Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew McConaughey and Zooey Deschannel. What do they all have in common? Besides their curiously charming names, they’ve all made the jump from television to Hollywood, and then back again. This is part of a recent trend adopted by so called ‘A-list’ acting talent, as an increasing number are taking work on the ‘smaller’ screen. But why is this? What started it? And, most importantly, what does it mean for the future of television?
Believe it or not, Cumberbatch started his career in the long-running TV series Heartbeat (1998-2004), appearing in three episodes. This was followed by film roles, such as Starter for 10 (2006) and Atonement (2007). Despite being supposedly big screen ventures, none of them drew much attention to Cumberbatch himself. It wasn’t until his breakout performance in Sherlock (2010- ) that he first found the media spotlight. Since then, he’s become a national and international icon, popping up in Hollywood blockbusters such as Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit films, in addition to independent successes like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy.
But even amongst this, he’s still found the time for a number of interesting TV projects. Of course, there’s the much anticipated series four of Sherlock, but this is far from his only venture. He’s also appearing in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, a TV movie set to air in 2016. The significance of this? Cumberbatch is leading the way in what appears to be a breakdown of the barriers between television and cinema, shattering the boundaries between soapstar and superstar. A new age is dawning, with more and more A-listers starring in both film and TV, and the future of television’s appreciation as an art form looks promising because of it.
The future of television’s appreciation as an art form looks promising
But how did we get to this point? The transition has been far from sudden. For decades we’ve been plagued by binary concepts of ‘big’ and ‘small’ screen. Often in public consciousness, films are the prestigious visual craft that television tries to imitate. But can you blame such a perception? Films are awarded bigger budgets, more media coverage, recognisable actors and relish in a more applauded critical discourse. Well, that was until recently. Things have changed thanks to a little series called Game of Thrones…
Before GoT‘s initial release in 2011, shows such as The Sopranos (1997-2007), The Wire (2002-2008) and most recently Breaking Bad (2008-2013) enjoyed appraisal for being pioneers in supposedly ‘serious drama’ on TV, and CSI has basked in a crisp cinematic image despite its less ‘serious’ reception. Yet, HBO’s Game of Thrones more so than any is the epitomising culmination of epic cinematic standards on television, in having a high budget, stunning aesthetic, gripping narrative and a renownedly established cast.
As viewers continue to increase, more series have been commissioned to continue the Thrones phenomenon. The epic scale of George R. R. Martin’s later books call for a massive increase in budget. This has blurred the lines between TV and film, through high-end locations and top-of-the-range special effects. Just look at Daenerys’s dragons. Whilst we strive to admire artistic merit, there’s no denying that a big budget almost always attracts attention.
At the same time, there’s also been an increase in anthology series. These follow a different set of characters each season. As such, they’ve helped to end one of the most widely-held gripes with TV in general: audience fatigue. We all love David Jason’s DCI Jack Frost, but how entertaining can he be after fifteen series? With American Horror Story, this isn’t the case. Your experience with married couple Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien (Connie Britton), is entirely different to season two, with doctors Oliver Thresdon (Zachary Quinto) and Arthur Arden (James Cromwell). Not only does this keep the action fresh, but it also means that actors can take on TV roles for a limited time. There’s no long-standing commitment. Unlike David Jason, saying yes won’t clear out your schedule for the next eighteen years, allowing actors to commit to roles across the barrier of series and cinema.
This televisual trend is catching the interest of an increasing number of A-list Hollywood actors. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey have been immensely celebrated in leading True Detective to critical acclaim in just one season. Both are up there with the crème de la crème of Hollywood talent, and their involvement has opened the floodgates for a new wave of ‘A-list series’. True Detective season two has already been confirmed, with a cast that includes Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell. That’s not even mentioning Martin Freeman’s starring role in Fargo (inspired by the 1996 film of the same name), a series perhaps made possible with thanks to the influx of TV talent.
We’ve been plagued by binary concepts of ‘big’ and ‘small’ screen
Does this changing appreciation of television only mean that the medium may only be valued when held up against the standards of cinematic drama? Not necessarily. Zooey Deschannel’s leading role in New Girl (2011- ) is an unlikely example of a movie star’s shift into well-received sitcom. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards (2013- ) manages to question what we consider television to even mean anymore, as the series’ exclusivity on the Netflix platform makes Frank Underwood a ruthless revolutionary in dismantling the obstacles between film and television further. These actors too have managed to sustain successful careers in traditional concepts of film, whilst venturing into the allure of series.
The revolution is happening right under our noses, and it’s changing the way we view film and TV, and that’s a good thing. As opposed to being viewed as an afterthought to the mother of visual media, television is finally becoming valued as an art in and of itself. More producers and more major actors are recognising the opportunity to explore the only increasing flexibility on offer by television, whether that’s a previously unimaginable budget, chance to opt out after a select number of seasons, or experiment in different genres and on new platforms. It’s an exciting trend, and one that will only grow stronger in the near future.
So, what does the future of television look like? Is it Bruce Willis as a kick-ass police officer on True Detective? Julia Roberts as a psychiatrist in American Horror Story? Or maybe a surprise appearance from Robert De Niro in the next season of Fargo? Farcical as these may sound, they may not be as far off as you think. The era of A-list TV has arrived, and it’s here to stay.
Writer and Editor for the Film & TV section of Impact, Bharat is a keen previewer, reviewer and sometimes just viewer, of all things cinematic and televisual, with a particular passion for biographical pictures, adaptations and sitcoms.