IT’S A TRUISM to say that television is outpacing cinema for entertainment quality and depth of exploration. Since The Wire appeared a decade ago, studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.
Recently I’ve been struck by the set-in-the-’80s espionage thriller The Americans, the deeply haunting police procedural True Detective, the hilarious pathos of Louie and Veep, and the sly, shocking Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs: All hugely entertaining, dramatically credible, and challenging both as works that require sustained attention and in terms of what they say about life. The Americans is really an exploration of marriage and cultural identity wrapped up in Cold War cloaks-and-daggers; True Detective is a lament for the broken parts of America, and an affirmation that friendship endures above almost everything else; and Hannibal is a postmodern delving into Dante’s Inferno, looking at the underbelly of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
What’s most exciting is that it’s now considered viable to make drama that actually asks real questions about life and is prepared not to answer them pat. Along with the vast amount of social media conversation about these works, what we have is more akin to ancient forms of public entertainment that required a kind of audience participation—theatrical catharsis meeting gathered conversation to produce a community hermeneutic. When we talk about TV and cinema, we’re talking about ourselves.
Which brings me to The Normal Heart, HBO’s film of Larry Kramer’s play about the emergence of AIDs and the work of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City. Adapted by Kramer and directed by Glee and American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy, The Normal Heart stars Mark Ruffalo as Kramer’s surrogate Ned Weeks, more than ably supported by the likes of Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts, and Alfred Molina.
It’s a film that doesn’t fully succeed as a work of television, largely I think because of its stage origins, but it is still a profoundly moving, educative, emotionally truthful piece of work. The film is important because of the tragic history it tells: The Reagan administration, and the mayor of New York, the city where nearly 50 percent of the early cases occurred, refused to acknowledge the AIDs crisis until it was considered “safe” to do so—which surely contributed to more suffering and deaths. The Normal Heart should deepen the mainstreaming of anti-homophobic narratives and open up the dominant culture to rethink its—and possibly our—ignorance. It’s a sign of cultural maturity that this provocation is channeled through great drama.
Gareth Higgins is a northern Irish writer living in North Carolina. He co-presents thefilmtalk.com and soultele gram.com.