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Small screen on the verge of a takeover

HAVE you been watching True Detective on Sky Atlantic? Pity you if you haven't. You missed out on something extra-special in last Saturday's episode: an astonishing six-minute scene shot in a single take.

Television dramas have done long takes before. The most notable – until now – were probably those in The West Wing, which regularly featured continuous scenes of characters walking briskly along corridors for two or three minutes while spouting reams of Aaron Sorkin's famously verbose dialogue.

But these consisted of nothing more complicated than a group of actors walking and talking. The scene in True Detective, directed by Cary Fukunaga, was a breath taking tour de force, unlike anything else ever seen on television or in the movies.

When an undercover mission in Louisiana's simmering, crime-ridden projects goes wrong, the camera follows Matthew McConaughey's character, detective Rust Cohle, as he drags a drug-dealing biker at gunpoint across streets, through houses and finally, in a "how did they do that?" moment, over a chain-link fence amid erupting violence and gunfire.

The only thing that comes anywhere near its brilliance is the famous opening of Orson Welles' 1958 classic Touch of Evil, a three-minute, 20-second crane tracking shot that follows a car containing a bomb being driven across the US-Mexico border.

We've been hearing for a long time how American TV dramas offer an intelligent alternative to an adult audience fed up with the Hollywood movie studios pandering to the juvenile dollar, with a seemingly unending stream of comic book superheroes.


Television, so the argument goes, is the new movies, because it's doing the things the movies used to do, and generally better. The shift in the power-balance between TV and movies is reflected in the level of movie talent migrating to the small screen.

Far from being the nursing home where faded movie stars used to go to live out their twilight years in episodic comfort, TV is now the preferred destination of good actors looking for good scripts and roles.

Kevin Spacey has the role of a lifetime in House of Cards. Glenn Close excels in Damages. Dustin Hoffman, one of the last of the old-school movie stars, sparkled in short-lived racetrack drama Luck. There's an element of truth in that argument. There's also an element of 24-carat bulls***.

Spacey, terrific as he is, was always more of a character actor than a leading man. Close enjoyed her finest movie-career hour in the 1980s in Dangerous Liaisons and Fatal Attraction. It's not her fault; she's a victim of the prevailing ethos that once an actress has passed 40 she's outlived her usefulness.

And it's been a long time since Hoffman has had the pulling power to open a movie. To younger cinemagoers he's not the star of The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man, just the funny little guy with the big nose from Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium and those execrable Meet the Parents sequels.

But True Detective could well mark a genuine turning point for television, the moment when the small screen finally surpassed the big one – and not only because of that six-minute scene. It's the first time a TV series has attracted current A-list movie talent.

McConaughey was in the middle of a remarkable career resurgence, capped by his Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, when he signed on for True Detective. With neither he nor Woody Harrelson choosing to make a second season, the word is that Brad Pitt, who isn't short of movie jobs, is eager to step in.

It would be interesting if he can persuade his best mate George Clooney, who struggled in TV pilot purgatory for years before hitting it big with ER and then breaking into movies, to join him.