Twenty-first century peak TV has created a bounty of great new shows that have resonated with audiences and critics. While the past few years have seen critically acclaimed series such as “Homeland,” “The Americans,” “Transparent,” “Veep,” “True Detective,” “Fargo,” “The Night Of” and many more garnering praise and generating countless water-cooler conversations for a wide variety of achievements in all the creative categories, they all have one thing in common: an attribute that has driven the rise of TV’s new golden age: mature, smart, boundary-thumping writing.
For film fans, the bittersweet truth is that TV’s rise has come largely at cinema’s expense.
Another thing that’s countless is the number of articles lamenting the decline of “adult filmmaking” and noting that top-tier talents are fleeing moviemaking for the lucrative and creatively stimulating green pastures of the small screen.
With the collapse of physical media sales, the unstoppable rise of marketing costs and the gotta-be-risk-free production mandates of the Hollywood studios and most members of the film production community, it’s easy to see why the demise of challenging, edgy moviemaking is widely reported.
However, it only takes an awards season like the one in progress to make the case that reports of adult cinema’s terminal condition are again exaggerated. There are very real challenges that daring filmmakers face in the 21th century are facing, but thankfully for film-lovers, they’re blowing past the blockbuster-fortified blockades, overcoming the marketplace obstacles.
All the more reason to note multiplexes and art houses are currently brimming with vibrant, thought-provoking fare and the critics have plenty of urgent and accomplished screenwriting worthy of their hopefulness and celebrations.
“Black-ish” and “Atlanta” meet “Fences”
Newest contender for writing honors as well as kudos across the board is “Fences.” The august writing pedigree of this contender for adapted screenplay includes August Wilson, whose acclaimed 1983 play reaches the big screen decades late, but just in time to help put #OscarsSoWhite in the rearview mirror.
“Breaking Bad” vs. “Hell or High Water”
“Breaking Bad’s” impact on the peak TV period can’t be overestimated. The gritty modern West setting, the crime genre tropes, the gripping portrait of an America grappling with job cuts, downturns and the shafting of the wage-earning class deservedly earned its fanbase and accolades. Ditto 2016 big screen original screenplay contender “Hell or High Water.” Even darker in its portrait of an American gone to seed for its rural citizens, 2015 Variety Screenwriter to Watch Taylor Sheridan followed the promise of his hit action drama with this powerful tale of banks that may be too big to fail, but not too tall to be taken down by the determined brothers at the center of the story.
“The People vs O.J. Simpson” and “Making a Murderer” vs. “Denial”
The small screen has provoked gasps of indignation from the effective storytelling of dramatic series “O.J.” and documentary series “Making,” but “Loving” ably proves the big screen and tight arc have no match when it comes to driving home the outrage of an up close and personal true story like “Loving.” Plus Jeff Nichols’ original screenplay has romance and hope to temper the vile reality of America’s once-rampant anti-miscegenation laws. “Denial’s” master dramatist-screenwriter David Hare takes the true story of Deborah Lipstadt into even more infuriating waters, with this tale of a journalist in a court battle that pivots on her ability to legally prove that the Holocaust actually happens. As with so many true stories, this one’s both stranger than fiction and perhaps even more temperature raising than anything on the small screen this year.
“The Leftovers” vs. “Manchester by the Sea”
In HBO’s dramatic series “The Leftovers” families grapple with losing loved ones, a challenge complicated by the fact that they still don’t know how these people died, having ‘departed’ mysteriously on one of the world’s darkest days. In “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan’s lugubrious study of familial grief in a fishing village on Boston’s North Shore, a father struggles with having lost his children in one of the most tragic ways possible — while also coping with the recent death of his father. While the ways in which loved ones are taken from the world differs, both “Manchester” and “Leftover” rely primarily on dialogue and language to communicate death’s devastating toll.
“Girls” and “Insecure” vs. “20th Century Women”
Lena Dunham is one of the biggest reasons there’s a debate about small screen vs. big screen indie storytelling since she made her bones with indie film hit “Tiny Furniture” before Judd Apatow tapped her to create an HBO zeitgeist series with a vengeance. Which leads to the pleasures of urban black young-womanhood chronicled so effectively in “Insecure.” Mike Mills’ new film “20th Century Women” turns the clock back to the ’70s, but his celebration of American women’s triumphs and tribulations matches feels as contemporary as anything on this year’s tube.