The Sun Always Shines on TV Part 1 (by Alan Matthews)

The second ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ is sinking under the weight of its own superhero films, multiple shared universes and the need to market toys. On the flipside, one could say that ‘The Golden Age of Television’ has been on the rise for two decades now and showing no sign of abating. Film studios have become dependent on larger and even larger blockbusters which gamble ever increasing budgets on a few weeks of cinematic release. For this reason, big budget movies are increasingly designed to appeal to everyone. In contrast, television has become more and more targeted towards niche markets. Box sets and on-demand streaming means that a TV show is no longer dependent on one night’s viewing figures to justify its budget. Cult shows can simmer under the radar for years, slowly gathering an audience. This allows TV shows to be truly adventurous. The aim here in this blog series is to give a few examples of when recent television has stolen a march on cinema by taking something which was a story or genre associated with the movies and given it a new, more creative spin.

Westworld (2016 – present, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO)

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Michael Crichton died in 2008 leaving an amazing legacy to popular culture. He was the king of the techno-thriller and the maestro of intelligent and accessible science fiction. Several of his novels were made into movies including The Andromeda Strain (1971), Congo (1995), Twister (1996), Sphere (1998), and Jurassic Park (1993). He also created the extremely popular medical drama series ER which first aired in 1994. On top of all that, he was also a successful movie director (Coma, Runaway, Physical Evidence), and as such might be best remembered for Westworld (1973).

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Westworld is the story of a theme park full of robots going haywire and turning on the guests. The best synopsis of the story can be found in The Simpsons episode Itchy & Scratchy Land. The movie’s influence can be felt in Jurassic Park, The Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982), not to mention a lacklustre sequel, Futureworld (1976). However, Westworld is a film which reaches beyond the limits of its special effects and ends up looking worn and dated. The plot and characters are thin and Crichton’s direction is workman-like but uninspired. The film maintains a cult following mostly through nostalgia. There was a failed attempt at making a TV series from Westworld in 1980. HBO finally struck gold in 2016 with a re-imagining of the same idea. HBO’s Westworld is thoughtful and provocative science fiction with multiple interactive story threads and layers of intrigue. It used the technology and style of the medium of television to its fullest and most creative extent. It also showcases top performances from Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins. It is creative and challenging entertainment which respects the intelligence of the audience and offers a level of quality which was once exclusive to cinema.

Rome (2005 – 2007, created by John Milius, William J. MacDonald and Bruno Heller for HBO and BBC)

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Cleopatra (1963) was the most expensive film at the time of its release and almost bankrupt 20th Century Fox. It remains a lavish and indulgent movie and at the time, split the opinions of critics and audiences. It is visually spectacular but all to showcase the simple interaction between the three main characters played by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. True, their relationship decides the fate of nations but much of the movie is taken up with characters in expensive costumes talking in front of huge sets. There is no sense of the layered complexity of the Roman republic, no understanding of the difficulty of military logistics and no sense of the time and place. It feels like what it is: expensive theatre.

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Since then the Roman epic movie fell out of fashion and then returned in a simpler but no less spectacular form i.e. the form of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000. Gladiator’s success spawned a series of remakes and re-imaginings of the Roman epic all of which were large scale action movies (Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander). For an introduction into the true depth and complexity of the Roman republic read Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland. If you cannot be bothered reading then watch the TV show Rome. BBC and HBO cooperated in the production and release of a 22-episode story which covers much of the same ground as Cleopatra but in far greater depth and style. The audience experiences the Roman world not only through the eyes of the ruling elite but also through the eyes of two downtrodden soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo (mentioned in Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico). For this reason, you are immersed in all levels of Roman society and are thus effectively transported to another time and place. The whole scope feels much more genuine. Compare this to the hollow and superficial re-imagining of Ben Hur from last year for example. Truly awful stuff!

Black Sails (2014 – 2017, created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine for Starz)

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Was there ever a really good pirate movie? Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940) were entertaining adventure films. As was Douglas Fairbanks more than a decade earlier in The Black Pirate (1926). Until Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) Hollywood did not seem to know what to do with ‘the pirate movie’. After all, how do you make a hero out of a person who steals from others while threatening rape and murder? Real life pirates where not nice guys – in the movies they were either the villains or the comic relief. Many pirate movies could not get it right and were financial and critical failures (Swashbuckler, The Pirates of Penzance, Yellowbeard and Pirates for example). Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was adapted for the screen many times since the 1910s but it is perhaps telling that the best adaption of Treasure Island was a made-for-TV movie starring Charlton Heston and Christian Bale in 1990.

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Despite all that, in January 2014, Starz released the TV show Black Sails. This entertaining series quickly eclipsed the less interesting NBC release Crossbones, which was cancelled after 9 episodes in the same year. Over 4 enjoyable seasons, Black Sails offered in-depth storylines and completed a series of intriguing character arcs’. The show managed to portray pirates in a quasi-realistic fashion by making them the anti-heroes of their own story. They are motivated by greed and plunder but are also society’s outsiders, forced to survive on the edge of a colonial world. The harsh reality of the pirate world is certainly dialled down in favour of entertainment (it is in part produced by Michael Bay, which explains that) but the society of New Providence is complex, layered and often terrifying. The series mixes fictional characters from Stevenson’s Treasure Island with real historical figures to create something just realistic enough to be interesting but just entertaining enough to be fun.

Vikings (2013 – present, created by Michael Hirst for History)

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The idea of the History Channel making a historical drama may at first be a little uncomfortable. A little like when you meet someone who thinks that The Da Vinci Code is a true story. However, the result is gripping entertainment. Vikings had its first season in 2013 and introduced the Norse world with a story centred on the historical raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne by Ragnar Lothbrok. Spurred on by its own positive reception and the parallel success of HBO’s Game of Thrones the story of Vikings expands over 4 (soon to be 5) seasons. A story partially inspired by historical events and partially by 13th century sagas Ragnars saga Loðbrókar and Ragnarssona þáttr (basically the stories of Ragnar and the stories of Ragnar’s sons). With each passing season, the world depicted in Vikings has grown to give social and cultural depth to the clash between Christian and Pagan societies as well as some bloody violence and swashbuckling action thrown in there.

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The same story (or at least the same inspiration) had been used in cinema 55 years earlier. The Vikings (1958), starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine, combines epic Hollywood production values with the moral ambiguity of a pirate movie to create an unbalanced but watchable whole. It has some iconic movie moments, fantastic scenery and beautifully choreographed action. Douglas’s obvious athleticism is standout in some of the stunt work. Unfortunately, Hollywood never recaptured the magic of Vikings on screen again. The Long Ships (1964) with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier is an okay adventure for a rainy Saturday. The 13th Warrior (1999), also a Michael Crichton story, constantly hints at a far greater Viking epic hidden somewhere in the confused production and editing. It was not until the notable screenwriter Michael Hirst (Elizabeth (1998), The Tudors (2007-2010)) realised that an expanded TV series format could best recount the historical Viking phenomenon that the magic (and bloody violence) was to be re-initiated.

Part 2 to follow…

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