Iread Peter Biskind’s book about the New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, long ago. Apart from scraps of celebrity anecdote, what I remember of it now is something more diffuse, a mood associated with the mysterious figures of the producers: an impression of flared trousers and shirts with the two top buttons undone, collar points two feet apart, of tanned white skin, gold, nice teeth, the smell of tobacco and aftershave and deodorant, of men outwardly confident, hungry, vain, bullying, concupiscent and covetous, but also charming, garrulous, fascinating, prone to infatuations with strangers and their stories, flitting from one intense interest to another, even as they held on stubbornly to ideas for years until the money and the creatives could be married and a film born.
The back office deity of that era was the seven-times-married Robert Evans, who ran production at Paramount for a decade from 1966, when the studio made The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. The ghost of Evans haunts Pandora’s Box, which covers the time some perhaps premature nostalgists are already calling the golden age of television, from the debuts of Oz, Sex and the City and The Sopranos in the 1990s to the recently finished Succession. Bob Odenkirk, who played the bent lawyer Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and the spin-off Better Call Saul, prepared for the role by listening to Evans reading an audiobook of his memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Christina Wayne, who as a production executive developed Breaking Bad (2008-13) and Mad Men (2007-15), the two series that made the reputation of the once downmarket cable channel AMC, credits Evans with mentoring her in her earlier career as a screenwriter. In 2020 David Zaslav, head of the Warner-Discovery conglomerate that includes HBO, bought and renovated Evans’s home in Beverly Hills. Biskind writes that the house
had seen its share of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll, had succumbed to weeds, rot and decay, and become a fitting gravestone for the New Hollywood of the 1970s. By paying $16 million for it, Zaslav laid claim to the legacy of Evans – a mixed blessing, to say the least (he was convicted of cocaine trafficking, and pleaded the Fifth in the so-called Cotton Club Murder) – which committed him to salvaging Warner Bros as Evans had salvaged Paramount.
Easy Riders and Pandora’s Box don’t live up to the come-ons of their subtitles, though there’s no shortage of the six-apostrophe cliché in the earlier book, subtitled ‘How the Sex’n’Drugs’n’Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood’. Open it at random and here’s the director Peter Bogdanovich on the set of The Last Picture Show telling the producer Polly Platt, to whom he’s married and who’s just had their second child, that he’s having an on-set affair with Cybill Shepherd: ‘Peter apologised, claimed he couldn’t help it, that he had never had a cover girl before, that he was in the throes of a sexual obsession.’ A couple of pages later we learn that the screenwriter and lyricist Jacob Brackman liked nitrous oxide so much he filled a six-foot tank with it at home and deducted it as a medical expense.
There are only glancing references to substance abuse in Pandora’s Box. As for sex, Biskind’s consciousness of the obstacles and attacks experienced by women in showbusiness – as well as by gay, lesbian and trans people, and not-white people – has been raised in step with society’s since the 1980s. The accounting of hurts in Pandora’s Box is scrupulous. Biskind’s best-known book after Easy Riders, published in 1998, is his 2004 tome about indie cinema, Down and Dirty Pictures, mainly about the rise of Miramax and the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob. Although it does portray Harvey Weinstein as a violent bully, Biskind faced hard questions when the producer was exposed as a sexual predator in 2017 (‘You heard stories about hanky panky … I don’t remember what I heard in detail, but I think I would have remembered it if it was anything as serious as rape,’ Biskind told Isaac Chotiner at the time).
The premise of Pandora’s Box is that a series of daring, innovative shows on US cable channels, starting in the 1990s, blew away the anodyne output of the traditional TV broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC (Fox, the fourth network, was launched in 1986). A harbinger of the new mode was the late Garry Shandling’s faux-documentary comedy about a chat show, The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98), which he co-produced and co-wrote for HBO, and starred in as the eponymous host. The chat show scenes were shot as if in a traditional studio, the hyper-cynical behind-the-scenes bitching and bickering on a handheld camera. Celebrities like Jim Carrey and Courtney Cox played themselves as ‘guests’, often self-mockingly. The critics loved it. It inspired Ricky Gervais and the later work of Larry David. It was loathsomely funny about the showbiz world it roasted and was part of. Yet, as it turns out, it wasn’t hard enough on itself. Biskind quotes Janis Hirsch, a seasoned writer who moved to the show from network sitcoms, who speaks of Shandling ruling with ‘passive malignancy’ over a ‘misogynistic writers’ room where women were called “slits” and where on one occasion, a flaccid penis was placed on my shoulder, you know, just for laughs’.
