As I type this, Matthew McConaughey is the most in-demand actor in the world. The recent “McConaissance”, as this wonderful era will now and forever be known, has turned the once maligned rom-com regular’s reputation on its head and tapped into exactly what critics and audiences around the world want to see. So when Hollywood’s “it guy” says that television is the best way to create modern, character-driven stories, an alarm is set off. On Thursday, McConaughey won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series for his role on HBO’s True Detective. During his acceptance speech, the actor acknowledged that many have questioned why a successful film actor would shift to television. He responded simply and concisely. “Quality,” he said, also declaring, “Television is raising the bar on…character-driven drama.” As Hollywood film has become intensely focused on big blockbusters, remakes, and unnecessary sequels, television has become the place where writers and actors take big risks and create the most thought provoking and creative ideas.
When you meet a group of friends for dinner, no one is talking about what they thought of the new X-Men movie, they are talking about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. They are telling you that you HAVE to watch the new Fargo TV series. They are joking around about how your stupid new hat makes you look like Heisenberg. On a list of the ten best film and television characters of the past decade, the majority would undoubtedly be from TV. There is more time for writers and directors to develop many sides of a large number of characters. Portraying figures this versatile is an actor’s dream, and it is drawing the attention of some of the finest actors working today.
It has always been said that film is a director’s medium, stage is an actor’s medium, and television is for writers, but that distinction is becoming more and more blurred as television has begun to pick apart that idea by bringing in some of the most talented directors and actors in addition to the already established writers. You see, the big movie studios are watchdogs that very often force a director to steer one way or another to appeal to a broad audience (evidenced by Edgar Wright’s departure from the helm of Marvel’s Ant Man film when his vision for the film was tampered with). This drives creative minds like David Fincher and Guillermo del Toro to bring their talents to the small screen. Fincher was heavily involved in the production of House of Cards, which took the television revolution a step further by introducing Netflix’s first premier original show. The show has received much acclaim and Netflix has become a television powerhouse in its own right. Meanwhile, del Toro (one of film’s most creative minds) is bringing The Strain to FX so that he can fully realize his vision of undead horror on his own terms. Even Quentin Tarantino has talked about creating an HBO miniseries in the future.
Taking this association with established film directors a step further, True Detective was directed by the same director for its entire eight episode first season. Cary Fukunaga, director of heralded films like Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre was responsible for the entire eight hour story that aired over the course of eight weeks. The show’s thematic, tonal, and visual continuity resulting from this created one the most engrossing viewing experiences on any screen, big or small. And with a director as talented and ambitious as Fukunaga, scenes like the show’s famous six-minute tracking shot bring a further heir of legitimacy to television. That is one of the most tense, nail-biting, technical, and beautiful sequences I have seen in the last five years.
And that’s just the directors. Some of Hollywood’s most revered actors and actresses are taking on lead roles in television series. Let’s go down the list: McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards, Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire, Don Cheadle in House of Lies, Billy Bob Thorton and Martin Freeman in Fargo, and on, and on, and on. Combine all of this incredible talent with great writers like Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner, David Simon, and even (Oscar winner) Aaron Sorkin and it becomes clear that television is flourishing. These writers create the most inventive and provocative premises around.
And I have made it this far through the article without even talking about the most popular show in America! That is truly a testament to how great television is right now. Game of Thrones has grabbed a hold of your office’s water cooler, the Twittersphere, and (probably) your everyday thoughts. It almost feels like you have to watch the show just to socialize with the outside world. HBO has given the show an incredible opportunity to match the budgets of many Hollywood films. This has allowed the show to create a visually stunning world while taking advantage of the television format to forge some the most nuanced characters you will find and provide action on par with any summer blockbuster. Taken at face value, the show was an incredible risk to produce in the first place. The fact that a show as fantastical and complex as Game of Thrones has acquired the enormous audience it has it as shocking as The Red Wedding. But in the age of Twitter, people want something that can unify us all, and everyone sitting down in front of their flat screens and flipping on HBO on Sunday nights at 9:00 provides just that.
All of this is not to say that film is dead or that it cannot be as fantastic as ever, it just that great films seem to be fewer and farther between with each passing year. I would argue that there hasn’t been a truly great film released in 2014 so far. But almost all directors still covet film above television. The Tarantinos, P.T. Andersons, Christopher Nolans and Martin Scorseses of the world still show that film can move a viewer and mold a story every bit as (and more) effectively as a television show, novel, poem, or even tweet (I know, high praise). The condensed nature of film allows it to avoid the inevitable lulls of television narratives, meaning that film can more effectively pursue perfection. There will almost surely be great films come fall and winter of this year, but it is nevertheless disconcerting that a movie about giant fighting robots riding on top of even bigger fighting robot dinosaurs is the kind of investment movie studios most want to take on.
Movies have such a rich tradition as the most awe-inspiring and powerful moving pictures, but as film quality continues to trend down, television moves in the opposite direction. Television quality has surpassed that of film. You can watch great television nearly every week of the year. There is so much of it that most viewers can’t even hope to take it all in. The most talented writers, filmmakers, and actors are shifting their focus to television and networks and streaming services are throwing money at television projects to degrees that have never been seen. And when one of the biggest actors in the world publicly acknowledges this gigantic shift in quality, the point is nailed down even farther. Writing for a site like Film Inquiry, I am hopeful that world’s greatest directors continue to show that film can absolutely provide a level of character development and emotional weight greater than anything else, but I am also willing to accept and admire this fantastic era of television. As long as fantastic storytelling is being told it is, as McConaughey would say, “Alright, alright, alright” with me.