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The Death of Small-Screen Realism

Credit: Chuck Lorre Productions, Warner Bros. Television. Image sourced from "Screen Rant".

Staff writer Alexander Alcock talks about the decline of realism in popular films and television, and expresses hope for its eventual return.  

In 2014, season eight of CBS’s immensely popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” launched, continuing the story of popular-culture-obsessed scientists Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard, alongside their friends and romantic interests Penny, Amy, and Bernadette. Taking jabs at the perception of “nerd culture”, “The Big Bang Theory” remained firmly rooted in the real world; the stakes are low, often pathetically low, whilst the lives of the seven main characters remain wholly unmoving. Despite a key subplot seeing Kaley Cuoco’s Penny secure a new job as a salesperson, everyone else sees little flourishment or dramatic difference in their everyday lives; the couples don’t falter, the houses stay the same, and the job each character holds is identical to the previous seven seasons.

Do not, however, let my apparent dismissal of this show’s subject matter deceive you; “The Big Bang Theory”’s 11.6 Nielsen rating was surpassed by no other narrative fiction programme that year. It was the most popular television show in America, wrapped in a grounded world and realistic storytelling. Sure, it doesn’t portray a stream-of-consciousness literary realism akin to James Joyce, but critically, it is a story of today’s world; it could have happened.

Looking further down the list of top-viewed shows in 2014, this preference for realism is seemingly less of a one-off, and more of a trend; two variations of “NCIS” follow “The Big Bang Theory”, whilst FOX’s “Empire” and CBS’s “Criminal Minds” round out the top five in fiction. None follow the fantastical, or the unexplainable, a pattern that continues all the way through the list of ratings; of the top thirty Nielsen ratings of 2014-15, all are grounded in realism.

The most-watched movies of 2014 tell a completely different story. Sitting at the top, the only film to surpass the billion-dollar mark is the fourth “Transformers” film, “Age of Extinction”. It is followed by “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”, reflecting a wider list of films of similar genre. Everything on the highest-grossing film list is out of this world; whether it be superheroes or science-fiction, dystopia or fantasy, none of it is realistic (or, in the case of “Interstellar”, possible yet).

Why is there such a rift between television and film? It’s a surprisingly tough question to answer – instinctively, you may think the difference arises from the content’s spectacle; television, in the home, is preferred for homely entertainment, whilst the grand scale of otherworldly films is more appropriate as a trip, a visit to your local cinema. James Cameron would probably tell you it’s rooted in the quality of the special effects; the cinema is the place to experience the highest forms of cinematic technical achievement, while home television is better for the weekly, varying quality of episodic realism. In short, however, there’s no fixed answer.

What is apparent is that the wider release of streaming services, as well as the unification between film production and television creation, is pushing us towards a newer trend, one that has disturbing implications for the popularity of realism on television. The Nielsen Rating system is becoming increasingly irrelevant as media giants compete in isolation with their own programmes, which are afforded greater budgets and scope as technological achievements in filmmaking also improve. Take the Disney+ original series “The Mandalorian”; twenty years ago, a “Star Wars” TV show would have been unheard of; George Lucas scrapped a live-action “Star Wars” show as recently as 2009 because it was deemed too expensive to produce. Now, the show enters its third season, and has been renewed for a fourth. The dreams of Lucas, as well as the mass of enthusiasts for commonplace big-budget television, are becoming a reality, at the cost of realism.

Maybe I’m looking at this too bleakly; there are still many shows that infuse realism with the greater budgets they can afford, like Netflix’s “Emily in Paris” or Amazon Prime’s “Jack Ryan”. Of course, they still bow down to their out-of-this-world cousins, but there’s still a place for them. At least for now.

Hilariously, it is streaming service original films that prove to be the successful channel for realism. Netflix’s list of all-time most viewed movies is topped by spy thriller “Red Notice”, alongside political satire “Don’t Look Up” and murder-mystery “Glass Onion”. Maybe we live during a period of transition; maybe, in the years to come, streaming-exclusive films will be the new at-home realism, sitting alongside fantastical television without competition. There’s no true way to predict it, but for now, it is safe to say that the days of Nielsen Ratings and twenty seasons of a CBS sitcom are coming to an end; what comes next is a work in progress.


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