Television: The New Drama Kings

February 2014, weeks away from the Oscars, the most prestiges award in the filmmaking world, and yet i’m not that excited. Don’t get me wrong there has been some truly excellent cinema in the year gone by, watching Scorsese’s adrenaline fuelled epic Wolf of Wall Street was certainty a personal highlight. But it in the words of a recent Ron Burgundy anti-piracy advert the cinema is now the “shimmering pretender to televisions crown”. As James Wolcott of Vanity Fair points out, “when it comes to inventive comedy (Modern Family, 30 Rock), complex heroines (Damages, Weeds), and finely textured drama (Mad Men, Downton Abbey), the action has left the cineplex and headed for broadcast and cable”.

This transformation or coming of age did not happen over night and can be tracked back to the late 1990’s when a relatively unknown actor by the name James Gandolfini was cast as Tony Soprano in HBO’s new series The Sopranos. The show opened the doors to a revolution in TV Production as Gandolfini went on to become an iconic anti-hero. The show was ambitious and pushed the boundaries of audience tolerance whilst subverting traditional television storytelling. In her article ‘How Tony Soprano Changed Television‘ Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker says it best,

“He had a lot of space to build the role—six seasons—and he fully inhabited every corner from the beginning, sometimes as a great comedian, sometimes as a self-pitying monster, but always as a radical and new sort of character for television, one who punished the audience for loving him”.

Since the launch 0f The Sopranos in 1999 there has been a proliferation of television shows that have risen to the fore. The Wire (2000-2008), Six Feet Under (2001-2006), Weeds (2005-2012), Dexter (2006-2013), Mad Men (2007-present), True Blood (2008 -Present) Breaking Bad (2008-2013), Treme (2010-present), Boardwalk Empire (2010-present), Game of Thrones (2011-present) and Homeland (2011 -Present) are just a handful of shows that have taken our small screen by storm. One of the main advantages of screenwriting for Television is the time allowed for character development. Writers are able to let the drama breath, to linger and to get better with age. In doing so, television characters are afforded more depth and we are slowly spoon fed their flaws and over time we become connected to them emotionally as we crave their redemption. You would be hard pressed to find this amount of depth in the majority of films a the cinema right now. You only have to look at the dark past of characters such as Mad Man‘s Don Draper or Dexter’s Dexter Morgan or at the ruthless ingenuity of Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Watching these complex, often tortured souled individuals grow and develop whilst in constant search of redemption is just fascinating. As Brett Martin observes in his book ‘Difficult Men’

“One cold winter’s evening in January 2002, Tony Soprano went missing and a small portion of the universe ground to a halt. It did not completely out of the blue. Ever since The Sopranos has debuted in 1999, turning Tony – anxiety-prone dad, New Jersey mobster, suburban seeker of meaning-into a millennial pop culture icon, the character’s frustration, volatility, and anger had often been indistinguishable from the qualities of James Gandolfini, the actor who brought them to life. Th role was a punishing one, requiring not only vast amounts of nightly memorisation and long days under hot lights, but also a daily descent into Tony’s psyche-at the best of times a worrisome place to dwell; at the worst, ugly, violent and sociopathic”.

The rise in digital streaming services such as NetFlix and Love Film and the falling price of DVD box sets has also contributed to Televisions cause. Back in 2000, when DVDs where in their infancy, you could pay anything upwards of £60 for a single season of your most beloved show. Fourteen years on and you can now purchase the entire six seasons of HBO’s The Sopranos for just fifty pounds which works out at less than ten pounds per season – a bargain for sure!

I have to admit I was a late comer to Breaking Bad and with NetFlix offering all five seasons plus many more great TV shows and films for just £5.99 per month it seems silly not to take advantage. The way we consume our entertainment is rapidly changing and evolving – we embraced DVD they same way embraced Blu-Ray, in time we will make the shift to 4K Television and with true HD quality imagery at home and the rise of digital streaming will you want to go to the cinema? Time will tell but until then we will have to make do with the mobile phones, the rustling and the loud-mouthed teenagers spoiling our entertainment.