Television has long been regarded as a mostly low-brow form of entertainment. But while there's still a lot of bad television, a quiet revolution has occurred, fueled by cable networks like HBO and Showtime, as well as by the willingness of talented actors to work on the small screen. Not only does television now feature many excellent programs; I would argue that a well-made television series has the capacity to develop its story and characters more effectively than a two-hour film.
Until George Clooney crossed over to become a movie star after playing a leading role in ER, the long-running NBC drama, television actors almost never went on to successful film or stage careers. And leading film and stage actors rarely deigned to appear on television (other than the late-night talk shows). To do so would have jeopardized their reputations.
All that has changed. Now, actors who gain a television following are sought after for film roles. And film celebrities often choose to appear on television, both in single episodes of ongoing series and as the stars in series. Take Damages, the terrific FX drama series that will start its third season on Monday. With Glenn Close as the Machiavellian law firm head, the show is hard to resist. Television also attracts great writers these days, so the dialogue is sharp and savvy and the plot twists are clever. William Hurt signed on as a regular character during the second season, adding his talent to a roster that includes Ted Danson and Rose Byrne.
HBO has created notable television dramas—The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six-Feet Under, to name a few. E. and I are currently hooked on Big Love, which follows the lives of a polygamous Mormon family. We missed the first couple of seasons, so we rented them on Netflix. After an enjoyable marathon of viewing, we've caught up and can now watch Season Four on a weekly basis. I find it particularly entertaining to go the Netflix route and watch an entire season over a condensed period of time. That way, I can really immerse myself in the story and can follow the characters as they grow and change. But now that Season Four has started, I'm too impatient to wait for the entire season to be available, so I'll have to take my Big Love in small weekly doses.
For a long-running series to keep its audience, the characters really do have to develop and the plot has to remain interesting. Not long ago, I wrote about Battlestar Galactica on this blog. While I did enjoy the series for a while, ultimately I found the characters too predictable and the plots too contrived, so I stopped watching. So far, I haven't tired of Big Love, with its appealing mix of over-the-top characters (two of whom are played by Bruce Dern and Mary Kay Place) and everyday concerns that don't seem all that far from my own.
I can't help but reflect that, as the quality of at least some television programming has improved, the fortunes of American theater seem to be declining. Perhaps the two phenomena aren't completely disconnected. Given the money in television and film, it's reasonable to believe that many talented actors, writers, and directors opt for those media, rather than engage in the struggle to make a go of it in the theater.
I used to fantasize that if Beethoven had been born into my generation, he would have become a rock star rather than a classical musician. In the same vein, I imagine that if the great stage actress, Sarah Bernhardt, were around today, she might be playing the President in the Fox television series, 24, a role that actually went to Cherry Jones, an actress who made her name on the stage but has since become famous worldwide for her portrayal of President Allison Taylor.
I should end by mentioning that even Public Television, which in recent years has seemed more focused on fundraising than first-rate television, has revitalized its Masterpiece Theatre, renaming it simply Masterpiece. Tonight, PBS begins airing a new version of Jane Austen's "Emma," which has received rave reviews. So, stop reading this and go check out your local television listings. You might actually find something worth watching.