The idiot box.
So television was dubbed at its dawn, a reflection of an attitude towards a new medium which saw it as an inferior, bland and ‘dumbed down’ version of film. Today, the saying is ostensibly dead, and the sentiment should be too, but some critics still argue that television should be “accessible, and more or less unchallenging” – to, apparently, “save the heavy stuff for the big screen.” One such critic cites Hannibal, the acclaimed NBC series which ran from 2013 to 2015. Hannibal wasn’t what you’d call a ‘hit’- it never found a large audience, its ratings middled even when accompanied by never-ending critical and fan love, and accordingly, he argues it never “made a mark.” It went “too far,” he writes- “too deep, too dark…too intelligent.” But in TV’s evolving landscape, this argument is simply untrue, and soon to be even more dated. Whilst some programming lends to the notion (see Married at First Sight, for instance), these are increasingly the minority. Television has evolved into something which respects its audience arguably more than most mainstream cinema does, and with networks like HBO and rising services like Netflix, it only gains more prestige and becomes more challenging, whilst scarcely being inaccessible, and pulling massive audiences. The modern audience is more intelligent than most credit them for, and their taste in television reflects it.
Hannibal didn’t need to be a hit to leave its mark. Dark, violent, austere, often (in its creators own words) playfully pretentious, and consistently acclaimed for brilliant, innovative storytelling, Hannibal redefined what television could achieve, bringing arthouse cinema to the small screen. With a keen sense of character, surrealist imagery, technical brilliance (the cinematography was unfailingly striking), an unreliable narrator, and hand-in-hand explorations of insanity and morality, Hannibal was up with the peak of indie films, and in the face of its own cancellation, evolved even further from a more user-friendly procedural into a full blown character study. Hannibal had the utmost respect for its audience, small as it may have been. It didn’t hold their hands, but trusted them to follow along, and the intelligence and respect of the show for its viewers could always be relied upon in turn. Despite all that, and even with the funding of French studio Gaumont to keep it on air, it bowed out quietly (and boldly) in 2013. As Lecter himself remarked in the final season, “fate has a habit of not letting us choose our own endings” – and yet, while it may have been slightly too late to save him, his words grow increasingly less sure for the new era of television.
Hannibal’s respect for its audience has been apparent in a great deal of television in recent years. Netflix and HBO continue to pioneer the age of prestige, genuinely intelligent, and cinematic TV. Consider Westworld, Fargo, or House of Cards, to name only a few: covering a variety of genres with original storytelling, they feature sprawling narratives, character studies, and even sophisticated philosophical discussion. Unlike Hannibal, these shows are thriving- Westworld’s thoughtful pilot pulled the greatest initial audience HBO had ever seen. Netflix’s subscriber count keeps increasing. Game of Thrones continues to top ratings boards across the world. Even in the face of unrelenting reality TV and bottom-of-the-barrel soap offerings, they continue to gain popularity. Everyday audiences are more than happy to turn on their brains and engage with intelligent content (which surpasses and respects them more than most of what they see most on the big screen) particularly when presented in an unfiltered way crucially free from advertising or the threat of premature, mid-season cancellation in order for the network to produce a new instalment of Survivor.
When David Fincher created House of Cards, he proclaimed “the world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead…the captive audience is gone. If you give people the opportunity to mainline everything in one day, there’s reason to believe they will.” Television which insulted those audiences’ intellects repelled them, he contended; to show genuine respect for them was the best way to grab them. Despite his repertoire, he explained that film does not allow for complex characterisation and narrative the way television does, saying, “for the past ten years, I’d felt the best writing was happening on television.” Thus, new age television (often released all at once, and all with compelling, intelligent scripts, great characters, and top tier casts) was born, and has since only grown in mainstream, widespread popularity both on and off Netflix. The latter has Cards, but also Stranger Things, Narcos, and more; HBO has the likes of Westworld and True Detective; and even other services (ala Hulu) produce purely serialised adaptions like 11.22.63. None face the threat of being “too intelligent” and “never making a mark” in light of their sophistication and respect for their audiences- they thrive off of it.
It should be noted, however, that such audiences have a bad habit of seeing only in binary- in turning to serialised, ‘quality’ TV, episodic series wrongfully gain increasing contempt and disregard. This form of television can be intelligent and respect its audience, too. Whether for a laugh, casual escapism, or heartfelt moments after a long day one can jump into at any time, knowing what to expect, these shows will always have their place on the small screen (for the more committed, they often still offer ongoing arcs and narratives.) The Office, for instance, bowed out long ago now, but it too made a huge impact on TV and wider culture with all of these features. It never disrespected its audience’s intelligence or desires- just in a different way to something like Hannibal- and made its nine-season mark accordingly. Format is not the issue: creators’ intentions and their regard for their audience is.
The Office’s fire scene remains one of the most consistently shared and cited moments of TV comedy, with the episode (Stress Relief) explicitly designed for new audiences after the Super Bowl.
Ultimately, in the age of tentpoles and blockbusters which increasingly favour “fun” over quality, intelligent entertainment, and thus an emerging necessity for wider audiences to turn to often off-putting indie films for genuine cinema rather than hollow escapades, television may be the true new pioneer of the cinematic: it covers all film’s forms and genres cerebrally, but in a way still accessible and respectful to mainstream audiences everywhere. In the light of many more intelligent, dare I say artistic, cinematic shows releasing now and beyond, with intelligent scripts, innovative creators, and brilliant casts, that only seems set to grow truer.
Perhaps, for now, cinema comes best on the small screen.