On the set of Sex and the City (1998-2004), another early HBO hit, the crew duct-taped Kristin Davis’s stand-in Heather Kristin to a gynaecological chair while the director and actors were away from the set, made crude comments about her body and took Polaroids of her. ‘I wanted to rip the tape off and run screaming out of Silvercup Studios,’ she said. ‘Instead, I just lay there knowing I had a job for another day and health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild.’ Years after the original series aired, the most prominent male member of the cast, Chris Noth, was accused by several women of sexual assault (accusations he denies).
At least in its early seasons, Sex and the City was a comedy in which four single, straight, middle-class white women riffed on urban relationships in groundbreakingly explicit terms, from farting in bed with your lover to circumcision preferences; it didn’t deserve its later reputation as a paean to brand shopping. Eight years after it ended, when HBO launched Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-17), another sharp comedy about single, straight, middle-class white women in New York, Sex and the City no longer seemed authentic enough. Although it was based on columns by Candace Bushnell, Sex and the City’s creator and its second lead writer were gay men, Darren Star and Michael Patrick King, prompting one of the Girls cast, Jemima Kirke, to say of Dunham’s series: ‘It’s not Sex and the City … That’s four gay men sitting around talking.’ Meanwhile Issa Rae, the Black creator of HBO’s Insecure (2016-21), defended Dunham against allegations of ‘hipster racism’: ‘There could be more diversity, but I think that’s the fault of [HBO], rather than Lena’s.’
It’s never easy to distinguish between drama that breaks taboos cynically, as a way to exploit an audience eager for cheap thrills, and great drama intensified by portrayals of sex, violence and hate which happen to transgress old prohibitions along the way. Cunnilingus doesn’t seem like something the traditional networks would have allowed writers to build a storyline around, but HBO let Sex and the City and The Sopranos do it. In the former, Charlotte dates a man known around town as Mr Pussy, so notorious that when the women discuss him in the toilets in a bar, a stranger comes out of a cubicle and guesses who they’re talking about. Charlotte breaks up with him when, on a trip to convert his obsession to a more holistic view of her person, she sees him eating a fig. Among the extended mafia families of The Sopranos, oral sex performed by a man on a woman is a shameful secret for the man, and when Tony Soprano jibes his uncle Junior about it, Junior mulls a hit on his nephew. The path from menacing comedy – for giving his secret away, Junior smashes a lemon meringue pie into his girlfriend’s face – to outright menace is braided with a parallel story about Tony’s daughter’s school soccer coach. At first Tony’s crew try to stop him leaving for a new job by bribing him, then by kidnapping his dog. But it turns out that the coach has sexually abused one of the girls on the team, and the narrative swerves into a debate in the back room of the Bada-Bing, potentially fatal for the coach, about who has the duty and the right to punish transgressors, the family or the state.
Compare this to another HBO hit, the fantasy epic Game of Thrones (2011-19), which uses cable TV’s relative freedom from censorship not so much to render human complexity as to amp up the gore and show breasts and bottoms when the story doesn’t need them. Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen, went along with the ‘fucking ton of nudity’ in the first season. ‘Eventually, however, she began to wonder if so much nudity was essential, and became less obliging,’ Biskind writes. He quotes her: ‘I’ve had fights on the set before where I’m like, “No, the sheet stays up,” and they’re like “You don’t wanna disappoint your Game of Thrones fans.” And I’m like, “Fuck you.”’
Even this oversimplifies the tension between the possibilities opened up when cable shows broke through the networks’ prudish barriers. If an actor didn’t want to take her clothes off, was she guilty of censoring the writer, who was, in TV, often the hands-on manager of the show, the so-called showrunner? Sometimes there was a woman on both sides. Jenji Kohan, the creator and showrunner of Showtime’s comedy Weeds (2005-12), was barely on speaking terms with Mary-Louise Parker, who played her lead, Nancy Botwin, a foul-mouthed, manipulative Californian soccer mom and marijuana dealer. Once Parker threw a script at Kohan and yelled: ‘My mother can’t watch this!’ ‘I don’t write for your mother,’ Kohan replied. Parker couldn’t forgive Kohan for making her do a nude bath scene. ‘I didn’t think I needed to be naked, and I fought with the director about it, and now I’m bitter. I knew it was going to be on the internet: “Mary-Louise shows off her big nipples.” I wish I hadn’t done that. I was goaded into it.’ Kohan later created Orange Is the New Black (2013-19) for Netflix.
Deadwood (2004-6), a Western set in an ultra-violent 19th-century gold-rush town in Indian territory, outside US jurisdiction, drew a committed audience, critical love and big prizes until HBO pulled the plug, probably for financial reasons. Biskind picks it out, with its grandiloquent, high frequency cussing, its corpse count and its brutal bordello – and its longer story arc, about a lawless town beginning to make law – as a landmark in the new, anything-goes TV. He also brings out its ambiguities. He talks to Ian McShane, who plays the brothel keeper Al Swearengen, about working with David Milch, the show’s creator, and Paula Malcolmson, who plays Trixie, Swearengen’s moll.
