There was a time where television was seen as lowest common denominator. Programming was aimed at those who would spend hours staring at the “idiot box”, vapidly consuming bright nothingness as they wait for the time they can go to bed.
This type of programming still exists, of course. The Big Bang Theory is the most obvious example of how simple storylines, studio audiences and repetitive catchphrases have the ability to draw in millions upon millions of viewers. But in recent years this has been joined by world-class programming. The Wire and Breaking Bad are the most talked about, but everything from Game of Thrones to House of Cards to The People v OJ Simpson have contributed.
In a way, this is similar to how cinema has been for a very long time. While some films can be ground-breaking and artistic, others are targeted at a different audience. Joe Pesci made Goodfellas and Home Alone at the same time, after all.
But as the film industry has realised that throwing repetitive, nostalgic crap at the screen is a way to print money, a hole has been found and filled on television. Today, the way to make something critically acclaimed and enjoyable in 2016 is for it to be shown on iPlayer, not Imax.
In a way, this is unsurprising. If television has any advantage over film, it’s that you have a lot more time to work with. Whereas you need to introduce the characters, run through the plot and pay everything off in under three hours on the big screen, on the small you have almost novel-like opportunity to dig in to the characters and their motivations. It allows everything to feel so much more organic.
It is perhaps for this reason why The Night Manager worked so well.
Using John Le Carre’s novel as source material and with a cast of Tom Hiddlestone, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Coleman, there was a time where this would have almost certainly have been a Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, what we got was a story dragged out over 6 hours, allowing us time to understand Hiddleson’s Jonathan Pine, and believe it as he goes from unassuming hotel employee to world-class spy.
Hiddlestone, obviously, is a delight. A lot has been mentioned about him potentially being a future Bond, and in something like this you can see why. He’s so effortlessly handsome and charming, and yet realistic as a vicious killer, that those links were inevitable.
In fact, one of the few criticisms I’ve heard from other is that this was “too Bond-like”, and I can understand that given the spy-ish nature of the subject matter and the ever-present combination of beautiful locations and women. But we’re at the stage where Bond is such a cultural juggernaut that any spy thriller will be viewed through that lens, so it’s a forgivable sin that it will bear certain similarities. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best and steal well.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying that this managed to out-Bond 007. I criticised Spectre at the time, and The Night Manager has helped me to understand why. While hitting the same beats as a 007 film, this managed to combine sexiness and violence, intrigue and tension, beauty and grit. It managed to walk the tightrope of excitement and story. It wasn’t afraid to sit still for a while and let us stew in the building concoction of suspense. It’s everything I wanted Spectre to be, and found to be wanting. The Night Manager is like Bond for those that like to think about their media consumption. It’s 24, but with subtlety and about 0.0000001% of the xenophobia.
Hiddlestone couldn’t do this alone, though. Alongside him is the national treasure that is Hugh Laurie, and alongside him is a lovely little performance from Tom Hollander.
It’s Olivia Coleman, however, who steals the show. I know she doesn’t have the sex appeal, age or accent that Hollywood usually looks for in its leading women, but it can surely only be a matter of time before she makes it on to the top table of the film industry’s elite. If I were to ever write a screenplay, I think she’d be pretty much #1 on the list of people I’d want to star, regardless of the role. She’s that good.
Sure, the ending felt somewhat underwhelming, but if anything I’d put this down to the flip-side of having more time to work with. After 5 hours and 45 minutes, it’s almost unavoidable that you might feel a little unfulfilled in the end. The audience has their standards raised so high that a satisfying ending is pretty much impossible. It’s the True Detective Season 1 conundrum.
Still, it’s important we acknowledge this quality for what it is and make the most of it, because it won’t last. The entertainment industries tend to be cyclical, and therefore we will see television fall away back to how I remember it from my childhood. Films, meanwhile, will become so obsessed with remakes and sequels that audiences will become bored, leading to a new era of original ideas selling out theatres.
When that does happen, we’ll look back at the golden age of television and remember a time where something like The Night Manager was free to watch on a Sunday night and laugh, wondering how we went from there to Ow, My Balls.
If you missed it, find it. Trust me. You won’t regret it.
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