In a recent interview on the show Late Night with Seth Meyers Sopranos actress Edie Falco, who has been on television since 1993 remarked that when she was in acting school becoming a television actress was “considered a sellout.” Acting in television was reserved for actors and actresses who couldn’t get work in film. This notion was also evident to viewers, as television shows were often perceived as being campy and having a much lower production quality when compared to movies. Top rated shows from the original golden age of television include I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone. These shows engaged audiences, but overarching story lines were not a necessity as one could watch episodes in no order and still understand the show. Movies were the place one would go to see spectacular acting, special effects, and full-bodied story.
Something changed in the 90s though. Multiple shows started to be made where each episode tied into the next episode. These shows include Twin Peaks (1990), Oz (1997), and The Sopranos (1999). The movie website IMDB* ranks TV shows based on audience votes. Of the top thirty on the list, the oldest TV show dramas listed are Twin Peaks, Oz, and The Sopranos. These shows helped start the change toward cinema quality television.
The television network HBO has been a giant in producing top quality television. Oz was released in 1997 as the networks first drama. Since then they have produced acclaimed television including The Sopranos, The Wire (2002), Game of Thrones (2011), and True Detective (2014). All of these shows appear in the top ten of the IMDB list. Other players have joined in on making movie quality television like the TV channel AMC and the Internet streaming and movie delivery service Netflix. These two channels have produced hit shows like Breaking Bad (2008) and House of Cards (2013) respectively.
What is also important to note is that these shows are being casted with actors who have predominantly stared on the silver screen. For instance the first season of True Detective starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. McConaughey had never starred in a scripted TV series, and Harrelson hadn’t been in a TV show since he was in Cheers (1985).
What does all this mean? Television has now become comparable to movies in quality, while even featuring the same actors and actresses. In some ways the quality of television has surpassed that of movies. When one goes to see a movie it is often a gamble whether the film will be fantastic or a flop, or something in between. With television, we know what we are getting. Even if the episode or pilot is a flop, we haven’t wasted any money by viewing it and have spent less time than if we saw a film. When she was in acting school, Edie Falco probably could have never imagined that being on a television show would allow her to become as respected of an actress as she is today. It is clear now that she is anything but a sellout.
*IMDB was launched in 1990. This may reflect bias as shows produced after the creation of the website may be ranked more prevalently as those produced before the website was made.