In one scene, Trixie gets roughed up by a customer and shoots him. McShane recalls, ‘I take her up to my room and I say, “You can’t do this, much as they abuse you.” We’re rehearsing, and we’re trying to figure out, “What’s Swearengen going to do to her?” Is he going to beat her up? He’s a pimp, after all. David, who was watching, said out of the blue, “You know Ian? I think you got to grab her cunt.” And Paula, who is game, said, “Absolutely. Absolutely.” Of course, you couldn’t say that now. They’d have an internal investigation. An intimacy expert would be hired. They’d ask, “Did anybody get offended by that?” You’d say, “Fuck no, man.” That sort of set the template for the entire show, that you could actually do anything, be anything, say anything, and you backed each other up.’
Malcolmson talked to Biskind about another scene where she walks bare-breasted down Deadwood’s main street with a gun in her hand. ‘Maybe some other actors might have said, “Well, do I have to bare my breasts? Is that necessary?” But I thought: “Trust the writing.”’
The arcs of the New Hollywood and the new TV are alike. The early optimism of Easy Riders fades when it turns out that American auteurs inspired by the French New Wave aren’t the future of popular big-screen entertainment: instead it’s the merch-rich, tech-heavy, super-franchisable kidult melodramas of the Star Wars series, with their exuberant faux-alien decors, portentous dialogue and reliable income stream. Some of the same processes are happening in TV.
At the turn of the 1990s, TV drama in the US meant broadcast network drama. A network show, a half-hour sitcom like The Golden Girls or an hour-long crime drama like Miami Vice, would be peppered with ad breaks that paid for its production and made the network its profits. The advertisers thought they knew what would offend their customers, and the networks thought they knew too. Federal regulators lurked in the background: the result was thousands of hours of lowest common denominator programming, comforting, predictable and morally neat – the good, the bad and the goofy. Sitcom audiences were prompted with laugh tracks; villainy and virtue were signalled with familiar cues. Crime didn’t pay. Lessons were learned within each episode, but episodes were ‘closed’ rather than ‘open’ – characters and storylines didn’t develop. Networks enforced safety with layers of executives and rewriting writers. Broadcast Standards and Practices departments made sure erogenous zones went unbared and unmentioned and that no writer tried to slip in any of the seven forbidden words: ‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘cocksucker’, ‘motherfucker’ and ‘tits’. Writers could make a good living; for the most successful, there was a path from the writers’ room to becoming a producer and showrunner, which could bring huge wealth if a show went into syndication in the US or was sold overseas. David Milch was said to have made $100 million out of network cop shows like NYPD Blue (he is also said to have gambled it all away). But ambitious writers chafed at the restrictions. The best way to write more interesting material seemed to be to break into the movies, and in those days the movies looked down on TV from a great height. (In 2007, when Martin Scorsese agreed to direct the pilot of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, it transpired that the director of Goodfellas had never watched The Sopranos.) Besides, whereas in film, as Biskind puts it, ‘writers are often treated like scum, television is a writer-driven medium.’
David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, worked in network TV for years, notably on the detective show The Rockford Files. He called network executives ‘pissy little dolts’ who had ‘an unerring system for detecting whatever it is that gets you excited about a project and telling you to get rid of it’. To show HBO’s depravity, the president of NBC sent fifty top people in the TV industry tapes of the Sopranos episode where a mobster beats his pregnant girlfriend to death. Chase took it as a compliment. When Alan Ball was co-writing Grace under Fire for ABC, ‘people’s assistants were coming up and giving me notes, like “I don’t like the colour of the wall on that set.”’ When he moved to HBO to make Six Feet Under, the feedback on his pilot script was: ‘Could you make it just a little more fucked-up?’ Joey Soloway moved the other way, from Six Feet Under to ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and experienced the network cud-chewing system: ‘The writers would write an outline, then it would get rewritten, then another outline, rewritten – a script could get written literally twenty times.’ Todd Kessler was writing a successful crime show for NBC, which told him, ‘We do not accept the use of the words “mafia”, “mob”, or “mobbed up” on an NBC show that airs at eight o’clock on Fridays.’ He left for The Sopranos.
