On June 19th, 2013, film and TV legend James Gandolfini passed away. Famed for his portrayal of Tony Soprano in the HBO series The Sopranos, he had recently finished filming a pilot for the network. The new show was entitled Criminal Justice, and Gandolfini was to play a lawyer defending a man who had woken up to find a girl he had spent the night with stabbed to death in his bed. A remake of a BBC drama, the show was reportedly a ‘shoe-in’ to be developed into a seven-episode miniseries. All that changed, however, following Gandolfini’s passing.  

Flash-forward two months to September 25th, and HBO announce that they are still moving forward with the show having recast the part. The actor chosen to fill Gandolfini’s shoes? Robert De Niro, making his big entry to the small screen (not counting his cameo appearance on Extras). The largest surprise about this announcement, however, wasn’t that another well-known actor had been brought in, or indeed that De Niro was moving into the world of television. Perhaps the largest surprise was that it really wasn’t that surprising at all. Twenty years ago – ten, even – an actor such as De Niro playing a part on a television show would be unheard of. It would be seen as a signal to the rest of the world that he had failed to make it in Hollywood, and was being forced to find work were he could get it. 

Only not anymore. Once it was the dream of TV stars to try and ‘make it big’ in the film world, their career progression assessed by their ability to climb the ladder to leading men roles. Actors such as George Clooney, Bruce Willis and Robin Williams are all prime examples of this, each one successfully making the transition from something like ER to Ocean’s Eleven. But not everyone was as successful. David Caruso attempted the leap from hit show NYPD Blue, even going as far as telling his fellow cast members what he thought their chances were without him on his way out the door. Unfortunately, he utterly failed to make his mark in the world of cinema and was forced to return to TV, hat in hand. Whilst his career may have been famously parodied in South Park, in reality, he managed to land on his feet, playing the wonderfully-named Horatio Caine for many years on CSI: Miami

But De Niro isn’t the only big name to slum it down in TV land. You only need to scan through the TV guide to find at least a couple of shows with film actors playing leading roles. So why the change? What has made television, once the graveyard of washed up actors, the hip place to be? And is having a star attached a sign of quality, or in today’s scheduling arena is it simply becoming more and more of a necessity?

Changing Channels

Let’s begin by looking at some of the first shows to boast having a big name Hollywood actor attached as lead star. The first that comes to this reviewer’s mind (and please feel free to comment below if there’s a better example) is Glenn Close. Joining the cast of FX’s The Shield in 2005, Close played Monica Rawling, newly appointed Captain of the Farmington precinct. Far from it being a career misfire, Close scored an Emmy for her performance. In fact, she enjoyed working in television so much that she decided to stay around a little longer, and headed up the cast of Damages in 2007 (which over the course of its five seasons also boasted a fairly large number of film stars amongst its cast, including the likes of Rose Byrne, William Hurt, John Goodman, Ryan Phillippe and Martin Short). 

In-between those two juggernauts, however, was a far smaller show that also had a pretty big name attached – 30 Rock. Debuting in 2006, Alec Baldwin unforgettably portrayed the role of eccentric GE executive Jack Donaghy, a role which won him a string of awards including two Emmys, two Screen Actors Guild awards and two Golden Globes. 

Since then, the number of Hollywood stars that have moved into the television realm has skyrocketed. An almost-certainly not exhaustive list includes Kevin Bacon (The Following), Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Kevin Costner (Hatfields & McCoys), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Patrick Wilson (A Gifted Man), Tim Roth (Lie To Me), Christian Slater (Breaking In), Zooey Deschanel (New Girl), Laura Linney (The Big C), Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Karl Urban (Almost Human), David Strathairn (Alphas), Christina Ricci (Pan Am), William H. Macy (Shameless), James Spader (Boston Legal, The Office, The Blacklist), Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) and Lucy Liu (Elementary) – to name but a lot. 

But what’s the explanation of this recent surge in film stars moving into television? Certainly TV seems to have shed the unfavourable light it was once viewed in, and it would be hard to argue that it remains the domain of the failing actor – a glance over the above list reveals that many are in no way struggling for parts. What makes an actor like Dustin Hoffman, for instance, decide to try his hand at an HBO show? What convinces Kevin Spacey to take on a role in a TV drama with a relatively untested TV studio? And it’s not just actors; Spacey’s House of Cards also has Academy Award Nominee David Fincher on board as both director and executive producer. Showtime’s The Borgias was the baby of Neil Jordan, and Martin Scorsese is a major force behind the hugely successful Boardwalk Empire

Holding Its Own

One of the biggest reasons for this change has to come from the most clichéd of places – money. It’s clear that TV budgets have skyrocketed in the past few years – the pilot alone for Boardwalk Empire cost nearly $18 million, a near unthinkable amount just a short while ago, especially for a pilot. In a lot of ways, this leap in available cash brings television shows far closer to films in terms of ‘look’. Unless your show is boasting a healthy number of special effects, there is really no excuse now for it not to have that same Hollywood shine. Sets, costumes, fancy camera work – all are present and correct. Hannibal, for instance, is easily one of the most atmospheric dramas currently airing, and definitely holds it own (and in a lot of cases, surpasses) much on the silver screen in this respect. Of course, one only needs to watch something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to see how dodgy special effects can instantly show something up when compared to the astronomical budget Marvel afforded its bigger brothers. 

