In an interview screened just few days ago, heavy-breathing star of the “24” saga, Keifer Sutherland, opined something this reporter has been saying – including in these very columns – for years now: that today, the BEST WRITING is being done for TELEVISION. Keifer qualified this by pointing out that he had appeared in BOTH media, in equal measure.
And of course, he is absolutely RIGHT.
When movies first became a major form of entertainment, things were very different from what they are today. Back then, you had a complete PROGRAMME of films: TWO features – an “A” and “B” movie (or in the case of a Roadshow movie – one BIG one, with an interval) plus a cartoon, short, serial, newsreel – and ads and trails.
Whereas today, all you get is ONE feature – and ads and trails.
And the audiences were very different too. Back then, pretty much EVERYONE visited the cinema – often several times a week. The age range of cinemagoers may have tapered at the upper end, but the demographic still went from little kids to the middle-aged.
Whereas today, the average audience member is TWELVE – and so inevitably, Hollywood pitches about 60% of its product at THEM.
And since the kids are too young to have seen PROPER movies, the studios are able to palm them off with remakes, sequels, PREquels, FX extravaganzas, digital cartoons and no-brain (PG) actioners.
The remaining fare consists of lame comedies and “worthy” films: artsy, wordy, “serious” stuff the studios are happy to make – because they hope they will glean AWARDS.
The studio execs know that most of them will probably lose money, but having some OSCARS® in their display cases gives them credibility that makes that loss acceptable – and they know they will make it back from the bubblegum movies anyway.
Thus, these days, ENTERTAINING movies made for GROWNUPS are thin on the ground. In fact the only use most adults have for cinemas today is that they can dump the kids there while they go SHOPPING – every mall has a cineplex. Or they can give the kids a few bucks to sod off there by themselves, while Mom and Pop get some “alone” time.
However, I for one do not care, because TELEVISION has come a long way too.
Back in the old days, it was a VERY poor cousin to the movies, with its small, low-definition, black-and-white, flickery image and tiny sound. And you had to watch stuff while it aired.
But now, thanks to technology, I have a 50″, high-definition, colour, flat-screen TV, with a powerful stereo audio system – and a PVR.
So while watching my programmes (shirtless – NAKED if I wish) I can pause them while I go for a waz, not to mention eat what I want, fart, SMOKE – and even do what got Fred Willard into trouble.
Plus if Hollywood DOES come up with something worth watching, I only have to wait about a year and it will inevitably come up on DiggerMovie, HoBO or one of the other movie channels. And if it IS worth watching, it is worth waiting twelve MONTHS for.
Yes – today, Hollywood has LOST its edge. Most movies are now projected digitally (and the rest will follow by the end of next year) in “2k” – which is only 4% sharper than TV’s 1080 hi-def – and if you want it (subject to your SP) SIX-channel home stereo is available for not much extra.
Which brings me to TELEVISION’S ace in the hole – its WRITING.
It began in the early Eighties, with shows like “Moonlighting” and “Hill Street Blues” – where the writers TOOK OVER.
Becoming shows’ PRODUCERS, they eschewed the established system where episodes of a series were interchangeable and began to develop complex plots which would arc over entire seasons – accompanied by multiple storylining. And if a character was not working, they would unceremoniously DUMP them.
Within a few seasons, “Moonlighting” went up a blind alley and crashed and burned – but it remains an Eighties Icon. Likewise “Twin Peaks”. But “Hill Street Blues” endured for seven seasons.
Which brings us to today. As Jack Bauer himself said, the best writing IS now being done for TV. Effectively financed by cheap, talent-free “reality” crap, these days filmed drama has never been BETTER.
Shows like “Dexter”, “The Newsroom”, “Homeland”, “Elementary”, “The Blacklist”, “House Of Cards”, “Intelligence” – and from Britain, “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” – have originality, verve, wit and SUPERB writing.
And made by Americans IN Britain: “24: Live Another Day” (featuring the afore-mentioned Mr Sutherland) is a great COMEDY-drama.
Whilst “Under The Dome”, “Bones”, “The Mentalist”, “Castle” and the revival of “Hawaii Five-0” are also worth a look.
Aside from their high concept writing, these shows have something else that sets them apart from the series of yore: most only feature 10 – 16 episodes a year.
All of which makes them a nightmare for TV execs, used to 22 – 26 eps a year – and actors sitting down for a table read, where they can no longer be sure their character will still be ALIVE at the end.
But then – boo-hoo! TV execs and actors get BIG MONEY for their toil.
The fact is, with computers, tablets and iPads making HUGE cuts in TV’s audiences – the Industry had no choice but to increase QUALITY. It is like 1950, when the MOVIE industry had to boost quality as a reaction to the invading TELEVISION. What goes around comes around.
And for once it is WE – and good writers – who are the winners here.
While the TV execs and actors get ulcers, the writers finally get to spread their wings and as a result, WE get to enjoy entertainment of the highest order – all without leaving the HOUSE!