By Marc Burrage
The prospect of watching a US TV show before the end of the 90's with a big A-Lister - be that actor or director - was as likely as Sylvester Stallone making a successful movie comeback. Now both situations are true (OK, Sly is at least doing cinema releases), is there a direct correlation to the apparent decline in the number of decent new ideas on the big screen?
Much has been said of recent US TV output, with the likes of "The Following", "Game of Thrones" and "House of Cards" to name just a few of the many big new TV shows that are bringing in the names and the ratings. But it was around 15 years ago that US TV started to pull itself out of a slump, and attract much bigger names that audiences were used to seeing. "The West Wing", created by Aaron Sorkin, scored an immediate ratings winner when it signed up Martin Sheen, and a couple of years later Kiefer Sutherland started an eight year run on "24". Even Al Pacino signed up to an HBO mini-series "Angels in America" in 2003.
From an actors perspective, the allure of a well written TV show is obvious - the ability to play a character for longer than the 100 minutes of screen time, and for most TV actors, the security of long term employment. Why then, would we not see all of Hollywood's greatest making the leap? Culture is the obvious answer, as for many years, TV was the filler between commercials, and the talent on screen was either fresh and looking for a big break, or retired and looking for a final paycheck. I believe what we found in the period around the turn of the millennium was a new third category - viable alternatives.
As Hollywood got distracted with big flashy blockbusters, actors who, while not at the top of the A-List, would certainly have made the Top 20 had a period where projects were getting shifted to accommodate the new "mega tent-pole" that was evolving. At the same time, writers - who let's be honest are not exactly first consideration for big shiny summer movies - were looking for a new output for their talents. Suddenly there was a pool of talent skilled enough to pull off a TV show that could gain the holy grail of TV execs - critical praise AND a ratings winner.
So what was going on in the film world while all this was happening?
If we take the start of "The West Wing" - 1999 - as our marker, some interesting patterns begin to appear. Marvel properties were in their infancy, with "Blade" hitting cinemas in 1998, and the X-Men franchise starting in 2000. CG was also starting to be taken seriously around this time - for example, "The Matrix" was released in 1999. Now, this is definitely not to say that there have been no decent non-CG, non-comic book movies since then, but certainly the market started to fill up with content that was previously ignored or not possible in terms of technology.
It's not just actors who have turned to TV - while many directors have often "guest directed" episodes of shows over the years, big directors are starting to headline shows. David Fincher - of "Se7en" and "Fight Club" fame - directed the first two episodes of the US remake of "House of Cards" and exec produced the rest of the season. Martin Scorcese brought us "Boardwalk Empire", and Michael Mann teamed up with NYPD Blue co-creator David Milch to create the critically loved but sadly ratings ignored "Luck". This transition has taken longer than the actors, but arguably now the names are bigger.
With the advent of "The West Wing", "24", and "The Sopranos", TV was suddenly cool. And while Hollywood regained its senses in some regard and began paying attention to the audience who liked things like a plot and a meaningful script, TV kept rolling on, and viable alternative became actual alternative - no longer is it considered odd to see a big name headline a TV show. Rather the opposite is true. We now treat them like movies, asking "who's in it?", rather than "what's it about?". Whether this is healthy and will result in too much style over substance (hello, "Agents of SHIELD") remains to be seen, but right now, we have some great content on all the screens, no matter if you're at the cinema or sat on the sofa in your pants.