Even five years ago, an actor at the same point of his career as Tom Hardy wouldn't have announced he was doing Taboo, a new TV series with FX and the BBC that will follow a man entering the shipping industry in early 19th century England. That Hardy did so yesterday is a sign of just how steadily TV is moving into the next stage of its lifespan.
Hardy is one of the more exciting young actors currently making his way up the Hollywood ladder. The Brit was a lot of fun in Inception, then took on the role of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, before settling into a bunch of smaller character parts. (The most recent of these was his stunning work in tiny crime thriller The Drop.) Next year, he'll be seen as the title character in Mad Max: Fury Road, the latest reboot of the venerable franchise.
Yes, Hardy has played many interesting TV roles in his native United Kingdom, a country where there's less of a film-TV divide, thanks to shorter episode orders for seasons. And yes, Taboo is from his nascent production company, giving him a healthy self-interest in playing the role.
But Hardy is also clearly being groomed by Hollywood to be a superstar. And potential superstars generally don't do TV in Hollywood, because TV contracts limit freedom and because there's still a, well, taboo against the medium from film folks.
Yet here's Hardy, playing a man who opts to build a shipping trade on his own terms, after returning from Africa with over a dozen diamonds he got in illicit fashion. In an interesting way, Taboo underlines the way the lines between "movies" and "television" are evaporating.
The future of TV
Think about it this way. In the past, the difference between film and TV — even when you added made-for-TV movies into the mix — were clear-cut. You left your house to see a movie, and it usually had a larger production budget than a TV series. And you sat on your couch to watch even the most expensive TV productions. Yes, micro-budget indie films and mega-budget TV miniseries existed, but they were decidedly the exceptions.
Now, however, the line seems much more malleable, as TV leaves behind the idea of being programmed toward certain days and certain times, while films increasingly head toward being experiences to be enjoyed from the comfort of your living room. Some of the best movie directors helm TV pilots; some of the best TV writers step up to shepherd mega-franchises.
It seems likely that within the next quarter-century, all of the lines that separated the two forms will be largely obliterated. It started on a budgetary level, where the line between something that looks expensive and something that actually is expensive has steadily shrunk since the advent of computer-based visual effects. In recent years, this has had the effect of broadening the territory the TV drama revolution could play in. Big budget fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction seemed closed off to TV for decades, but that's increasingly not true. That's definitely true of Taboo, from Steven Knight, who created the similarly stylish Peaky Blinders for the BBC. (It airs on Netflix in the US.)
But Taboo is also an international co-production, something that was very rare in the TV world but is increasingly common. By splitting the costs and distributing in their respective countries, FX and the BBC can make a show that's more expensive and allow for greater scale of production, something vital to a series set in 1813. Co-production has long been a way movie studios have kept costs down, but it's only really made significant in-roads in TV since HBO and the BBC co-produced Rome last decade.
What it means for actors
Finally, there's the matter of an actor like Hardy, who, again, probably would have been talked out of this as a career move even in 2009. But with more and more movie actors coming to TV on a part-time (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) or full-time (Kevin Spacey) basis, and with more and more movie deals wrapping up actors into long-term, lavish contracts tied to specific movie franchises, this line, too, is disappearing. The time Hardy spends filming the eight episodes of Taboo's first season will very likely be comparable to the time he spent on Mad Max. If the story interests him, why not take the chance?
Smaller and smaller numbers of episodes in TV orders have made a lot of this possible, to be sure. Hardy isn't going to sign on to a 22-episode commitment with CBS. He might not even sign on to a 13-episode commitment. But at just eight episodes, Taboo is the perfect project to squeeze in between film shoots. Or consider Laurie Metcalf, who's actually able to star in two TV shows, HBO's Getting On and CBS's The McCarthys, because the order for the former is only six episodes.
People talk a lot about the future of TV and the future of movies as if they're completely separate things: worrying about the future of theatrical presentation versus considering what streaming services mean for the old model of TV distribution. But it seems more and more likely with every passing day that the future of TV and the future of movies is the exact same thing, driven by at-home, on-demand viewing of stories that take exactly as long as they need to play out.
And isn't there something exciting about that notion? The thought of settling in for a lavish fantasy adaptation that gets the room it needs on screen to breathe, then pivoting to a smaller, human-scale story that needs only a couple of hours to truly tell its story, is an invigorating one. For years, many of the problems with film and TV have been inherent in the models of distribution, which allowed for very little experimentation in form. The more we get away from those models, the more we collapse the distance between the two, and the more we see how the future of both lies in the same territory. And that future looks bright.