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On-Demand TV: Why Big Name Actors Are Flooding To The Small Screen

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.



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.

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Swamp Thing: The Futility of Saving a Good Thing

DC’s best show, Swamp Thing, creeps to its death with no one to save it



Swamp Thing, the only good television show DC has produced in decades was abruptly canceled after just one episode. Despite glowing reviews and a small but devoted following, hopes for its survival and saving are unfortunately as futile as the idea of DC making good television and knowing what to do with it. It’s not like I haven’t given DC TV a chance either. But after countless attempts at trying to enjoy Arrow or Supergirl, hoping that one of their myriad of poor crossovers would ignite a desire to watch more, my hopes are all but dead in the swamp after they pulled the plug on the only good property they have. To make matters worse, Swamp Thing is not only great, but it was great right out of the gate- gripping, dark, and intoxicating. A wonderfully violent change to the cartoonish junk that DC is associated with.

When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1990 USA Network series of the same name. I drew to it on the back of my love for the Toxic Avenger and all things mutated humans. Sure, it was kitschy, but what television show from the ’90s wasn’t? Perhaps it was waiting for the right time or the right production, but the long-dormant franchise found new life in 2019. Produced by James Wan (who does horror well, big blockbusters, not so much), Swamp Thing has proven to be the very best of superhero television. Coated in dirty swamp green hues, it is beautifully gritty, and when it dives into the subject material, it does so with the fervor- unafraid of exploring mysticism and the darkness of the human soul. The new series follows the familiar story; scientist Alec Holland is turned into the Swamp Thing after meeting his untimely demise. Over the course of the series, he battles the demons and history of the swamp while trying to understand his new place in the world, flanked by familiar characters like Abby Arcane (the terrific Crystal Reed). The cast of the new series is rounded nicely with a slew of recognized faces – Virginia Madsen, Will Patton, Ian Ziering(!), Jennifer Beals – that adds to the series’ sense of gravitas. And regardless of whether you’re a long time fan of the creation, whether you’ve seen the original 1982 movie or watched the series in the 90s, this current iteration stands leagues above- which makes its cancellation all the more infuriating.

Television that resonates, like the current love for HBO’s Chernobyl, is driven by the desire to understand the deep seeded flaws of humankind and what critics have called; “a creeping dread that never dissipates“. It’s true to the latter that as you traverse the murky episodes of Swamp Thing, the crawl of inescapable horror and impending doom is ever looming. Like the swamps in which it festers in, the series slowly wraps its vines around your feet, character by character, mystery by mystery, and before you can scream for help its dragged you helplessly into the bayou.

It’s gutting to know that these 10 episodes are all we’re going to get, made more painful by the fact that this count was already cut down from the original 13-episode run. The show’s cancellation has been attributed to money of course. Early speculation pointed to errors in accounting, but in truth, most have said that the rising cost of production and the uncertainty of the DC Universe platform itself ultimately led to the show’s demise. The difficulty of an expensive, well-produced show is perhaps, far too great of a risk for a fledgling streaming service. One whose intellectual property is already average at best, hampered by the disastrous cinematic run of their most noted ones. Their TV often leaves me wondering how on Earth they have run for so long. My attempt at watching Legends of Tomorrow was spent laughing at the pilot’s campy cartoonishness. It was so bad that the idea of watching this series would be weekly self-flagellation. I wish The Flash was good (I enjoyed the 1990s series), Supergirl could be good if it wasn’t so afraid of offending anyone, and every time I think maybe Arrow could salvage the DC’s television property I’m reminded how terrible it is (if you google “Arrow is a terrible show” you will know my opinion is not a solitary one).

Abby Arcane
Crystal Reed stars as Abby Arcane

I’m not alone in wanting Swamp Thing to live. Fans were outraged by the immediate cancelation, and cast and crew of the show couldn’t believe it either. Unfortunately, we live in a world where network execs and bean counters are, as expected, more concerned about the tightening bottom line and the immense amount of content already out there. Why invest so much money into a quality niche product when you trot out B-grade characters in dopey costumes for 7+ seasons on the cheap? Sure, there’s a petition out there to #SaveSwampThing, and while I’m happy to sign it, a big part of me knows that it is just not feasible to save such an expensive and complicated undertaking. There’s just a sense of futility to it all, that while you can see a network saving average, cheaper fare like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Lucifer (why?), the thought of saving something as big as this is just unlikely. Is there hope for another network or service to pick it up? I don’t even think spend-happy Netflix are willing to put money behind a quality product when its easier to make crap Adam Sandler movies and incredibly generic racial pandering tripe. It’s too late for Swamp Thing. The swamp has literally been drained. And that’s a damn shame.

