20 Years of TV: How Television Has Caught Up Film Terms of Quality and Ambition

Editor’s Note: This is part five of a series of five articles exploring the past 20 years of television and its effect on the current “Golden Age.” It’s presented in partnership with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify.”

Two decades ago, Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park” gave new life to Thomas Kuhn’s philosophical writings on what he called “paradigm shifts” — changes so revolutionary that afterward, assumptions about the physical world are different. And it’s safe to say that, in terms of culture, the last 20 years have seen a paradigm shift in the medium of television.

It was also two decades ago when broadcast networks dominated TV in both ratings and prestige. Now almost all of the prestige and an ever-increasing share of the ratings belong to cable. Of course, measuring standards have also changed, especially since a considerable segment of the viewing audience watches via DVR or on streaming sites. We are no longer a television-watching culture who stays home Thursday night to watch three hours of “Must See TV”; we are now one where people watch all the time — on their phones in the subway, season marathons on DVD or streaming on the gigantic flat screens that are family room centerpieces.

Meanwhile, in terms of artistic quality, what’s on those huge home screens has become virtually indistinguishable from what’s in movie theaters. “NYPD Blue” was celebrated for simply employing handheld camerawork in the service of conventional (if well-executed, especially in the early years) television setups, and “ER” could “feel like a movie.” However, the artistic standard bearers of modern TV don’t just feel like movies — they put the lie to the idea of movies and TV being all that different. Technically, TV and movies have always been the same thing — but with greater care to cinema technique now on display on the small screen, they are now full artistic equals.

Matt Zoller Seitz has compared “Mad Men” to the films of Douglas Sirk, which is apt; “Mad Men” even picks up almost exactly where Sirk’s career ends chronologically. More than that, the show makes use of the kind of visual symbols Sirk liked to employ, framing Jane Wyman through the shadows of latticework in “All That Heaven Allows” to parallel her social imprisonment. In the sixth season premiere of “Mad Men,” Don Draper compulsively steals a cigarette lighter, as he himself stole the “real” Don Draper’s identity once upon a time. A close read of the entire series would reveal countless such small visual/thematic touches, not to mention a judiciously deployed flair for the type of melodrama for which Sirk was famous.

Another example is “Breaking Bad.” Aside from the fascinating literary experiment of beginning with Walter White as an eminently sympathetic character and putting him on a trajectory into full-blown villainy over the course of his years in the meth trade, “Breaking Bad” relies on its absolutely first-rate filmmaking as much as it does writing. It’s shot on 35mm, with filters and processing lending the images a hot dustiness befitting its southwestern setting. The editing employs quick cutting to create a meth-addled reality. It’s no surprise that the show counts among its stable of directors the likes of Rian Johnson, whose “Looper” was one of the most ingenious films of 2012, though others such as showrunner Vince Gilligan himself and, perhaps most notably, Michelle MacLaren, must be singled out as well.

HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” was inaugurated with a pilot episode directed by the great Martin Scorsese. “Game of Thrones” is an undertaking spanning multiple locations from Dubrovnik to Iceland, a marvel of logistics and marshaling of physical resources on the level of Cecil B. DeMille epics. There’s even a trend toward showrunners — the auteurs of the small screen — paying greater personal attention to the direction as that becomes more a part of modern television. “Louie” is an excellent bit of auteur filmmaking by writer-director-star-ad infinitum Louis C.K. The infinitely polarizing Lena Dunham has almost as many hyphens on her own, frequently brilliant series “Girls,” writing or co-writing and directing the bulk of the episodes herself while playing the lead role.

We’ve yet to reach a point where television and theatrically exhibited films are entirely matched. Hollywood movies have budgets an order of magnitude or more higher than even the most expensive TV episode, and thus can afford computer generated visual razzle-dazzle that not even a “Game of Thrones” can match. But the meticulous, exquisite production design of a “Mad Men,” or the unbearably intense, borderline-pharmacological mise-en-scene of a “Breaking Bad” can stand with confidence beside such wonders. And they do.

Indiewire has partnered with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify” from the producers of “Breaking Bad” (series premiere Monday April 22nd at 9pm.) This startling drama follows Daniel Holden, who is released after 19 years of complete isolation on death row. As he adapts to life outside, anger is reignited in the small town to which he returns. Daniel Holden may be free, but the battle for his life is far from over.

Learn more about “Rectify” here. http://www.sundancechannel.com/series/rectify

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