But these effects-heavy shows are hardly the biggest players in television. When you compare most well-produced dramas airing on TV with films of a similar ilk, the lines between them are clearly being blurred. You simply do not need a soaring budget to produce a well written and nicely filmed piece of entertainment. And such a mantra has held true for generations; the lack of flashy effects never stopped big name actors performing on the stage, nor did it get in the way of some truly wonderful pieces of theatre. Would Macbeth have benefitted from being set in space? Undoubtedly yes, but that’s purely a personal preference (and it seems to have done alright regardless).

Another important factor has to be that with television, you are not limited to just two hours to tell your story. In the time it takes a film to introduce characters, take them through their story and wrap it up satisfactorily, a TV show can have merely finished with its double-length pilot. They have far longer to build a cohesive world, to flesh out characters and to introduce side stories, something which surely gives TV the upper hand in these departments. Indeed, often is the case that the stories told on television would not work in film, although whether that is because there is just too much story to get through or because there are not enough people willing to pay cinema prices for entertainment with a focus on characters rather than explosions is perhaps debatable. Acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh experienced this first hand with Behind the Candelabra; deemed ‘too gay’ by every major Hollywood studio, it was finally picked up by HBO and aired as a TV-special in America (despite the fact it was released into cinemas in the UK). He later went on to say that;

“American movie audiences now just don’t seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative … there are always some, but not enough to make hits out of movies that have those qualities … those qualities are now being seen on television and people who want to see stories that have those kind of qualities are watching television.” 

– Steven Soderbergh

Dwindling Viewership

Whilst television affords the possibility of deep characters and intricate storytelling, the biggest problem comes when writers and producers don’t know how to fill these extra hours. Usually this comes from the fact that their world or those living in it are simply not strong enough to stand up to such intense scrutiny. A prime example in this reviewers opinion is Battlestar Galactica: when it was confined to 12-episode seasons it was a tight, well-written drama about the few-remaining humans in their ongoing struggle against the evil Cylons. When it made the jump to full 22-episode seasons, however, the show began to fall apart, especially towards the end. Long stretches of episodes were nearly as barren as the expanse of space they travelled through, filled with furious wheel-spinning and the constant dangling of really big reveals, honest! right around the next corner. The characters and the story were too weak and simplistic to sustain the show through to the end. Not to mention the fact that sustaining a tightly-narrated and evenly-paced show over the course of an entire season is extremely tricky at the best of times. Differing writers, the juggling of various story arcs and the vision to bring numerous plot strands together for specific episodes all stand in the way of success. 

Which, of course, are problems that all television shows must overcome – regardless of how many A-list stars you have in your cast. Returning to the shows above, how many of those have already been cancelled? How many are by all accounts incredibly average? For every 30 Rock there is a Pan Am, a Breaking In, a Lie To Me. There is a saturation of Hollywood stars in television shows at the moment, and their presence is in no way a guarantee of quality. There has been a rather impressive switch-around; no more the exile of doomed actors, it has instead become the way to try and score an easy ratings boost. Are you a producer with a mediocre show on your desk? Stick a star in, they’ll inject it with some publicity! Even the most banal television has a better shot at success if there is a recognisable name attached to it. As for the actors themselves, the lure of a well-written part must be extremely tempting, especially given the possibility of really exploring that character in great depth. And, well, who wouldn’t want a slice of the extremely valuable TV pie? Seven seasons of 30 Rock means seven years of a good, steady paycheck, after all. 

Blurred Lines

Perhaps it shouldn’t really come as a surprise, after all. So long as film and television continue to merge in terms of look and feel, and so long as television has the ability to offer really meaty roles with deep characterisation and long-term plotting, actors will be drawn to it. As Soderbergh says, there are legitimate times when what is offered on television simply cannot survive in the movie world. And just like the cinema, there will always be fantastic TV and crappy TV, and everything in-between. Sure, Hollywood’s best and brightest have started to muscle in on the action, but does that really change anything? Producers can use a Hollywood star to polish their turd of a show as much as they want, but people will figure out if they’re being duped sooner or later. Actors make bad film choices all the time, it would be madness to say their television selections would somehow be any different. HBO would love to have people believe that the presence of someone like Robert De Niro in Criminal Justice means that it will be a whopping great drama, with tremendous performances and stellar plotting – and while it very will might be, just remember: he made The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, too.