Cable, fed to half of American households by the mid-1980s, was an alternative to broadcast TV. There were ‘basic cable’ channels like FX, MTV, ESPN and American Movie Classics, or AMC, partly funded by ads and partly by a levy from the cable company to the channel of a few tens of cents per subscriber. Then there were ‘premium’ channels like Home Box Office, soon abbreviated to HBO, and Showtime, for which cable subscribers had to pay extra. But there was almost no original drama on these channels; they screened reruns, schlocky talk shows, sport and movies. HBO bulked out the films it licensed and showed ad-free with stand-up comedy, boxing, burlesque and documentaries. HBO’s screening of the third Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, in 1975 caused the first big jump in the channel’s subscriber numbers. Because HBO wasn’t beholden to advertisers and had a higher tier of implied adult consent compared to the broadcasters, it had more leeway with risky material. It set a marker in 1977 by airing a stand-up comedy special with George Carlin. For the most part it was pretty safe material. Towards the end, a warning came up on the screen: ‘The final segment of Mr Carlin’s performance contains especially controversial language, please consider whether you wish to continue viewing.’ And Carlin pronounced the seven forbidden words.
It took years for HBO, then owned by Time-Warner, to run original drama. The channel made plenty of money, but the bosses fretted that they couldn’t justify the cost of scripted shows underwritten by subscriptions alone. There was a curious bit of showbiz received wisdom that cable was the hetero man’s domain: perhaps boxing, comedy and the occasional porn-adjacent documentary drama was enough? There was also a feeling among agents that HBO and AMC were trashy, the wrong side of the tracks, where talent should never stray, least of all in primetime. In the end, the premium cablers’ hands were forced by the threat to their business model from VHS and DVD, which offered an alternative way to watch films that had finished their theatrical run. HBO dipped its toe into original drama. Just before Larry Sanders came to an end, it aired the violent, explicit prison drama Oz (1997-2003), which aimed to portray unflinchingly the feuding, self-segregating racial factions inside an American jail, while leaving the way open for viewer empathy with the most repugnant offenders – ‘even the worst Aryan Nation thugs’, Biskind writes, ‘one of whom burns a swastika into the butt of another with the red-hot tip of a lit cigarette’. It was a series the networks would never have made. Chris Albrecht, head of original programming at HBO, hired Tom Fontana to write and run the show. Fontana told Biskind that Albrecht asked him what single thing he was never allowed to do on broadcast TV. ‘Kill the lead in the pilot,’ Fontana said. ‘Do it,’ Albrecht replied. Accordingly, at the end of the first episode, the lead character is burned alive. After Larry Sanders, Oz and the following year’s Sex and the City, HBO’s image among writers and actors changed from sleazy nowheresville to edgy anti-network. Then came The Sopranos.
It almost didn’t. HBO followed the then standard US routine for greenlighting a TV series: if the executives liked a script, they commissioned a pilot episode. If they liked the pilot, it became the first episode of a season they commissioned and put out; if the season went down well with the audience and/or critics, they commissioned another. If they didn’t like the pilot, that expensively produced fifty minutes of television, invested with all the care and hope and time of its cast and crew, was locked away. The disastrous and extremely expensive first pilot for Game of Thrones – a second, equally expensive pilot, with a different director, eventually got the show going – has never been seen outside the screening room; the Spike Lee-directed pilot for a rejected boxing series, Da Brick, has vanished into the vault, as have Noah Baumbach’s unfinished pilot for a TV version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, starring Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Greta Gerwig, a Ridley Scott-directed pilot for a rejected show called The Vatican, and many others.
After Chase shot the pilot for The Sopranos, ten months went by before HBO got back to him. Albrecht’s boss fretted about the cost. Nobody had spent $2.7 million per episode on a drama series before. Fearing the worst, Chase had started negotiations for a writing gig on The X-Files, on the Fox network, when HBO got back to him with an order for a 13-episode season. The Sopranos was an instant hit, a cultural phenomenon: the saga of a family, the saga of a loyalty group, the history of a war played out in a supposedly peaceful country, and the slow flaying of the psyche of a bloody-handed patriarch tormented by his mother. Writers working on The Sopranos became celebrities to writers on lesser shows. The drivers and mechanics passed round copies of the scripts to read on set. Halfway through the series it was being watched by 11 million people a week. They’re still watching now. It only takes one of a multitude of elements to go wrong to spoil a TV series, and for most of the 86 episodes of The Sopranos, none of them does – not the story, the dialogue, the casting, the performances, the direction, the cinematography or the design.
It was the beginning of the off-network TV tsunami that John Landgraf, the head of FX, calls peak TV. By 2022, he estimates that there were 559 scripted original shows on American television. HBO followed The Sopranos with Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Entourage, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Girls, Veep, Westworld, Succession, Euphoria, Insecure, True Detective and The White Lotus. AMC brought out Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. FX offered The Shield, Nip/Tuck, The Americans, What We Do in the Shadows, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Atlanta. Showtime, which specialised in remakes of foreign series, made versions of the British shows Queer as Folk and Shameless as well as Homeland, a transposition of the Israeli Prisoners of War; it also produced Weeds, The L Word, Dexter, Californication, Nurse Jackie, The Big C and Yellowjackets. Comedy Central launched South Park in 1997, and it’s still going. These are only the best-known of the cable shows, a fraction of the pilots that got made into series.
