The Evolution of Cinematic Television
Since the late 1990’s, television has seen a programming evolution, with series pushing the bounds of the small screen closer into the realm of the silver screen. Shows like Game of Thrones, arguably one of the most cinematic and most popular shows on TV today, grabs our attention with its cinematic attributes, mainly its production values and overarching story structure, forcing us to watch the show from the beginning to completely understand the characters and story. Though 24 and LOST evolved the concept of cinematic television and pushed the bounds of the small screen on the Big Three Networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and FOX, one channel, which started out as a paid sports and movie channel, can be seen as the beginning of this necessary evolution, as their original programming started to become more of a household name: HBO.
The Sopranos – HBO (1999-2007)
Even though HBO’s prison series Oz was critically acclaimed during its run from 1998-2003, it was the channel’s mob drama The Sopranos that made HBO a household name for its daring, thrilling television. Chronicling the inner workings of the Soprano family in New Jersey, run by modern, gritty godfather figure Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), The Sopranos 6 Season run garnered acclaim for its tense stories, complex and intense characters, and incredible performances.
What made The Sopranos a cinematic show was its overarching storylines, carrying through not only from the beginning to the end of each season, but also from season to season. The layout and the careful planning of each season force us – the enraptured audience – to watch the show from the beginning, throwing out the pure episodic concept that TV usually relies upon. The characters, as well, had such complex activities and arcs that the need to watch the show from the start was necessary not only for the plot, but in order to understand the characters and where they fit within the greater story.
The Sopranos is still considered one of the greatest TV shows to come across our screens, and with the release of the series on DVD from the beginning, the mob family’s audience grew exponentially. However, because HBO is a paid channel, their shows are able to be more graphic in nature, limiting the audience exposed to The Sopranos. It wasn’t really until the network channels began releasing their own cinematic series that the concept truly went mainstream.
24 – FOX (2001-2010)
When we were introduced to the premise of 24, the intrigue overrode a lot of anxiety about watching something different from what we had seen before in television’s action genre. Not only is 24 incredibly entertaining and well made, but from the first moment the yellow clock began to tick and Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) introduced the hour-long timeline for each episode, 24 changed the way we watch, talk about, and recommend TV shows.
24 used the same overarching story mechanics employed by Oz and The Sopranos, and made the concept a household name. The revolutionary TV series took the concept one step further, as each season spanned the length of one day in the life of Bauer rather than covering a longer length of time. The story structure for each episode, therefore, ran in real time with approximately 5 minute time jumps for commercial breaks, and along with the great use of split screen created a whole new way of watching, analyzing, and talking about the show. We went from telling a friend when the show as on regularly to recommending the show from the beginning because of how the story, characters, and situations were affected by the concept.
Through 24 and The Sopranos, a generation of DVD watchers rather than casual TV aficionados was born, as the shows gripped us to the point of wanting to keep the momentum moving forward rather than the halting stop start of watching a show on a regular basis. More and more “movie-like” TV shows were being demanded based on the success of these shows, and as the demand grew, so did our expectations. Though it was ABC who broke the budgetary bounds with their $11.5 million pilot for the J.J. Abrams hit LOST, HBO would continually emerge as one of the kings of cinematic television.
Rome – HBO (2005-2007)
Though it only ran for two short seasons, Rome was the incredible precursor for shows like The Tudors and Game of Thrones within the growing cinematic TV world. Rome quickly became the first piece of historical drama on the small screen to make it really big, paving the way for more because it used the overarching story concepts we had come to expect from TV drama, but also because it told a story to which we already knew the outcome from a different perspective.
Telling the story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power and eventual betrayal at the hands of Brutus and Cassius, Rome decided to be more about the people, keeping Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) as an influential character, but not the star. Instead, military plebs Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) were the main characters, and like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moving though Hamlet, the two soldiers created a bigger, more personal story through the already established one. The season arching storylines had become a staple, and the two main characters had brilliant arcs, but what pushed the studio – and us audience members – closer to the idea of historical dramas becoming the next big thing on TV and what made Rome a successful production was the collaboration and budget acquired for the series.
As our expectations for TV dramas grew to staggering heights after the success of The Sopranos, 24, and LOST, budgets granted for these shows began to become more cinematic in their size and allocation. Rome became one of HBO’s most successful and expensive TV collaborations, as they partnered with the BBC, and the final budget for the 2 season show rounded up to between $100 and $110 million. The growth in budgetary requirements between historical and modern films and TV series was already exponential due to the specific props, costumes, and sets needed, but Rome made cinematic budgets for TV shows a necessity, and with the pilot alone for Game of Thrones ending up between the $5 and $10 million mark, budgets for TV dramas will soon be rivaling their cinematic counterparts.
What makes the surge in cinematic television shows – especially within the drama genre – so exciting is the quick progress and evolution that comes with its development. Within less than a decade, we have seen cinematic concepts employed by cable TV, taken on board by network, and granted bigger budgets all for the want of that cinematic feel at home on the small screen week by week (or all in a row).
Though it is a big change from how we are used to watching and engaging with the characters and stories from our small screen, the cinematic evolution of TV is not only a good thing, but a necessity. Without this evolution, we would still be watching The Honeymooners or Dallas, and watching those shows now – for those who were unable to see them live – is not quite the entertainment we are looking for nowadays. It’s like when the film industry is given a Star Wars, a Jurassic Park, or a Matrix; it doesn’t just stand still and claim these gems are one in a million, it changes with the movement and creates bigger and better things. Why should TV be exempt from this progress? The need for escapism is no longer confined to a massive, freezing, soundproof movie theatre, as now shows like Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and Game of Throne can give us the same excitement more regularly found on the small screen. No wonder TV’s are getting bigger.
What have been some of your favorite cinematic TV shows? Let us know in the comments!