Spartacus and Game of Thrones have brought adult-oriented entertainment to the forefront. No, I’m not talking that kind of adult material. Pay channels, like HBO, Cinemax, Starz, Showtime and now even Netflix, have found a formula for success and danged if it isn’t working for them. Starz hit big with Spartacus. Created by Angel co-creator Stephen S. DeKnight, Spartacus gave us a little glimpse of what David Boreanaz might have been doing if he had been let off the leash. Featuring Lucy Lawless, as millions of young boys who watched Xena dreamed her (without clothes), a literal cacophony of male and female genitalia flooded the screen and you got good sense that is was pretty damn fun being a New Zealand/Australian actor or actress. In spite of that fact, the series was really well written and put together. The series was able to cope with lead actor, Whitfield, dying and not miss a beat, thanks in no small part to the brilliant Liam McIntyre, who replaced him. Spartacus dying in the end was hard to take, even though you knew it was going to happen. The series premier garnered 553,000 viewers—a record for the network—and another 446,000 viewed it on Encore, proving that a more adult-oriented piece could find an audience.
Where is this on the film side? The writing depth and quality that was once exemplary on the silver screen has seen a turn for the worse. More filmmakers are abandoning the big screen for the smaller one. This is due in no large part because TV is exploring boundaries, while film continues to only probe how far they can bloat a budget.
The sex and violence in Spartacus are another matter. As with everything, many critics can’t see the forest for the trees. Before the premiere of the first season, the Boston Herald criticized the series saying it “fetishized violence even more than it depicts sex and violence.” The trouble is that these aspects get picked up on because they sell newspapers or ads on your Web site. Largely, some critics will dismiss a film or television series out of hand just because there is nudity or violence in it. Complaints like the one in the Boston Herald that Spartacus fetishizes violence largely ignore the fact that these are escapism. They also tend to just take this small segment of the overall piece.
Lagging behind in content with film are the network channels. Think about all the great television shows of the past decade and, more often than not, they weren’t on network TV. There are the exceptions, notably NCIS, but watching regular network TV, one is overloaded with procedurals. Most live within a limited box and decide to stay there. After a while, the episodes begin to meld into each other. Game of Thrones is, like it or not, an innovative show that has captured a lot of people’s imaginations. The question is, how do you capture adults’ imaginations? Everyone looks out the window every day and sees the mundane. Screenwriters do not always go into a project wanting to further a cause or even have that desire to. They see the mundane out their window and want to escape it. That is why they became writers in the first place. Game of Thrones has came under fire for the violence and sex it splashes on the screen in every episode. Is that the reason for its popularity? Doubtful. According to its Wikipedia entry: “58 percent of viewers were reported to be male as of 2013, and on average 41 years old.” While that may provide a glimpse of the demographics for the show, one really cannot draw any conclusions from that, when one considers that the same demographics have the most disposable income and are the most likely subscribers to premium channel services. Also, the Wikipedia entry sheds another fascinating light on the Game of Thrones fans: “According to the marketing director of SBS, Game of Thrones has the highest fan engagement rate of any TV series known to her: 5.5% of the series’ 2.9 million Facebook fans were talking online about the series in 2012, compared to 1.8% of the more than ten million fans of HBO’s other fantasy series, True Blood.”
Clearly, as with other premium channel series, like Showtime’s Dexter, Weeds, The Tudors and Brotherhood, as well as HBO’s The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage—and also the more basic cable series such as Justified, Mad Men and Breaking Bad—TV is outdistancing movies by leaps and bounds. Mad Men is another example of the type of material movies used to do but have long since abandoned ever since CG became more important than story. With Mad Men, you have a slow, unwinding story for which theatergoers don’t seem to have the patience, but the home audience does. Furthermore, writers are able to inject a moral ambivalence, even for the good guys. Sure, it can be argued that television shows are given more time to develop their characters, but there have been a wealth of directors presenting the same level of material in just two hours. The problem is directors like Alfonso Cuaron come to prominence with movies like Y Tu Mamá También and then get swallowed up by Hollywood. I don’t care what anyone says, Gravity was not a good film. It was innovative in the way it was shot, but I am told drinking milk is good for you, as well. Neither of which am I going to partake in again any time soon.