This wasn’t simply a competitive scramble to drown the world in small-screen entertainment: it was a disorienting lurch from technology to technology and a concomitant set of asset grabs as billions of dollars’ worth of companies and the rights to old creations changed hands. In 2007, around the time HBO entered a fallow spell after parting ways with its two best show-pickers, Albrecht – arrested in a Las Vegas parking lot after a security guard pried his fingers from the throat of his fiancée, Karla Jensen – and Carolyn Strauss, Netflix launched its plan to take over television. That same year broadband reached more than half of American households. Reed Hastings, who made three-quarters of a billion dollars selling a software startup when he was 35 and went on to make Netflix a dominant force in online DVD rental, launched his streaming service. He saw further than his rivals. Netflix was a data-mining operation long before it got into streaming and Hastings believed his algorithm could be used to predict the films and TV shows subscribers would like, whether they’d been made or not; if not, he’d make them. He had his gaze set on streaming when the old giant of DVD rentals, Blockbuster, was still fixated on building more stores. Blockbuster, which passed on the chance to buy Netflix for a pittance in 2000, got together with the folks from Enron to look into streaming, but they gave up on it. Both companies later went spectacularly bust.
When Netflix started streaming, it had subscribers, but little content. Two things worked in its favour. One was its backers, who treated the firm as a tech startup that was bound to lose billions in infancy, rather than as legacy media, expected to turn a profit every year. The other was the short-sightedness of the networks and cable channels, which didn’t see Netflix or streaming in general as a threat, and sold Netflix the rights to stream their content. In less than a decade, the company borrowed $16 billion to build a huge library. At one point it had Breaking Bad from cabler AMC, Desperate Housewives from network ABC and superhero movies from the Disney-owned Marvel. By the time the cablers and networks realised what was going on, Netflix had moved on to the next stage of its plan: to make original series itself. It was no surprise when it leapt at the chance to make a version of the BBC’s House of Cards, with the first two episodes directed by David Fincher. What shocked its rivals was that when the Netflix algorithm forecast the US House of Cards (2013-18) would be a hit, Netflix’s chief content officer at the time, Ted Sarandos (he’s now co-CEO), didn’t commission a pilot: he commissioned two whole seasons, at a cost of $100 million. They were even more outraged when Netflix dropped the entire first season – thirteen episodes – all at once. Viewers could watch as much of it as they wanted, where, when and how they liked.
Netflix led the way in the shift of TV viewing to wireless internet from cable (although the internet may still enter your house through the same cable that delivers the TV). It has been adding nearly twenty million subscribers per year, from all over the world; it has almost a quarter of a billion now. It makes films. It churns out its own shows and buys others, in many languages. It made Orange Is the New Black, Stranger Things, The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, Squid Game, Bridgerton, Beef and so, so much more. Netflix’s models tell it that as long as it keeps on producing fresh material, it’ll hang on to its subscribers, who will assume that they’re bound to find something they like. Netflix has reversed the classical publishing strategy of throwing content at the wall of public indifference in the hope something will stick. It sees a scattered public whose attention can be pinned under a toppling wall of content.
Netflix foresaw that the networks and the cablers would eventually claw back their shows; it probably foresaw that linear TV channels would launch their own streaming services, and that by the time they did, Netflix would be too big to catch. But did Hastings anticipate the competition from his own tribe, from the tech giants Amazon and Apple, which have cash on tap, and for which a billion is a basic accounting unit? These behemoths’ streamers, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, are happy to make dozens of meh shows while they wait for one or two to be a hit. For Apple, the success came with Ted Lasso and Slow Horses. Amazon had a hit with Transparent (2014-19), written by Joey Soloway, a comedy about three solipsistic grown-up children reacting to a parent revealing herself as a trans woman, Maura. It won the big prizes, despite criticism for the casting of a non-trans actor, Jeffrey Tambor, as Maura; Tambor was later obliged to quit the show over allegations of sexual harassment.