Good television lives in the darkness. It lives in the darkness of humanity and the darkness of our imaginations. Pick any great television property and you find will find it; Stranger Things, Westworld, The Wire, Breaking Bad. And for the first time, DC has found their darkness but clearly, have no idea. To make matters worse, we will probably get 5+ seasons of that horrendous looking Batwoman show.

Perhaps in a perfect world Swamp Thing would have been produced by a competent network. Perhaps in a perfect world, comic book television would be given the chance to flourish next to noted television that becomes regular discourse in our socialverse. Unfortunately, we won’t be finding out anytime soon. Netflix’s Marvel series’ limped to their end, and now DC, with the golden opportunity to become the torch bearer of great superhero television has once again shown why they are DC.

Fans of mystery and horror will find so much to love in Swamp Thing. It is a series that isn’t afraid to dive deep into the murk, bound by great writing and distinct and memorable visuals. It’s infuriating as you watch each episode knowing it creeps slowly to its end. From the house of secrets the Swamp Thing was born, and now in a shroud of uncertainty and unanswered questions, it dies again.

Swamp Thing airs on the DC Universe streaming service.

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Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed but sincere ode

Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed, but sincere ode



One of my fondest memories of growing up in Jakarta are the times I spent parked on the side of the road, perched on the front seat of my car, door ajar, with a bowl of hot, freshly cooked chicken noodles (mie ayam) on my lap. It wasn’t just the incredibly immersive palette of flavors a good bowl of mie ayam had, but it was that I could easily pull up on the side of the road next to a street food vendor and have one of the best, most memorable meals one can have.

Street food, of course, is not unique to any one country. It is an idea that Netflix’s Street Food series aims to bring to light. Produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn (the same producers as Netflix’s Chef’s Table), Street Food shares the idea that across the globe the myriad of wonderful foods, personalities, and historical culture can be found around the corner, in the unlikeliest of places, made by the unlikeliest of people. This is the series’ strength. Street Food Vol 1. spends its nine episodes across Asia, from Singapore to Yogyakarta, from Osaka to Delhi, exploring the rich foods you find on their streets. But the strongest connection you’ll find is with that of the people profiled in the episodes. Sure, the food is irresistible, but it is the very human stories this series profile that make it worthwhile.

We meet Grace in Chiayi, Taiwan, who had dreams of escaping small city life, only to find herself back home running her family’s street food restaurant that specializes in fish head soup. There’s is an inescapable sadness as Grace tells of her lost opportunity in the big city of Taipei, but we are overcome when she’s found happiness at home, expanding, modernizing, and running the business she’s known since she was a child. We meet Truoc in Ho Chi Minh City, who after a family tragedy, found it overwhelmingly difficult to find passion in her work. But a passion re-found when her hard work and perseverance enabled her son to attend university. In Seoul, there is Yoonsun Cho, whose incredible 11-year work as a street food seller at the market got her family out of bad debt, seeing her son attend culinary school, and seeing him take up a job at an upscale hotel. This is alongside stories like the purported-last ‘3 day 3 night goat stew’ chef on the planet (seeing how toxic and life-threatening this process is, it’s not hard to understand why). These are the stories that make this series interesting, and it takes cues from what we loved about Anthony Bourdain’s take on global food. He was not there just for the food, but he was there to understand, listen to, and discover the people, their histories and their cultures.

The cinematic Netflix production helps with the series’ presentation, but where it struggles is to find cohesion within the episodes. You get narrators for each episode, individuals who are locals or familiar with the food and culture, but as you hear the stories of the vendors, the production employs cheesy voice-overs that sound robotic. I would rather have let the vendors speak, in their natural tongues with subtitles instead (which strangely, they do at times). Another gripe is their instagramesque presentation of their signature dishes that give the show a less than genuine feel. It’s a shame because it takes away from the narrative of the vendors and takes viewers away from the on-the-street feel of the rest of the episodes.

It is, however, the vendors that ultimately make this series worth the venture. We often forget that behind the foods of the worlds, there are the people who make them, whose stories are just as rich and important as the foods they make.

I miss mie ayam, I miss sitting on the side of the road next to the gerobak (street food cart) while I stuff my face with the best tasting noodles you’ll find on the planet. Some days it is all I long for. But the next time I do find myself eating mie ayam on the side of the road, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the food, and the vendor whose life is as story-filled as the food they are making.

Street Food is streaming now on Netflix.

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