Most Critics agree that since the late 1990s, we have enjoyed a “golden age of quality television” wherein serial dramas such as The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007), The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008), and Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013) have revitalized the medium with their self-aware narrative complexity, high production values, esteemed (often cinematic) actors and auteurs, and formal experimentation. This aesthetic revolution has transformed a wide variety of genres, from the police procedural to the miniseries, but there exists an implicit masculinist bias within its system of values. Simply put, the shows celebrated as quality tend to be about men and for men and often depict a great deal of violence along with other elements such as intertextual references, knowing dialogue, and unconventional camerawork. Masculinist bias may explain why made-for-television movies—that most feminine and denigrated of television genres—were never considered “quality” until very recently. This summer, two telefeatures brought quality television’s innovations to small-screen docudrama. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra recounts the tumultuous five-year affair between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his much younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Produced and promoted by HBO, Behind the Candelabra was the subject of an Entertainment Weekly cover story, rave reviews, and 15 Emmy Award nominations. Mary Herron’s Anna Nicole tells a similar story with equal self-reflexive panache, yet it received no such ballyhoo. In fact, Entertainment Weekly mocked Herron’s biopic with the same relish it used to praise Soderbergh’s, cruelly lampooning it as “destined to be [a] Peabody-, Emmy-, Golden Globe–, and (why not?) Nobel Prize–winning film” (Lanford Beard, “Popwatch Viewing Party: Lifetime’s Anna Nicole,” Entertainment Weekly, June 30, 2013). Such critique belies the striking resemblance between two TV movies that both adapt nonfiction source material to tell analogous stories about blondes from disadvantaged backgrounds looking for a better life. But Anna Nicole embraces and interrogates the “feminine” conventions of made-for-television movies whereas Behind the Candelabra asserts its value by repudiating the gendered history of the genre. Taken together, the two movies suggest that to be recognized as “quality,” a television movie must distance itself from female subjects and audiences.
Today, made-for-television movies are typically dismissed as scandal-of-the-week cable quickies designed to cash in on recent headlines and social anxieties, but this was not always the case. In the 1960s and 1970s, made-for-television movies were network prestige projects and incorporated a wide range of genres, from the western and the historical film to the mystery and even the horror story. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that the genre was reduced to “little personal stories that executives think mass audiences will take as revelations of the contemporary” (Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time, New York: Pantheon, 1983). Often these films translated social controversies such as drug addiction or spousal abuse into personal narratives, thus benefitting from salacious subject matter while translating it into less political terms. Of late, the broadcast television networks have all but ceased airing telefeatures, leaving them to niche cable channels such as Lifetime. (Disney and SyFy also make hay from made-for-television movies, but their niche markets lead them toward other genres and beyond the purview of this article.) Lifetime—which branded itself as “television for women” in the 1990s—is the most famous and successful made-for-television movie producer of the past twenty years, regularly bringing in more than three million viewers per original-movie premiere. Despite their popularity, Lifetime movies are widely ridiculed for their melodramatic focus on women’s crises. They are scorned even by other woman-oriented television shows, including HBO’s Sex and the City, wherein one heroine rebukes a histrionic friend by sniffing, “I don’t watch Lifetime television for women” (“Running with Scissors,” August 20, 2000).
Read More | “Made for Quality Television” | Caetlin Benson-Allott | Film Quarterly