It is a fact often mentioned that the most interesting and varied productions for mass consumption are not films anymore but rather television. It has been a slow change but for me the most noticable moment when a television show became more of a cultural phenomenon that was not simply the usual fodder and had a bigger budget was Lost. People now often decry that series for its woeful 3rd series and unsatisfactory finale (what would have satisfied you?) but the first two series were undeniably hugely popular and totally unexpected. I love Lost personally, and another series at the time was and remains my favourite television show ever. House, to my mind, is yet to be surpassed in the writing department. It established its characters and developed a formula that every episode adhered to yet within these bounds created a vast and expansive mystery comedy farce drama thing that is unlike anything else I have seen before or since. But there have indeed been many American television shows that have come before and since.
I think Buffy is a good example of a long running show that allowed for experimentation with the form from episode to episode and did so with aplomb. Now we take this kind of risk taking in our stride but just look what we have on offer today. Where once it was the regular ‘family values’ kitchen sink drama or your crime drama now we have hackers, corrupt political intrigue, vampires ghosts and werewolves living together, dragons and sorcery, motorcycle gangs, costumed superheroes, hard boiled Baltimore cops, middle aged meth cooks, serial killer good guy cops, time travellers, advertising execs and the Muppets. The wealth of material available is so wide and varied I can’t even think of half of them but what interests me the most about these is the element of risk inherent in all of these programmes. What do I mean by Risk?
I have talked about Cinema’s now required 12a certificate in cinema on this site before but to paraphrase: Hollywood, in an effort to sell to the broadest possible market ensures all its films are tailored to appeal to adults but without anything that can breach the censors requirements for a 12a certificate so kids can watch it too. What this creates is a strange, toothless, annual crop of films that satisfy neither market. The reasons for this are myriad but the main one is financial (as ever). Blockbusters and even indie films cost a lot of money to release in today’s saturated market and with behemoth franchise films costing hundreds of millions to produce, this is a worrying and high risk investment so anything that can guarantee a high audience share and good box office returns is a must. Sadly this compromises the artistry and individuality of whatever feature is being made. In television this risk is vastly reduced largely because in America people are either already subscribed to a pay to view channel or the network already has their established brand to use to distribute. Also, importantly, payment is not taken immediately at the door while watching, it is either via subscription or from advertising revenue (or in the BBC’s case the TV License). As such profits can be high and with your own studio and staff to help produce a show you can afford to take a few risks, be that with writing or casting or topic. To their credit HBO was really the leader in deciding creativity was worth the risk but every network was quick to follow suit but it is only recently I feel these shows have really started aiming towards a higher age market. Whilst the tone or topics of most shows could be mature often the content of an episode wasn’t necessarily. By this I mean those usual dogs of censorship: Sex, violence and bad language.
Almost all lauded and hailed television shows of the last 10 years have included sex, nudity, strong language and middling to strong violence if not all of those episode to episode. I very rarely see anything like that in cinema today and if it is, it is tame and/or sanitised in some way. And this is what is so funny, films have restrictions on entering or buying the product, television does not so it cannot be for whatever hollow reasoning of protecting children Hollywood may give as they have access to gratuitous violence and nudity on any channel on television. When I was a child in the 80s I knew the grown up stuff and was largely in awe/fear of it. I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of stuff I really wanted to because it was too violent or grown up. Some of my favourite films, Aliens, Predator, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, even Batman, were banned from my viewing (completely understandably) but these were films. I watched whatever TV I wanted though I was made aware of the still weirdly undefinable ‘watershed’, but generally most TV was never that extreme or challenging to my child sensibilities. I imagine today the reverse is precisely true.
I am not the biggest fan of TV shows today however, I must confess. Most are great but I lose interest after a few episodes or the 1st series, I prefer film, but a few have gripped me. True Detective immediately dropped in alongside House and Edge of Darkness as favourite TV of all time, Breaking Bad is undeniably one of the best things ever committed to tape, but two current favourites are Netflix exclusives. For me the addition of online shows was a game changer because suddenly you had even less restrictions and even more subscription money coming that could pay for the truly staggering production costs and glossy look and feel of the utterly sublime House of Cards which deals with every possible vice you could think of and is deliciously pitch black. My other new favourite is Daredevil which until recently was the first attempt by money printing behemoth Marvel/Disney to try something R rated. The violence and strong language in the show was a delight for a comic fan like myself as it most closely resembled its source but in addition to that the excellent writing for each character and interest in development therein was so enjoyable and so surprising I was completely gripped.
As young teenager I remember much being made of the legitimacy of violence and explicit nudity that was being used in cinema at the time. Does violence and sex and swearing lend authenticity to the work the artist is trying to produce? Well it depends on what you are trying to produce or what story you want to tell but if you are telling the story of adults and their lives then I don’t know about anyone else but my life as an adult, and certainly the most exciting and noteworthy moments, have involved sex and violence in some way and involve swearing nearly everyday. I have been watching a lot of films from the 70s lately (for another post) which also feature a lot of Sex, Violence, Language, Other and are all the more rich and entertaining for it. For me cinema is slowly becoming neutered by its need for higher and higher profits, a trend that is not abating anytime soon. Almost no films produced today are not an adaptation, sequel or reboot of a pre-existing creative work and even those are not creatively produced. Television now seems incapable of being anything but original. This saddens me because cinema is such an effective medium and is able to do things television cannot but the industry’s complete lack of interest in doing anything different or new means the best writers, actors, directors, crew must go to television to tell their refreshing, violent, sex filled, sweary opuses and seeing how successful they all are seems proof that there is a more than big enough audience there for it not to be a risk for cinema to appeal to it. The likes of the R rated Deadpool doing so well and rumours of an R rated cut for Batman vs Superman give me some hope but equally I think this will be a flash in the pan. For now I’ll stick to the few really challenging Television that I have latched on to both of which have new series out this month so I can’t complain.