The 2021 Golden Globes nominations, announced Wednesday morning, were a further reminder of how the coronavirus has upended everything. That includes the Globes ceremony, which will be held on Feb. 28—the date originally planned for the 2021 Oscars (which are now pushed to April). The pandemic also turbo-charged a phenomenon that’s been accelerating for the last several years: the increasing cultural dominance of television, as well as the shrinking influence of movies.
During the last few award seasons, water cooler buzz sparked around films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Bohemian Rhapsody, performers like Joaquin Phoenix, Awkwafina, Mahershala Ali, and Adam Driver. In 2020, most workplace water coolers were shut down, and the most fervent quarantine buzz surrounded television shows like The Queen’s Gambit, Schitt’s Creek, The Flight Attendant and Ted Lasso.
In fact, few movie star turns caught our collective eye this year—unless we caught them on limited TV series, where one could find Ethan Hawke (Good Lord Bird), Cate Blanchett (Mrs. America), Al Pacino (Hunters), Mark Ruffalo (I Know This Much Is True) and Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman (The Undoing) burrowing into their characters over many hours.
Limited series are now definitively the place where high-end movie talent goes to stake their flag on the streaming planet. Anna Taylor-Joy became a bonafide sensation in 2020, but not for her starring role in the film Emma, which came out that year; it was as the brilliant, obsessive, hallucinating chess prodigy in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit.
TV steadily has been steadily ascendant for years, but COVID lifted the medium further aloft. And not just because most movie theaters were shut down as potential pandemic death traps. Movies represent special, one-time-only journeys into another world—and right now, two hours is a drop in the bucket of what seems like eternity. The giant, unbroken blocks of quarantine time allow viewers to sink into ongoing series, like a warm embracing bath.
It’s hard to underestimate the comfort to be drawn from ongoing narratives that allow us to live with characters—for a few weeks or months—when we are so stranded from real life friends and family. TV series (even limited ones) offer something to look forward to, in delicious dollops. That was especially true of sweet-hearted series like Schitt’s Creek (which got three Globes nominations, months after the show’s clean sweep at the Emmys) and Ted Lasso (which landed Apple TV+ two of its four nominations), or those that plunged viewers into another era , whether the decadent one of The Great or the dark one of Lovecraft Country.
There are plenty of non-quarantine reasons for the shift, of course. This past year has also been a turning point in the ongoing absorption of television and movies into the giant blob known as streaming. It used to be easy to distinguish between film and TV, even beyond the fact that they accessible via different platforms. One of the biggest distinctions was formal: Movies told a complete story in one go, while TV was spread over chapters. But plenty of innovative television series regularly unravel that barrier with striking, largely self-enclosed episodes that can stand apart from the rest of the narratives. (The Bojack Horseman episode “Fish Out of Water” comes to mind, or more recently, I May Destroy You‘s “The Alliance.”)
These days, TV is flexible and protean, and can absorb lots of other genres—including movies.
Movies traditionally revolved around their director, while TV usually put writers in charge, using directors as journeymen who came and went. That is changing as directors become ever more central figures behind the scenes of TV. The shift is especially evident in the limited series category, with nominated shows spearheaded by filmmakers like Steve McQueen (Small Axe), Derek Cianfrance (I Know This Much is True), Lenny Abramson (Normal People), Susanne Bier (The Undoing). This year will only up the ante as directors like Barry Jenkins, Lulu Wang, and Sophia Coppola join the streaming television brigade.
Even the budget distinctions between movies and TV are no longer clear, in an era when studios are prepared to spend up to $15 million or so per episode for prestige series like The Morning Show, The Crown, Lord of the Rings and The Mandelorian. As entertainment conglomerates like WarnerMedia, Disney, NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS continue to reorganize themselves around streaming, the genre-line will likely grow less and less binary. As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, WarnerMedia now has no single executive focused on production and distribution of big screen fare—for the first time in its storied history.