Back in 2006, the head of Disney, Bob Iger, flicked the money switch and bought Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, capping the spree off in 2019 with the purchase of Fox, minus Fox News, for $71 billion. Disney acquired FX and Hulu, with fresh TV hits like The Bear, but the new meant less to the company than the old. Disney got Toy Story. It got Iron Man and Captain America, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. It took possession of The Simpsons, The Sound of Music, Home Alone, Alien and uncountable prequels, sequels and crossovers, made and unmade. Disney launched its own streamer, Disney+, when it saw that licensing Marvel films to Netflix had been a mistake. ‘We’re basically selling nuclear weapons technology to a Third World country, and now they’re using it against us,’ Iger said, the apocalyptic geopolitical image coming with striking readiness to the leader of the Magic Kingdom. ‘So we decided at the time that we would stop licensing to Netflix and do it ourselves.’ The Disney binge was part of a wider trend. Execs from legacy media and big tech competed for the franchisable, the spinoffable, anything with a fanbase. Without enough proven talent and IP to go round, and seemingly infinite demand for more TV, showbiz inflation rocketed. HBO went for high-selling literary novelists, signing up Jeffrey Eugenides, Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Safran Foer. ‘HBO gained a reputation for going through pilots like Kleenex,’ Biskind writes.
He estimates Amazon will have scant change from a billion dollars for its Rings of Power series, based on Tolkien’s lesser-known writings: the rights alone, according to Biskind, were $250 million. Per episode costs rose remorselessly. Deadwood was estimated to have cost as much as $6 million per episode. By the fifth season of The Sopranos, an episode was thought to cost $10 million. Episodes of the Second World War series The Pacific came in at $21 million a pop; for season four of Stranger Things, it was $30 million. A lot of the increases came from cast and showrunner salaries, fattened by the wealth of the tech streamers. A-list film actors were coming to TV in numbers. When Reese Witherspoon moved from an HBO series to one on Apple, her per-episode fee went from about a quarter of a million dollars to more than a million, and when HBO needed her again, a million was the new baseline – a hike which then had to be extended to Witherspoon’s co-star, Nicole Kidman.
Looking for ways to fund these expenses, and their debt, the streamers offer top actors, writers and showrunners deals that seem lucrative, but cut them out of earnings from syndication. Further down the pecking order, writers are increasingly treated as casual workers – one of the causes of the recent strike. ‘The shrinkage of the networks’ 22-episode orders to the streamers’ 8-to-12-episode orders,’ Biskind says, ‘in addition to the increasing prevalence of “mini-rooms”, where fewer writers work longer hours for shows that may never be produced, adds insult to injury, forcing many writers, unable to pay their mortgages, to supplement their incomes by, say, driving for Uber.’
More and more, the streamers are coming to resemble the networks HBO wanted to be the opposite of. There are doubts that Netflix will go on dropping entire seasons all at once. Streamers are experimenting with cheaper subscriptions supported by ads; ad-free streaming might disappear altogether. Netflix is picking up shows cancelled by networks, while network TV, supposedly a dying medium, is broadcasting innovative shows. HBO’s shows are now folded into the streaming service Max, where they are mingled with Warner Brothers network shows. In the present-day oligopoly of American TV, the tech streamers face off against four legacy media conglomerates where networks and streamers nest together, like the takeover struggle between GoJo and Waystar that plays out in the latter half of Succession. There’s Disney, with Disney+ and ABC; Paramount, with Paramount+ and CBS, as well as Channel 5 in the UK; Comcast, with the streamer Peacock and NBC, together with the Sky channels in Britain and the nominally British streamer Now; and Warner Bros Discovery, which as well as streaming via Max controls CNN. Out in the cold is AMC, its glory days long gone. It got rid of Christina Wayne and grew dependent on the Walking Dead franchise, whose original showrunner, Frank Darabont, sued them for misappropriated profit share and won a $200 million payout. Darabont had been fired from the show halfway through the filming of the second season, and AMC was putting pressure on the cast not to speak to the media. The actors, an anonymous source told the Hollywood Reporter, were scared of being written out. ‘They’re on a zombie show,’ the source said. ‘They are all really easy to kill off.’
Being fired is a rite of passage in US TV, for writers and executives. Joey Soloway describes being fired from ABC by Shonda Rhimes in the time between Rhimes ordering lunch and its arrival. Hastings made his close friend Patty McCord head of HR at Netflix; she became known as the Queen of the Good Goodbye for her skills in easing people into redundancy. After fourteen years, Netflix fired her. Fontana, the creator of Oz, describes what happened when he was developing a show for NBC called The Philanthropist.
They had approved all our script outlines, but one day, they literally said to me, ‘We want this to be like Iron Man,’ because Iron Man, also about a philanthropist, had just become a hit movie. They fired me, and then they hired the guy who had done The Six Million Dollar Man, whom they had fired from the Six Million Dollar Man reboot. Then they hired me again, but by that point all the people who had fired me had been fired.
