Note: This feature was first published in the Scholastic Yearbook 2015.
Looking back, if there’s a single word that can be used to characterise 2014 in television, in both India and America, it is: potential. Where earlier television was the sidekick of film, offering popcorn entertainment to the viewers until the next era-defining film would come along and offer a more intelligent, credible and cerebral experience to them; at the moment, both television and film are almost on equal footing. Significantly, if the past couple of years are any indication (with the likes of Sajid Khan films and Michael Bay films slowly turning off the human population one film at a time), the tide is slowly but surely turning towards the rise of television as the primary medium of choice for the perceptive viewer.
American television has consistently been brimming with potential for the last few years now, and in 2014, with the rise of auteur-driven (Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, David Fincher’s upcoming Utopia), star-driven (Matthew McConaughey starrer True Detective and Billy Bob Thornton starrer Fargo, etc) and platform agnostic content-driven shows (Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon Prime’s Transparent, etc), it does seem that this is television’s golden age where America is concerned, and the channels, studios and showrunners will keep building on this potential to lead into a new era of path breaking programming where television will trump its big screen counterpart, cinema.
On the other hand, Indian television is at the cusp of change. For the longest time, it seemed that television in India seemed to be Benjamin Button-ing itself: it started off well enough, with mature, intelligent and rich programming (Hum Log, Buniyaad, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Ramayan, Mahabharat) in the ‘80s. Then Ekta Kapoor and Balaji television came along in the late ‘90s and the early ‘00s and saas-bahued everything in her way (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kasauti Zindagi Kii, etc), and ever since, Indian television programming has consistently been regressing in terms of IQ, maturity and content.
But over the last couple of years, and more so especially in 2014, the downward spiral of television content in India has momentarily paused and there is a sense of coming of age, ironically, as if after reverse aging, the programming has hit adolescence. With viewer fatigue obvious in the kind of small town centric, conservative leaning, ‘same same but different’ programming that’s been around for over a decade now, channels have now begun taking risks and experimenting with its content, to test the waters for a bit. There is incredible potential in the kind of ideas being thrown around and the shows being launched, and if the audience come of age too, with their acceptance of quality programming, then 2014 could be the year to have ushered in an era of much-needed change.
As we look forward to 2015 for a better understanding of where things are headed, here’s a look back at how the television landscape was altered in 2014:
If there’s ever been a year for Indian television that has posed more questions than given answers, it has to be the recently concluded 2014. The year gone by was arguably one of the riskiest for television in nearly a decade, with channels from across genres and segments trying their hands at something ‘new’ and ‘different’, however clichéd that may sound, to break through the mould and be the progenitors of quality television. The catch? The risks have yet to yield any rewards, off the bat.
Different is the new normal
Sony, that’s almost always been at the forefront of change, be it with Indian Idol or Kaun Banega Crorepati or for that matter, Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, again took charge with a very expensive gamble in Anurag Kashyap’s Amitabh Bachchan starrer thriller miniseries, Yudh, which brought talents like Nawazuddin Siddique, Kay Kay Menon, Sarika and many more on to the small screen. The 20-episode weekly series, that cost Rs 3 crore per episode to make, got a certain amount of critical appreciation but failed to take off in a big way. The reasons may have nothing to do with the unconventional format – the show could never elevate itself from decent to must-see.
Yudh had more at stake than Abhinay Deo’s Anil Kapoor starrer 24 India, which ended its 24 episode run in December 2013, because it was an original series instead of a remake, so its average TRPS did not help the cause of unconventional programming. There is still hope, though, since 24 India has been renewed for a season season, and now Star TV has jumped onto the miniseries bandwagon with Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Everest, which was shot on location in the Himalayas and features music by AR Rahman. Life OK has also pulled producer-director Vipul Shah back to TV (since he, Gowarikar, Kashyap and many others started their careers there) for a miniseries starring Rannvijay Singha and Adah Sharma, while Zee is reportedly remaking the hit American TV series Heroes that is expected to launch in 2015.
Filmmakers on TV
While getting film stars to television is a trend that’s been around for a few years, bonafide filmmakers mining the medium of television to tell their stories, and adaptations of American TV shows can be pinned down in a big way to 2014. Apart from the aforementioned examples, six of India’s best-known filmmakers, Abhinay Deo, Anurag Basu, Anurag Kashyap, Nikhil Advani, Rohan Sippy and Shoojit Sircar also came together in 2014 for a project called MTV Films, where the directors made an hour-long feature film each for youth channel MTV, of different genres, but all catering to the youth.
Kashyap also made a six-part thriller miniseries called Traffic, which he also hosted, in association with human trafficking awareness initiative MTV EXIT; while Mahesh Bhatt adapted an unreleased film of his on bonded labour into a TV series called Udaan, for Colours. Lined up next are an Anurag Basu TV series on Rabindranath Tagore for an upcoming channel and a rumoured remake of Prison Break; a Nikhil Advani TV series that is an adaptation of an undisclosed American show rumoured to be starring Konkana Sen Sharma; and a potential adaptation of Homeland by Anil Kapoor Productions. Kajol is said to be in talks for the remake of The Killing while Madhuru Dixit-Nene is rumoured to be on board for an adaptation of The Good Wife. Only one such show needs to take off in a big way, and soon, the idiot box will be the new multiplex.
