TV shows are a great way to connect over the water-cooler at work, or to unify communities of passionate fans. TV shows also happen to be the new independent movies, and have been for a while. Networks and platforms like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, FX and Amazon have created a new range of cultural and artistically satisfying shows. Some might say this golden age of television is currently outshining movies. Here are a few reasons why that may be. (Then stay tuned for some show suggestions at the end, to explore and share with others.)
High-octane TV shows are major talking points. I have kick-started many conversations by talking about The Americans, for example – people are hooked on shows like these, and love to discuss them. And why not – TV has never been this good.
Equipment to create moving images has gotten exponentially better and more cost effective. From camera quality and mobility due to smaller sizes, to drones replacing expensive helicopter shots, to slicker digital editing software.
Now you don’t need $237 million (3.5 billion rand) to make Avatar. Okay you probably do, but you now get better quality for lower production costs.
That said, the budget for each episode of Game of Thrones is currently $10 million per episode - so not too shabby.
One episode of Thrones costs roughly the same as 10 Leon Schuster movies, or you could make around 700 local SA films for the whole season of Thrones.
TV is getting better crews to create cinematic looks and sourcing better casts who are attracted to more challenging material. Coupled together with incredible pools of writers given freedom to experiment and surprise.
An example of all of these elements is Season 1 of True Detective.
Season 2, not so much, even though they tried hard.
We have better home viewing equipment, meaning less time required to travel to the cinema and sit in a sticky seat while someone alongside you Whatsapps and talks throughout the entire movie.
Distribution tools are better: faster bandwidth, Apple TV, Roku players and cheaper storage means viewers watch what they want, when they want.
Instead of going to a local cinema with ten movies on offer, they have the whole Internet, on demand and streaming services to choose from.
More hours get spent with TV shows compared to movies, which means we commit more to a relationship with TV characters. In movies, we usually only get a snapshot of time with the characters.
TV provides time to create more nuanced character and plot arcs, without the constraint of 90 minutes to 2 hours of a movie.
Shows are also not tied to traditional 3-act movie plot lines. Unless you’re a moviemaker who can get away with craziness like Jonathan Glazer and Leos Carax. Under the Skin or Holy Motors anyone?
TV shows provide more characters and plotlines to follow, keeping us engaged. Not only focused on Jason Bourne running around Germany.
Studios hedge bets on the limited number of movies they produce. They spend big and want it to play to a mass audience. Some say this is making film too formulaic and less risk-taking than, say, Game of Thrones killing lead characters at the drop of a hat (or axe).
Shows can get experimental. Example, the dreamlike episode of Girls with Patrick Wilson - that didn’t seem to fit together with the rest of the show’s season.
It still worked, despite many people getting up in arms about it. (More haters equals more social media exposure.)
More people are exposed to niche worlds. Transparent, covering the trials and tribulations of the LGBT community, gets seen and supported by more people than just an art house cinema or film festival crowd. Empire introduces us to CEO players in the hip-hop industry.
Word of Mouth
There’s more buzz generated from episodic story lines, shared today on social media. As major sporting and gala events, Facebook live, Periscope and YouTube know, live viewing creates hype. We get to follow along en masse when it airs live and add our hashtagged voices (and snarky comments) in real time.
Some shows to consider:
Game of Thrones
The new Dallas in how it gets followed worldwide. "Is Jon Snow really dead? OMG!”
Not many episodes in existence, but covering dark, subversive themes related to technology. A modern Twilight Zone.
Sons of Anarchy
Rabid fan base who love badass bikers.
Cybersecurity engineer by day, vigilante hacker by night.
Some think Lena Dunham is the voice of her millennial generation; others think she's really irritating. (Which may be what she’s trying to do.)
Parks and Rec, 30 Rock
Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, Portlandia, Louie and Silicon Valley
More comedy gems.
American Horror Story
Asylum season is best. Campy gore. May be overstaying its welcome in later seasons.
Proper soap opera style drama but done with indie movie flair and performances. Nice to see Pacey from Dawson’s Creek still plying his trade.
Season 1 only.
Period drama set in the early 1980s during the Cold War, regarded by some as one of the best shows on TV despite smaller viewership.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
7 episode miniseries based on a great book about alternative history and dark magic.
Gangster drama set on the streets of post-war Birmingham.
Better Call Saul
Spin off show from Breaking Bad with Bob Odenkirk exploring the origins of his slippery Saul Goodman character.
Historical drama covering Norse history and legend. Created by the History Channel.
Dark and grimy turn of the century hospital drama played out in a uniquely Steven Soderbergh way.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Whip-smart and well researched.
House of Cards
Political skullduggery that hits some choppy water in the mid-seasons, but manages to keep the ship on course and looking strong for season 5
The Walking Dead
Massively uneven seasons (like Homeland), but viewers still talking about the latest cliffhanger. (The show-runners assure us that the show is about to change forever.) Is Carl getting the bat from Negan, turning Rick into an even more cold-blooded dystopian killer? Or will Negan ‘adopt’ Carl?
Solid season 2. Taking a cue from True Detective, using a different cast and storyline to season 1.
No, I haven’t watched The Wire yet. I know it’s the top of the list for some.
But if someone can get me a copy of Narcos, that would be appreciated.
Sure I’ve missed a few, especially if you like the 24 episode super dramas, but that’s your business. Ain’t nobody got time for those drawn out procedurals and hospital dramas. (Except The Knick at 10 episodes per season.)
Breaking Bad’s Walter White may be the man, but Tony Soprano will always be the king of TV characters. Followed by Don Draper of the Mad Men crew.
Perhaps our attention spans are dwindling and it’s easier to concentrate on an episodic show than a 2.5-hour Judd Apatow movie.
Although this isn't necessarily true with viewers binge watching many hours of TV.
In many ways, the most popular movies are like long, serialised TV shows. Franchises (long form TV shows?) such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Hunger Games, Fast and Furious, the Marvel universe, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of the biggest movie releases ever.
Stars of TV are now also breaking into film with bigger followings, creating symbiosis with big screen projects. So don’t forget to support your local cinema.
The action in Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool looks a lot better on a massive screen with the audience laughing along to the non-stop madness.
Next trend, binge watching TV shows in cinemas?