When talking about film school, most people neglect to mention that almost all film programs offered by universities around the world are actually film and television programs. I myself am currently technically majoring in Film and Television here at NYU, and the same applies for most if not all undergraduate film programs. This distinction is important because it is of my opinion that television does not really get its rightful due. In fact, I think that in the past 10 years, the quality of television programming has matched and possibly even surpassed that of theatrical films. And from a career standpoint, there is no doubt about it: television is, hands down, a far more lucrative and stable environment to work in than feature films, especially if you aspire to create work of true artistic quality.
Now, let’s take a journey through history, back to the 1950’s when television first began invading the homes of every middle class family in America and soon, the entire western world. It’s almost impossible to imagine how revolutionary this must have been at the time: besides radio, there was no other source of home entertainment. Going to the movies was immensely popular, but it did require going out, and usually to a double feature at that. But now, you could see scripted, visual entertainment in shorter intervals than feature films, and right from the comfort of your home! Obviously, early television was not great. Most of the classic shows from the 60’s and 70’s, from Rawhide to Beverly Hillbillies to M.A.S.H. and everything in between, do not really stand up today, in my opinion. Comedies like I Love Lucy and the Mary Tyler Moore show are still hilarious to watch today, but TV comedy is a separate category I will delve into later. In any case, the rise of television encouraged filmmakers to step up their game, and the failure of the Hollywood studio system in the 50’s and 60’s to provide suitable quality entertainment as an alternative to TV directly led to the emergence of the New Hollywood movement, starting in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde and culminating in some of the greatest filmmakers to have ever worked in the medium pushing the boundaries of cinema and creating works of unprecedented artistry and quality throughout the 1970’s – Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Lumet, Ashby, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg… these directors played an inseparable role in defining what we consider good cinema today, proved once and for all that cinema was here to stay, and inspired an entirely new generation of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderberg, Tarantino, Kevin Smith, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Darren Aronofsky, and many more who emerged in the 80’s and 90’s.
And then, a little show came along called “Twin Peaks” that changed everything. Inspired by British serials such as Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective that flourished in the 80’s, Twin Peaks, created by cinematic mastermind David Lynch and his writing partner Mark Frost, was a television program that proved that TV shows, like films, could employ singular, continuous story arcs and utilize all of the cinematic visual and editing techniques that were what separated films from TV shows for many decades. Twin Peaks proved immensely popular in its first season, but lost many of its viewers in its lengthier, more daring second season, and was canceled by the end of it. However, its influence was immense and it truly opened up Pandora’s box so to speak in terms of quality television. Although Twin Peaks aired on a network station – NBC – it would turn out to be the premium cable channels, specifically HBO, who really led the frontier in quality television. Oz was an early precursor, in 1997. But the real revolution came when The Sopranos debuted in 1999. It was unlike anything we had ever seen before: unlimited by network television censorship laws, The Sopranos could allow itself the liberty of featuring just as much violence, cursing and nudity as films could. Episodes were incredibly cinematic, from their look and cinematography to the quality of writing and acting. Except television had one advantage that movies didn’t: while movies were confined to 2-hour narratives, television shows could stretch their narratives over entire seasons or even multiple seasons, thus allowing for far more room for in-depth exploration of multiple characters, something no film script could even dream of affording. By 2004, HBO had amassed one of if not the single most impressive slate of television programming in history: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Carnivale, Deadwood, and not to mention epic miniseries events such as From Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers and Angels in America, which are crowning achievements in and of themselves, as well as runaway popular hit Sex and the City.
Today, as movies are getting more and more expensive to produce, attendance is plummeting, independent film is harder than ever to produce and distribute and 3D is failing to draw in new audiences, TV has proven itself to be the single most consistent source of quality scripted entertainment. And now that more premium cable channels such as AMC, Showtime and FX have joined HBO in the quality television fray, as well as the networks that were never really known for quality television, the wealth is spread even wider and shows such as the aforementioned HBO shows (all of which have finished their runs), as well as Game of Thrones, Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Justified, and many more prove themselves consistently more interesting, well-written, well-acted, in-depth and resonant than most films that grace the multiplexes today. HBO is also a major proprietor in made-for-TV movies. This enterprise used to be associated with cheap, low-grade sentimental message films or bio-pics of celebrities not deemed fit worthy of theatrical films. But nowadays, HBO TV films attract A-list talent on both sides of the camera, and often display equal levels of craftsmanship, story depth and acting as their theatrical counterparts. For example, this year’s finest cinematic creation so far was probably the HBO-produced 5-part miniseries adaptation Mildred Pierce, directed by luminary film director Todd Haynes and featuring Kate Winslet in one of the finest performances of her career.
Television dominates the area of comedy as well: the 90’s brought about many classic hilarious three-camera sitcoms, the greatest of which in my opinion is and will forever be Seinfeld. However, single-camera comedies devoid of laugh tracks have been on the rise this past decade, starting with Arrested Development (quite possibly the funniest television show ever to grace the small screen). Today, whereas we might be lucky to get four or five quality comedies that are well written as well as totally hilarious in the multiplex, on television, there are a number of shows that consistently deliver the laughs every week over multiple seasons: Shows like The Office, 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation, Archer, Louie, and many more are consistently funnier than most comedies out in theaters these years – and they have to remain funny over multiple seasons, not just for two hour stretches.
So where does this leave us, students of Film and Television Production studies in various film schools around the country and the world? If asked, a vast majority of my classmates would admit that their aspirations are to become writer/directors of theatrical films. But gradually, many are realizing that perhaps television is their calling. Writers are realizing that television is as close a medium to writing full-fledged novels as they come. Television shows are created, molded and guided by writers; it is the one place writers can truly delve deep into multiple characters, lengthy story arcs, and really explore the elements of dramatic narrative. Actors are realizing that these particularly meaty roles and deep, complex characters provide them with a true challenge and a lot more to work with than most theatrical scripts produced today. And directors, cinematographers and craftsmen are realizing that, by this point, from a production standpoint, very little separates high-end television productions from actual film production. Television budgets are smaller, but this is actually a blessing in disguise – I recently discussed the concerning trend of bloated film budgets in a recent column. The quality of the end product, though, especially on premium cable original dramas, is practically that of theatrical films. Myself? I love film more than anything, but lately I’ve been coming to many of these same conclusions about television, and realizing as well that, in terms of opportunities for steady income in the creative side of the film industry, nothing else comes close. Let’s just say that I am not one to rule it out as an option any time soon.