Genre entertainment vs rajma chawal
In the quest for unconventional and targeted programming, there is a shift from General Entertainment Channel to give rise to the Genre Entertainment Channel, exclusively focused on meeting the niche demand of the 21st century audience. Zee TV introduced a brand new channel, Zindagi, which showcased the best shows from across the border and premiered to some extremely favourable critical reviews. Sony has recently started Sony Pal, a TV channel for the new age woman from ages 15-34, while MTV has launched MTV Indies, to showcase the best in independent, urban music, movies, stand-up comedy and art. A new channel, Epic, focused purely on mythological and historical shows has begun development in 2014 too.
While all of this is heartening news for the viewer looking for more; the viewer looking for the same – or less – can rest assured that the status on their favourite show is unlikely to change soon. Comedy With Kapil still remains the number one non-fiction show on TV, mythologicals like Mahabharat (though it ended its year long run) and Jodha Akbar still yield the highest TRPs, Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasmha is going to stay ooltah for a while, whereas daily soaps like Diya Aur Baati Hum, Pyaar Ka Dard Meetha Meetha Pyaara Pyaara, Saath Nibhaana Saathiya and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai continue to rule the roost. The genres of saas-bahu, romance, crime, reality, mythology and comedy are as part of the Indian’s staple diet as is rajma-chawal; no matter the new delicacies introduced on the menu, rajma-chawal will always be fulfilling.
It is only a matter of time now before theatres will be relegated only to popcorn blockbusters and superhero films not just through the summer months but all year round, and American television will become the first choice of auteuer filmmakers and A-list talent to tell the stories they want told. The golden age of American television started with HBO and The Sopranos; and today, every channel from the lesser-known Cinemax to online streaming platforms like Netflix are giving dime-a-dozen reasons for the audience to convert their homes into mini theatres.
McConaissance and True Detective
If 2013 was the year of AMC and Breaking Bad, then 2014 was the year of HBO and True Detective, as Nic Pizzalatto’s anthology crime miniseries enchanted the entire world and perhaps even the rest of the universe into a haze of Matthew McConaughey worship. Through the show, McConaughey and costar Woody Harrelson became the face of what television is likely to look like in the coming years: legit film stars – and not just film actors – doing career-defining work on the small screen. It is not a coincidence that McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club a couple of months after True Detective – anyone who understand who the Academy Awards works knows that his win was more because of the buzz around his work in the TV show than in the movie, which most voters, and almost all viewers outside of critics, may not even have seen.
True Detective gave way a few months later to another anthology crime series, FX’s Fargo, created by Noah Hawley and executive produced by the Coen Brothers, based on their 1996 film of the same name. Fargo starred bonafide film stars Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, among a host of other outstanding talent like Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks, and proved that the True Detective model is here to stay.
The year was rounded off by with the CBS miniseries Extant, starring Halle Berry and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Sundance TV series The Honourable Woman starring Maggie Gyllenhaal HBO series The Leftovers, with a cast led by Justin Thereoux and Cinemax’s critically acclaimed, period drama The Knick, starring Clive Owen, directed by Steven Soderbergh. The year’s end also saw Nick Jonas and Frank Grillo face off in DirecTV’s boxing drama Kingdom.
The cinemafication of TV
If you’re wondering what the success of these shows mean, it’s quite simple, really: more of the biggest stars and the biggest directors doing such shows on cable channels and streaming platforms like HBO, Showtime, Netflix and Amazon Prime! So expect in 2015 Dwayne Johnson comedy Ballers, Billy Crystal comedy The Comedians, a Martin Scorsese series starring Olivia Wilde, a HBO miniseries starring James Marsden, Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harries, David Fincher directing the American adaptation of the British TV series Utopia and Cameron Crowe making an Almost Famous-kind of TV series on musicians, and of course, Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn and Rachel McAdams confirmed for True Detective’s season 2.
The cinemafication of TV is almost a surety now when you consider the number of superhero and comic book shows that made it to television in 2014: Apart from the second season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the third season of DC’s Arrow, Batman prequel Gotham, an eponymous show on DC Superhero Flash and another show on DC anti-hero Constantine all premiered in fall 2014 to encouraging TRPs. Considering Netflix has a plan of creating an Avengers sort of superhero team called The Defenders, with each of its four heroes getting their own shows starting in 2014 with The Daredevil, you can basically start stocking up the popcorn in your house already.
The rajma-chawal of the US, network shows and ratings juggernauts like The Good Wife, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, among many others, all continued to impress too; while new shows on existing channels like Manhattan, The Divide and You’re The Worst, all proved that good programming need not be limited to cable channels.
Late Night shows and John Oliver
In non-fiction, late night chat shows and news comedy shows underwent a massive facelift in 2014, indicating a shift towards appeasing younger audiences instead of the usual late night staple viewership of old folks. Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and his The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon was even more successful. Seth Meyers took over Jimmy Fallon’s old talk show, and Late Night with Seth Meyers was a reasonable hit too. Talk show legend David Letterman announced his retirement and the popular Stephen Colbert was roped in as replacement; while relatively unknown James Corden was announced as Craig Ferguson’s successor on The Late Late Show, after Ferguson announced his exit as well.
But the biggest critical and commercial success and an instant late night icon was born when John Oliver exited The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to helm his own news comedy show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The show, the very first weekly news comedy show, became a massive fan favourite with its ballsy and hilarious takes on some of the most controversial issues from drone strikes to the American prison system, and Oliver’s impassioned rants became the stuff of internet legend in its very first season.
The show’s success and Oliver’s acceptance in the mainstream marked an year of great hope for television as a medium of not just entertainment but also intellectual stimulation; and left viewers with a promise that even as viewing platforms continually evolve, the highest quality content will be available just a click away.
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Note: An edited version of this feature first appeared in the 2015 Scholastic Yearbook.
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