Many people claim that we are now in the second Golden Age of Television. Starting in the early 2000s, with The Sopranos and The Wire, HBO started changing people’s die-hard mindset that television was a cheaper and shallower form of entertainment than film, and that there was no artistic value in TV shows. Even the term “TV show” sounded more like a manufactured product than a work of art. As HBO raised the bar and started producing quality television, other networks had to follow suit in the fierce competition, and that’s how we got to see such amazing series as “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” (also from HBO), AMC’s “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” Showtime’s “Dexter,” “Tudors,” and “Homeland,” just to name a few.
These hour-long-per-episode cable TV series offer us a few things that both feature films and network television can’t:
- There is no censorship for cable television shows, which allows them to tackle much edgier and more controversial subject matters;
- It allows much more time (practically with no limit) to introduce and develop characters, and allow the audience to be more invested in them;
- Because a cable network’s proceeds depend on the number of subscribers rather than the rating of a particular show, it allows the creators to focus more on the quality of the work rather than the viewership of that particular show. That’s not to say that viewerships aren’t important, but for cable TV, a much smaller number of viewers is required to sustain a show when you compare that to a feature film.
- When everybody is complaining about the movie theater overflowing with big-budget blockbusters filled with computer generated special effects, and devoid of smaller, more realistic character pieces, cable television is doing exactly that, and it’s doing it even better with the freedom that comes with its more relaxed narrative structure.
I’m not suggesting that low-budget feature films are a thing of the past. When a story warranting that narrative format is well told on the silver screen, it’s a beauty to behold. We have witnessed many of them, even in recent years – “Winter’s Bone”, “Frozen River”, “Precious”, and most recently “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. But I have to admit that now with giant TV screens installed in millions of homes, often accompanied by theater-grade sound systems, it’s becoming harder and harder to seduce a movie crowd to the theater without many computer generated spectacles. And if we just want to witness a character study or observe human behaviors, watching them at home on those huge screens seems to suffice.
Many great filmmakers have recognized this trend and are gradually falling in love with television. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of “Boardwalk Empire” and remains the Executive Producer of the show. David Fincher does the same for the Netflix original series “House of Cards”. Steven Soderberg claims that he will stop making feature films and shift to television. I also heard James Schamus, the CEO of Focus Features and longtime Ang collaborator, talk about his vision for the future of television in person at the IFP conference in New York City last fall.
Now, why is that especially a golden age for Chinese Americans? There are a few reasons.
Episodic narrative is the foundation of Chinese storytelling. It is how the Chinese have told stories for thousands of years. From “The Tale of Three Nations” and “Dream of the Red Chamber,” to the classic radio stories and the Hong Kong TV shows that I grew up with, the Chinese love to tell a story in dozens, or sometimes hundreds of segments, and leave a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. This is how I got to know the history of my land, and all those legends that I looked up to as my personal heroes. This is how most famous martial art stories are planted in millions of Chinese kids’ young souls. And this is why China produces by far the biggest number of TV episodes in the world. On top of that, Korean and American TV shows have been red hot in China for years.
The Chinese Film Market has expanded tenfold in the past a few years, generating a staggering amount of money that attracts a great number of American production companies’ interest. Suddenly it seems everybody in Hollywood is talking about co-productions with China. There is also a strong interest in developing English-language Chinese films in the co-production arena in hopes of attracting both Chinese and American viewers. The problem is, language is only one of the obstacles for the American audience to understand Chinese movies. The lack of knowledge in Chinese culture and history also makes it very hard for American audience to appreciate a Chinese story. They need time to gradually warm up to Chinese characters and the world they live in, and television is a much better format to accomplish that.
Here’s the most enticing reason: I can complain all day long about how mainstream feature films mostly featuring white main characters, and most often, white males. I can dream about seeing a considerable portion of them with minority lead roles portraying stories that truthfully represent the lesser-known. However, at the end of the day, that’s just not going to happen, because in today’s American film industry, only movies that appeal to the most people are likely to make the most money. But for cable television, it’s a slightly different ball game. They produce a TV show not only to get good ratings for that particular show, but also to entice new subscribers. By producing Asian themed television series, they are targeting a demographic that has the lowest cable subscription percentage. At the same time, these shows are likely to do better with other races because the way the stories unfold – they take more time to introduce and develop the characters and help the audience identify with them regardless of their race.
On top of that, these TV shows would have a large market potential in China where episodic storytelling is embedded in its culture. And if the story takes place in the US, censorship in China would be an unlikely problem, for the same reason there are so many movies and TV shows in China about eras that had nothing to do with the current Communist government.
The Chinese have been trying very hard to fight the losing battle with Hollywood movies at the box office, but they have failed to realize that the Americans are actually shifting to an age-old storytelling technique that is deeply rooted in Chinese history. Why not take a step back, and look at the opportunity to invest in something that could be much more rewarding to both countries?