TV is the new black for film gentry.
Once regarded as a purgatory for serious actors and producers, television has been attracting top-tier movie talent on both sides of the camera for years thanks in no small part to the deep character studies encouraged by cable networks. And this year's Primetime Emmy nominations, which roll out early Thursday morning, may underscore the point as never before.
Film stars Kevin Spacey, Jane Fonda, Jeff Daniels, Shirley MacLaine, Holly Hunter, Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Michael Douglas, Matt Damon and Kevin Bacon, as well as respected filmmakers David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh and Jane Campion are just some of the cinema-tilted talent in line to get the early morning wake-up call late this week.
"Consider it the golden age of blurred lines," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "TV can no longer be overlooked. It's where things are happening."
Nowhere has the movie talent exodus been more apparent than in drama, where the competition for an award this year is particularly fierce. Alan Sepinwall, a TV critic for pop culture site HitFix.com, said Netflix's "House of Cards" has a good chance to break through the clutter.
The pedigree of the online series about Beltway intrigue is Oscar-caliber: Fincher, the director behind "The Social Network" and "Fight Club," served as the British import's executive producer (and directed two episodes), and its cast was led by Oscar winner Spacey as power-hungry politician Francis Underwood.
"There's a lot of movie star envy that goes into both Emmy nominations and wins," said Sepinwall, author of "The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever." "I can see the feature film halo surrounding 'House of Cards' leading it to a bunch of nominations."
The accolades would be even more noteworthy because they would mark the first time a video-streaming service like Netflix has ever received a major nomination.
"I don't know that I'd call Spacey the favorite to win drama actor," Sepinwall said, "but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he won."
It's a category where, in recent years, staples such as Jon Hamm ("Mad Men"), Michael C. Hall ("Dexter") and Steve Buscemi ("Boardwalk Empire") can often be found — and where newcomers such as last year's Damian Lewis ("Homeland") can shake things up with a win.
Bacon, a former soap star who once turned his nose at television work, sought out a television role and found it in Fox's "The Following." In the dark and violent series created by Fox to compete with cable fare, Bacon plays a troubled FBI agent hunting a serial killer.
At the start of the season, the network's entertainment chairman, Kevin Reilly, seemed confident the thriller could get broadcast back in the drama race after getting shut out last year. The confidence has withered a bit since then — but Reilly has a glimmer of hope still in Bacon.
"At the very least, Kevin deserves to get one," he said. "I think his performance was stellar. I just don't know how cluttered it's going to get."
And in the shallow waters of TV immersion are its guest stars and movie and miniseries participants. Jane Fonda visited "The Newsroom," and Shirley MacLaine's spent some time over at "Downton Abbey."
Critical darling "Top of the Lake," a miniseries from Sundance, was written and created by Jane Campion. The 59-year-old director was behind such films as "The Piano" and "In the Cut." Then there was Al Pacino and Helen Mirren in HBO's "Phil Spector."
The TV movie contender with the most buzz is HBO's "Behind the Candelabra" with a one-two-three punch of Oscar winners: Soderbergh, Douglas and Damon.
"Michael Douglas is as close to a lock to win as there is in the entire Emmy field," Sepinwall said. "Beloved movie star, recovered from cancer, playing a Hollywood icon and (best of all) he's terrific in 'Behind the Candelabra.'"
TV's big prize of late has revived many an acting career that had been languishing in movies too. Alec Baldwin enjoyed star status again after his Emmy-winning run on "30 Rock." Claire Danes, whose film career had been stalled before appearing in HBO's "Temple Grandin," fully embraced the medium by headlining Showtime's "Homeland." Kevin Costner also found his name back on people's lips after appearing in History's ratings hit and Emmy winner "Hatfields & McCoys."
And the pilgrimage isn't likely to slow any time soon. When Oscar winners (and nominees) are doing TV projects and are winning awards or are front-runners, their brethren take notice.
"What we're going to see is the dissolution of the distinction between movie stars and TV stars," Thompson said. "Not just among performers, but writers and directors. You can't have it all, if you don't do it all."
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