After the 71st Annual Emmy Awards nominations were announced last week, the outcome became yet another reminder that we are inching further and further away from the whimsical, light-hearted place television used to hold in our hearts, and demanding much more high-quality programming than ever before. Not only are the networks losing significant visibility, the expectation for television content is arguably on par with, if not superseding, the expectation for high budget film.
Television being the most consumed form of entertainment is not a new notion, we’ve had easier access to television than film for a long time. However, the hunger for thought provoking storylines and stunning visuals is continuing to rise for series especially. We now expect television to utilize very theatrical elements to considered them worthy of our time, there may be more theatre nerds out there than we thought. We may have finally reached the perfect blend of high-brow entertainment and popular entertainment, something to be excited about and pat ourselves on the back for in the midst of a particularly difficult political era. But as Moliere and Shakespeare would also tell you, political turmoil is a creative gold mine, a great consolation prize for an ulcer-inducing moment in time.
Here are five Emmy-nominated television shows that are finding success from theatrical choices:
1. ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’
Creator of the now beloved ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and her husband and co-showrunner of the show, Dan Palladino, are loud and proud theatre nerds. Theatre is an obvious passion of theirs without the need to read a single interview though, their work on ‘Maisel’ and their first hit, ‘Gilmore Girls’, scream theatre from the dialogue to costumes to heart-racing one shot takes. There aren’t many scenes in ‘Maisel’ that couldn’t translate to the stage flawlessly, but perhaps it would just be too easy for Sherman-Palladino? Each season of ‘Maisel’ has enough dialogue to be one day-long play so long as the actors keep up the super-speedy speech required, if talking at a normal pace it’d probably be a two-day event. The volume of material alone is shocking, but for each scene to keep its entertainment value, a gorgeous and accurate aesthetic, honest characters, and meaningful relationship dynamics, ‘Maisel’ is modern epic.
The subject matter and creative team alone of ‘Fosse/Verdon’ is enough to maintain the television as theatre argument, but takes it a step further than what has ever had the opportunity to grace the stage in an actual Fosse/Verdon piece. As a creative geniuses, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s work will remain iconic to American theatre and continue to lend itself to the creation of more work in theatre, film, and likely much more television judging by the direction it’s heading. But their life together was what art tries so hard to reproduce and discuss. Full of gray area, imperfections, passion and everything that can’t be reduced to words, the story behind who Bob and Gwen were as people gives sense to why their work was so powerful — a theatrical achievement in itself.
The most direct example of theatre to television of the bunch, ‘Fleabag’ began as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show that started in London and transferred Off-Broadway. Not having the opportunity to see Waller-Bridge’s stage ‘Fleabag’, I can only speak to how the series uses theatrical devices of which there is no shortage of. Waller-Bridge’s character, Fleabag, acts as both our protagonist and narrator. She frequently breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to viewers but in a particularly interesting way that audiences are not used to. Rather than listening to a narrator who simply pushes the story forward, we are Fleabag’s friend to whom she asides her innermost secrets. The viewer is special to her, the only one she allows in on her crippling vulnerabilities, making her impossible to pass judgement on. Even after learning of her most horrific deeds, things that most of us would forever cut her off for without a moment of hesitation, we are written in to love her through them. I don’t know how much more Shakespearean it can get than that.
4. ‘Killing Eve’
Theatre has evolved from all over the world but we especially have Brits to thank for being a driving force that keeps it alive and well today… perhaps why they are coming for America’s TV crown. British television gains more popularity every year, and this year’s Emmy noms prove it with love for ‘House of Cards’ (originally a British series) and ‘A Very English Scandal’. The Emmys are hit with the Waller-Bridge brilliance again for the exceptional ‘Killing Eve’ — a BBC America series with a book-based narrative, adapted into a cinematic piece with a theatrical edge. Rich with action, graphic death, mystery, and exciting destinations, ‘Killing Eve’ has the feel of Bond film without the superfluous car crashing and forced love interests. The car crashes and love interests in ‘Killing Eve’ have very important purposes that make it more Greek tragedy than action film. No surprise why Waller-Bridge has already signed on as a writer for the latest Bond film, reason enough to give Bond another chance.
5. ‘The Act’
Speaking of Greek tragedy, ‘The Act’ checks that box for this year’s Emmy theatrical requirements. Since ‘The Act’ is based off of real events, I can’t give all the credit to this series for originality but I do tip my hat to the creators for knowing an outstanding storyline when they see one. A young girl persuades a pseudo suitor to kill her mother after said mother gives girl Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy? Sounds like Euripides to me. The complex psychology, brutal killing and aftermath of an exceptionally disgusting series of events could be a contender for the Great Dionysia festival, who do theatre nerds need to speak to about getting that reinstated?
BONUS: ‘Game of Thrones’
‘Game of Thrones’ is a beast of it’s own by integrating the most epic of television production with the most complex storytelling. I’m reluctant to call it theatrical as it’s one of the biggest feats in television history all on it’s own, but it did comprise some of the most theatrical elements from the get-go that arguably got the theatre-as-television ball rolling. It is also equal parts American to European in production making it harder to decide in which medium it’s rooted. It is on an American network, has an American showrunner, and based on a book by an American author. But it is undoubtably a Tolkienesque (British) fantasy and largely shot in Europe with an almost entirely British cast. Whether ‘Game of Thrones’ is more of a television or theatrical spectacle I’ll let each theatre nerd and TV geek decide for themselves.