One of the fascinating things about the making of a TV drama series is the transformation of a writer, classically a powerless and irresponsible figure, into a producer, a showrunner, someone to whom the executives entrust their sinister superpower to take away another person’s job – usually another writer’s. On a show like The Sopranos, where an episode tends to contain at least one mob slaying, the power of life and death wielded by the mafia boss was echoed by the possibility of a real-life corporate hit from Chase, a perfectionist who’d waited decades to show the networks they were wrong about TV. He was in his fifties when HBO gave him the chance; the show was dear to him. He based Tony Soprano’s mother, Livia, on his own cruel, needy, anxious mother. But its success gnawed at him almost as powerfully as failure, with the pressure not to allow any fall-off in quality – to keep making it better. He raged. He threw things. He fired people. ‘I don’t think I hung any pictures up in my office the whole seven years I was there because I was afraid I might be fired,’ one of the writers, Terry Winter, said. ‘I’d never seen anybody fire people as quickly as David did. People would walk into his office and fifteen seconds later, the door would open again and they were leaving with their shit in a box.’ Once Chase asked Todd Kessler if he should fire Winter, whom Kessler shared an office with. Kessler said he should ask Winter. Later, after the two of them had worked together on an award-winning episode, Chase told Kessler he was going to fire him, then changed his mind. A few months after that, he fired him anyway. He fired Robin Green when the series was nearly finished. ‘When David fired me, he smiled,’ Green said. ‘I loved him so much. I loved him for so long, it was just so hard to deal with the fact that he really hated me.’
Part of the intense pressure on Chase was from the show’s own fans, a significant fraction of whom went beyond tolerance for the frailties of the Soprano family towards an uncritical fondness for the North Jersey mob’s often misogynistic violence. Joe Pantoliano, who played Ralphie (the character who beats his pregnant girlfriend to death), was ‘stopped on Fifth Avenue by little old ladies who were like “Oh my God, you were so bad to that woman,” feeling my arms. They were flirting with me, turned on that I was the guy who beat up this hooker. It was sick.’ Perhaps a little disingenuously, Chase said later that ‘he was troubled by how much the “less yakking, more whacking” contingent of his fan base loved his mobbed-up characters, no matter how badly they behaved. The show is “about evil”, he said. “I was surprised by how hard it was to get people to see that.”’
Anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, the man who garottes a fink while taking his teenage daughter on a tour of prospective colleges, were the distinctive mark of the new television. Shawn Ryan was the showrunner of The Shield (2002-8), FX’s early effort to emulate HBO, in which a crooked LA cop, Vic Mackey, played by Michael Chiklis, carries out a version of vigilante justice while lining his pockets. At the end of the pilot, he shoots a fellow policeman dead, knowing the man means to rat him out to their superiors. The audience identified with Mackey, so pumped with testosterone he looks as if his skin might burst. In season five, Forest Whitaker plays an internal affairs agent trying to catch Chiklis out. ‘Somehow, the audience was very much against him and for Vic,’ Ryan said. ‘What I realised as the seasons passed, it almost didn’t matter what we had Vic do, people had just decided that they liked him and wanted to see what he could get away with.’ On the street, people asked Chiklis, ‘How are you going to kill [Whitaker]?’ It was the same with Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the respectable chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth and discovers the wickedness he’s capable of: poisoning a child, letting his partner’s girlfriend die and enabling the murder of his brother-in-law. Anna Gunn, who played the wife, got hate mail for not being more supportive of her screen husband’s endeavours.
While I was writing this, I watched a few pilots of anti-hero series I’d never seen and a common narrative device stuck out that divided the less rewarding shows from greats like The Sopranos and Succession. Writers who’d supposedly broken free of simplistic network morality didn’t, in fact, always leave it to the audience to judge characters. Time after time, morally dubious heroes are presented as essentially virtuous by the blunt expedient of showing them saving, or protecting, women and children from sexual abuse by other men. In the first episode of The Shield, Vic Mackey murders a fellow cop, but he’s shown at heart to be a good man because he tortures a paedophile into revealing the whereabouts of the small blonde girl he’s kidnapped and imprisoned. In the first episode of The Americans, we’re led to believe it’s OK for the Soviet agent living in deep cover with his Soviet agent wife to kill a defector, because long ago in Moscow, the defector had raped the wife; the Soviet agent’s moral bona fides are shored up further when we see him beating up the creepy Amerikanets who hits on his underage daughter at the mall. In the pilot of Deadwood, the essential decency of the town’s otherwise murderous, cynical inhabitants is undergirded when they posse out to the scene of a supposed Indian massacre, actually carried out by a white drifter, and rescue another small blonde girl.
When Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi, is raped, and later encounters her assailant free and at large, she knows, and we know, it would take no more than a word from her for the rapist to suffer horrible retribution at the hands of her mobster client. In a lazier show, it would have happened. But Melfi never utters that word. She declines to be part of that form of personal justice. Tony never finds out, and we, the audience, experience the horror and fascination of anticipating something that doesn’t occur – experiencing all the complex human emotions that the sight of a man having his fictional brains beaten out in revenge for a fictional crime would have dispersed. When I think of the most memorable dramatic passages from a generation of the new television, they’re not obviously characterised by the dichotomy Biskind sets up between network and not-network. They’re when superficially peaceful encounters are suffused with Aeschylean ominousness, an immanent and inevitable but delayed violence, like the almost loving meeting between the Baltimore drug dealers and childhood friends Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell in The Wire, where each knows the other is setting him up to be killed; or when powerful individuals enact a bloodless, tragicomic simulacrum of bodily punishment, as when Logan Roy humiliates his children, or they humiliate themselves.
For all the reasons Biskind describes, the old TV would probably never have made anything like The Wire, and it must have been a nightmare for writers to work with stack on stack of executive layers and their burden of assumptions. And yet no cabler or streamer has made a TV series more powerful, mysterious and disturbing, more strange, than David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91 and 2017) – a network show, its original run broadcast on ABC, ads and all. Chase, who idolised Fellini, and despised the output of the networks he worked at for so long, loved Twin Peaks. It was, he told Biskind in 2006, the first TV show that made him see the medium’s potential. ‘There’s a whole other level of stuff going on, this sense of the poetic that you see in great painting, that you see in foreign films, that’s way more than the sum of its parts,’ he said. Chase also said he’d wanted to make television that avoided the learning-and-sharing flim-flam of classic American network series. He wanted to dispense with huggable moments. It was as if he’d never heard of the fantastically popular network show that first aired on NBC a decade before The Sopranos, the one its creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld had explicitly determined should involve ‘no hugging, no learning’. Two years before Sex and the City, Seinfeld put a cunnilingus storyline out in primetime. The other story in the same episode involves the titular hero robbing an old lady in the street, shouting ‘Shut up, you old bag!’ as she tries to stop him running off with her loaf. The live studio audience laughed.
The new TV/old TV boundary looks even less clear-cut if you take countries other than the US into account. How do you fit Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973) or Edgar Reitz’s Heimat (1984-2013) into the schema? Netflix’s new Arabic, Hindi or Japanese shows make you wonder what they were watching in Damascus or Osaka while America was enduring The Dukes of Hazzard. In Britain, we saw Bob Peck as the policeman Ronald Craven in the BBC’s Edge of Darkness briefly kiss his murdered daughter’s vibrator when going through her things: a very post-network moment, in Biskind’s US framing, but we were watching it on ad-free broadcast TV, in a four-channel world, in 1985. Will Smith, the British lead writer of Slow Horses (2022-), namechecks Edge of Darkness as an influence, along with The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire and Deadwood, but also I, Claudius from 1976 and the recent Happy Valley (2014-23).
The old global TV landscape was one in which American TV pushed out domineeringly into the world, but national TV ecosystems like Britain’s had autonomy, both cultural and financial. The current relationship, especially among the English-speaking countries, is more amorphous. British writers like Armando Iannucci (Veep, Avenue 5) and Jesse Armstrong, who created Succession, went to the US having made their names in British TV with The Thick of It and Peep Show; Michaela Coel, who created and had the lead role in I May Destroy You (2020) for the BBC, became one of a handful of Black women to win a primetime writing Emmy after her show ran on HBO. British studios and technicians can barely keep up with demand. Game of Thrones was an American series, made for first broadcast on HBO, based on an American book, with American lead writers, but most of the cast was British, and the production was based in Northern Ireland. Still, the BBC’s UK-confined streamer, iPlayer, looks threadbare these days. Behind Netflix, the other American streamers are moving in. When more and more TV comes streamed, British shows can get easier access to American audiences, and hence to American money, but American shows can get easier access to British audiences, and they were made with American money to begin with. In absolute terms, Britain isn’t the 51st state, but in TV terms, it kind of is – just to the north-east of Maine, a large and valued tile in the greater American entertainment production mosaic. It will have its own shows, with its own subject matter, locations, actors, writers, directors, but it will be increasingly less likely to own them.
Robert Evans was a clothes salesman and occasional radio actor when he got into the movies. He was spotted by Norma Shearer poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1956 and, at her suggestion, cast to play her late husband, Irving Thalberg – Thalberg, the model for Monroe Stahr in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, the production prodigy who arrived in LA from the East Coast in 1919 at the age of twenty, became head of production at MGM, and did much to make Hollywood Hollywood. In 2023, the Hollywood sign was a century old. New Hollywood, old Hollywood, network TV, streamers – whatever the conditions, there has always been just a handful of great movies and series in an ocean of the ho-hum, and few who have liked any of them know or care which studio or network or channel or streamer made them. Even Disney has become too vast for a brand identity. For more than a hundred years, there has been only one constant. Everything runs through California.
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