by Sarah Hughes, published on October 29, 2009|
It used to be the case that doing well on television might land you a shot at the big time. George Clooney did ER before becoming Hollywood's suavest man about town, Hilary Swank swapped shifts at the 90210 Peach Pit for Oscar nights at the Kodak Theatre while, most recently, James Gandolfini switched from gruffly sinister Mafia boss to gruffly sinister US general (in In the Loop) and a gruffly sinister puppet (in Where the Wild Things Are).
Now the traffic appears to be moving in the opposite direction, with some of Hollywood's biggest stars forsaking big screen for small. It started with A-list stars - notably Glenn Close's double Emmy-winning turn on the legal drama Damages - and now big-name directors and writers are gravitating to cable TV.
HBO's biggest drama in 2010 will be Martin Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire, a 12-part look at life in mob-heavy 1920s Atlantic City with a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Kenneth Williams (aka The Wire's iconic thief, Omar).
Last week the network announced it had also commissioned a comedy about young hipsters who move from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to try to make it in Los Angeles. The comedy, provisionally titled Stitch 'n' Bitch, will be written by the Oscar-nominated Juno actress Ellen Page together with Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat and Sean Tillman, aka Har Mar Superstar.
Not to be outdone, Showtime announced that William H. Macy will take the Frank Gallagher role in the US remake of the British hit Shameless, Spike Lee and Robert De Niro will team up to develop a drama series about Manhattan's Alphabet City set during the 1980s, and indie favourite Laura Linney is set to star in The C Word, a dark comedy about cancer.
So why the sudden love of pay TV? In part it's because television allows directors and writers space to develop dark, complex plots in their own time. Free of the daily battles with film executives or the territorial tussles found on network TV, cable is a far more hands-off affair.
When Matthew Weiner accepted his Emmy for Mad Men, saying ''I am the only one in this room who has complete creative control'', it showed why a move to cable might appeal to the famously independent likes of Scorsese and Lee.
As to whether this influx of A-listers will be a permanent thing, don't count on it: while Scorsese is overseeing the Boardwalk Empire project, he's only committed to directing the pilot episode; then it's back to film.