In the fifth season of 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy tells Tracy Jordan “Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are… none of that will matter once you do television. You can win every award in sight. You can be the biggest thing on the small screen, and you’ll still get laughed out of the Vanity Fair Oscar party by Greg Kinnear. Tracy, your career hit rock bottom the first time you decided to do TGS. You want it to hit rock bottom again? Go on network television.”
This statement is, of course, intended to be ironic. 30 Rock is mocking the common misconception that the move from film to television is degrading- a misconception disproved by 30 Rock itself. Alec Baldwin, who plays Jack on the hit sitcom, has been enormously successful in his transition from the big screen to the small screen, having received two Primetime Emmy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, seven Screen Actors Guild Awards and one Television Critics Association Award for his role as the ruthless network executive. Baldwin’s performance was critically acclaimed, with IGN’s Robert Canning calling Baldwin “perfectly cast” and writing that most of the show’s “good laughs” come from him.
Nevertheless, Baldwin’s transition is seen as the opposite of the natural progression of an acting career. Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Claire Danes, Seth Rogen… so many big names started out on TV, moved onto film and never looked back. Most are happy to return small screen to do the odd guest spot, star in a mini-series or play themselves on Family Guy, but very rarely do actors spend years in a starring role on a television show once they have established a successful film career. In the acting world, moving on to film is often seen as the ultimate promotion.
But is the move from film to television really a step backwards? Is television really just a starting point for actors looking to be taken more seriously?
Absolutely not. Take Steve Carrell, for example. He spent seven years on The Office and his film career has hardly suffered. He managed to star in hits like Little Miss Sunshine and Despicable Me during the sitcom’s run, all the while receiving awards and positive reviews for his portrayal of Michael Scott.
More recently, Zooey Deschanel took a starring role on Fox’s New Girl, despite having already established herself as a film actress. In just one year of doing television, Deschanel has received more than twice as many awards as she did throughout the entirety of her 14-year film career, proving that the actress has hardly lost respect in her decision to move to television.
Period drama Boardwalk Empire is littered with actors with film careers, like Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon and Kelly Macdonald. Despite their previous reputations as film actors, the show has put all three on the map. Macdonald’s film career has flourished as a result and has seen her grab a starring role in Brave.
While television was once seen as completely inferior to film, the success of intelligent and critically acclaimed television series of recent years such as The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men means that there is now no reason for film actors to feel ashamed to do television. The small screen is catching up to the big screen and actors are increasingly managing to have successful careers in both.