Steven Soderbergh is the latest Hollywood director to praise TV over film, but this second coming of great drama, including The Sopranos, The Wire and Spooks, may already be over
Shows such as The Sopranos and Sherlock now feature in surveys of great TV Cinema has historically considered itself superior to television, with executives and critics frequently sneering that a movie or documentary has a “made-for-TV” feel.
But a number of significant Hollywood film-makers – including David Lynch, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone – have moved to the junior medium for mini-series or documentaries and now Steven Soderbergh has paid a compliment, if a slightly qualified one, to home entertainment. “In terms of cultural real estate,” Soderbergh said at the Cannes film festival, “TV has really taken control of the conversation that used to be the reserve of movies. It’s sort of a second golden age of television, which is great for the viewers. … If you like your stories to go narrow and deep, TV is exciting.”
Soderbergh was born in 1961 and so grew up with the shows of what is generally regarded, in both the US and UK, as the first golden age, which stretched from the early 1960s to around the mid-80s. Drama – the genre on which Soderbergh was commenting – from this era tends to dominate polls of TV’s Greatest Ever Shows: whether The Prisoner, Edge of Darkness and The Jewel in the Crown in Britain or NYPD Blue, Columbo and Star Trek in America.
And the idea that we are living through – or perhaps, many feel, approaching the end of – a second period of key creativity is fairly non-controversial. In those surveys of great TV, the next biggest cluster of copyright lines after 1960-86 tends to be post-1999: British fiction such as Cops, Spooks, The Street and Sherlock and American series including The West Wing, The Sopranos and The Wire.
Those last two shows were produced by the pioneering American cable network HBO, a fact that has some significance to Soderbergh’s remarks. The press conference at which he bigged-up the small-screen was part of the promotion for Behind the Candelabra, his Liberace biopic produced by HBO films. Soderbergh’s film, with Michael Douglas as the sexually secretive entertainer, was refused backing by major studios before he benefited from HBO’s decision to extend to film the license it brought to TV: supporting projects that the US TV networks regarded as likely to frighten the audience, advertisers and regulators.
Steven Soderbergh: ‘If you like your stories to go narrow and deep, TV is exciting.’
The second golden age of American TV was built on a new funding model, led by HBO and taken up by AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) and Showtime (Dexter, Homeland, The Big C): subscription channels that shaped a creative space similar to American independent cinema – allowing subject-matter, language and action that the ancient studios would have cut – but with a more fixed supply of funding and audiences.
The complication of Soderbergh’s stance is that he still seemingly prefers Behind the Candelabra to have a Cannes entry and cinematic release; just as the Channel 4-supported work of Michael Winterbottom, such as Everyday and The Look of Love, tends to have a movie-theatre release before its TV premiere. This suggests a residual snobbery among directors. But what both Soderbergh and Winterbottom, who are very similar in being restless experimentalists drawn to different structures and genres, have seen in TV is its narrative flexibility. Their made-for-TV shows – Soderbergh’s K Street and Unscripted, Winterbottom’s The Trip and Family – have luxuriated in the time and space that a serial narrative allows.
In that context, it’s slightly odd that Soderbergh commends TV for those who want their stories “narrow and deep”. Because the key quality of TV fiction is length.
Television gives actors, writers and directors the chance to dramatise an element that has always proved infuriatingly elusive to movie directors and novelists: the passage of time.
Plots such as Breaking Bad and The Big C, in which a diagnosis of cancer changes the lives of the characters, would be simply glib in a cinema film that needed to resolve the crisis inside two hours; similarly, The Sopranos and The West Wing already more or less existed as movies (Goodfellas and The American President respectively), but TV was able to go far deeper by giving Martin Sheen and James Gandolfini around 100 hours to portray the impact of politics and criminality on the bodies and minds of their characters. A factor common to most of the shows of both the first and second golden ages of TV is that they played out over multiple episodes or series.
As it happens, neither of Soderbergh’s TV dramas made it to a second run and, if his Cannes compliment suggests a hunger to work further in the medium, he may have come to the table too late. The British producer Tony Garnett, responsible for drama from Cathy Come Home to This Life, told me in a recent interview that, if he were starting now, he would not go into the TV industry at all, but turn to online. And, notoriously, the most talked-about TV fiction this year – Kevin Spacey’s remake of House of Cards – was released by Netflix online rather than on TV. It remains terrifyingly unclear, though, how the economics of online television might work.
Soderbergh’s second golden age may already be over.
Mark Lawson – Thursday 23 May 2013 guardian.co.uk