You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture.
A report this week suggested that David O. Russell ― one of the most pugnacious yet highly regarded film directors of our time, which his visible middle initial makes fairly obvious ― is working on a TV series. Yes, his next project seems to be one fit for television, that low form of populist entertainment for the likes of grimy kids returning home from school and tired surburb-dwellers who’ve sunk into their couch cushions by 8 p.m. ET for some mindless respite.
Nah, it’s not like that anymore. While TV is more popular than ever, it’s also more respected than ever. Serialized dramas, comedies and dramedies on cable television and streaming platforms offer some of the richest characters and best-told stories available. How many can you count? There’s “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “30 Rock,” “Homeland,” “Lost,” “Veep,” “Transparent” and the first season of “House of Cards.” All of these (and others) indulge in the depths their characters and settings are able to reach by way of time ― luxurious time ― while offering the same production value as most feature films.
Once, it was rare for A-list talent to veer from movies. It was a sad step down for aging actors, the Hollywood equivalent of putting Grandma in a home. Or perhaps a step sideways for actors looking to rehab their images. But now, Academy Award–winners Julianne Moore and Robert De Niro, both with perfectly healthy careers, are signing on to work with David O. Russell ― on TV.
(Not much is known about the Russell show. Deadline reports that it’s some kind of ‘90s crime thriller, which sounds a little too familiar, but OK.)
Some even claim we have reached “peak TV.” There are some 500 different scripted series to watch across traditional and streaming television platforms.
But we have not reached “peak TV,” because Jennifer Lawrence still makes movies.
In the minds of some talent managers, perhaps, a film career seems to be the highest tower in the kingdom of Hollywood. Whereas it used to be the case that every serious actor or director hoped a TV gig might allow them to ascend to a career in film ― the realm of auteurs who’ve earned places in art history nearly on par with Renaissance painters, at least in the minds of film students and Academy members ― somehow, in twenty-sixteen, that idea hasn’t quite died. For some ridiculous reason, film is still more prestigious.
We know that because Jennifer Lawrence still makes movies. If Jennifer Lawrence ― a four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner, a young Hollywood starlet who made a name for herself through the high art of film, an actor with international name recognition who still has a full career ahead of her, a top-billed talent in both blockbuster movies and the type that wins awards ― ventured into the dazzling medium of television, then we will have reached “peak TV.” Other esteemed film actors have done television ― Claire Danes, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, Julia Louis-Dreyfus ― but none that quite fit Lawrence’s mold. When talent moves fluidly between film and serialized plots, peak TV will be an achievement unlocked.
When we finally reach peak TV, movies may suffer even more. Increasingly, they are a space full of risky big-budget tentpoles meant to please large numbers of ticket-buyers. Increasingly, they are not worth the price. So film must hold onto its aura of prestige (historically provided in part by a snobbish cloak of white male academia) with a two-handed death grip currently leaving claw marks.
Sure, TV is more time-consuming for everyone involved. Making 13 one-hour-long things is more work than making one two-hour-long thing. The pay is alright: Jim Parsons and Sofia Vergara both made $29 million for a year’s worth of “Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” episodes, respectively. That’s not the $80 million that Robert Downey Jr. made from Marvel franchises in a year, but there’s something to be said for a steady paycheck. And most of us still take public transportation, anyway.
TV status is rising. But the best reason to make TV may be this: creativity. Movies are so franchise-heavy that you need to switch mediums in order to find completely original material. As Oscar-winner and star of “True Detective” Matthew McConaughey put it while accepting a Critics’ Choice Award in 2014, TV trumps film in one big area: “Quality.”
“Where else do you get to see that introduction to character so patiently unfold on the screen?” he asked. Answer: Broadway Nowhere.
Russell and Lawrence have done great things together on silver screens in the past. Maybe it’s time for a change.
Follow Sara Boboltz on Twitter: @sara_bee