the chance to catch up and see yet: “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos” (yes, I know it began in 1999), “Band of Brothers,” “The Shield,” “Rome,” “John Adams,” and even more populist stuff like “Rescue Me,” “Sex and the City,” “Entourage,” “Playmakers” and “Battlestar Galactica.” What else am I forgetting? (“Friday Night Lights,” perhaps, another one I haven’t seen.) The jury may still be out on some of the network comedy items — I’m thinking the American “The Office” and “30 Rock” — but it’s enough to offset the Reality Crap and make you want to invest in a good DVR.
Why is all this? Well, I’m developing a theory that we’re seeing the rise of writers and producers (and especially writer/producers) and the decline of directors, or at least in the power structure. A writer can stretch his or her legs out better over the course of a 7- to 20-episode season than can be done in a 2- to 2½-hour flick.
Sensing this, younger actors with producing ambitions are turning to TV and away from movies. Whereas you have aging and powerful actors like Robert Redford and Tom Cruise turning out panned self-important would-be Oscar bait like Lions for Lambs, you have another set of actors like Denis Leary going for something else on TV. And that’s not to say Denis Leary will ever have the chops to compete with a Redford or even (it pains me to write this) a Cruise. But can you see Tom Cruise making a TV series? He’s a Movie Star. The only one I can think of capable of crossing over is Tom Hanks, and that’s as a producer, not as an actor/producer.
And the great series of this decade has had the net effect of raising the bar for all other dramas, even the overtly action-oriented popcorn ones. You can’t just have “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” or even “24” and have them always blowing shit up — well, you can, but you’ve got to at least attempt to make it so the characters have a little more depth behind them, more than you’d find in a 90-minute action flick. This goes especially for the rich supporting characters that help carry a long narrative arc.
This is, of course, not counting the low-end of the spectrum on TV — your American Idols, your reality shows, etc. But the low-brow was the balancing end of movies, too. For every Godfather, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction and Unforgiven you had your Home Alones and your 8mm’s (“Hello, Machine. I’m a big fan of your work”).
As it was, the Writers Strike could have been worse for viewers than it turned out to be — and why the Studios, who must know the balance of power is swinging, were lucky it ended as relatively quickly as it did. A few months was more than enough time for the writers to get their points across. If it wasn’t for HBO with “The Wire” and “John Adams,” think about how much deeper the void there would have been, and may still be as other shows are just now getting back into new episodes, with the re-start of others pushed back.
Meanwhile, the new auteur age of film ushered in by the ’70s crop of Coppola, Spielberg and Scorsese is, like the Baby Boomers, aging and declining in its influence, Munich and Coppola’s wine aside. In fact, other than Munich, Spielberg’s greatest impact this decade may well be in his influence on “Band of Brothers” and “John Adams.”
Which brings me to my recent post on “John Adams.” If this is the kind of show that gets panned by critics, then TV is doing something good, because not only is it better than any of the other movies out there, it does takes the dramatic approach that film cannot — the novelistic approach. It’s like this year’s criticism of “The Wire.” Even in what many considered was an off-year for the final season of the series, it was still the best thing on any screen.