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Jeff Bezos, The Wheel of Time and the futility of throwing cash at the telly

Shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ and Amazon’s new fantasy epic are breaking the bank when it comes to TV budgets. But, asks Ed Cumming, can they really match the tin-pot charm of British shows made on the cheap?

Monday 15 November 2021 06:30
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<p>‘The Wheel of Time’ is Amazon Prime Video’s latest big-budget series, set in an epic fantasy world</p>

‘The Wheel of Time’ is Amazon Prime Video’s latest big-budget series, set in an epic fantasy world

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When it comes to making TV, can you have too much money? It is one of the defining questions of the era, which is surprising. A superabundance of resources has not traditionally been a problem for producers. Outside of Renaissance Florence, Saudi Arabia and Salt Bae’s restaurants, it has not traditionally been a problem for many artists, but especially not in an art form that has always been about make do and mend.

This is particularly true in Britain, where low-budget TV is the prevailing aesthetic and it is a badge of pride to have sets that wobble and props that appear to be made out of old bin lids and gaffer tape. The early episodes of Doctor Who, a series that would probably be Britain’s entry in an all-time TV Olympics, were made for £2,000 an episode. Cheapness is almost a moral virtue. From a licence fee point of view, this thriftiness is an admirable cost-saving philosophy, but it also bakes a certain inescapable naffness into every production that comes out of the UK. Even American co-productions somehow manage to maintain a veneer of BBC-ness. Take His Dark Materials, made with HBO, which mostly looks lush but has some suspect visuals. Or Vigil, where the submarine had an atmospheric and pricey interior accessorised with some ropey CGI, just to remind you that this was British.

In international TV, however, “loveable cheapness" is on the way out. Thanks to the streaming services, TV finds itself tethered to big tech, with all the attendant largesse. From Westworld to Foundation to The Mandalorian, money is being tipped on our heads. Please subscribe, please. We’ll spend a billion quid on that thing you like. (In the case of Westworld, which spends a reported $15m per episode for about a hundred viewers, it may soon be cheaper for the producers to simply write its audience a cheque.)

The latest and most desperate entry yet is The Wheel of Time, Amazon’s new cash-bin fantasy extravaganza, an $80m adaptation of Robert Jordan’s series of novels. It has been stuck in various stages of development hell for many years, especially after a horrific early trailer, but is finally seeing the light of day. We withhold judgement, but the auguries are less than ideal. The thing has been embargoed more stringently than Iraq in the Nineties, which never feels like a sign of absolute confidence in the end product. What we can tell so far is that there are magic and sword-fights and dog-people and Rosamund Pike as some kind of sorceress. A preview feature in GQ details how a whole set was burnt down for one scene. A necessary spectacle or wasteful frippery? The Wheel of Time will tell.

Vanity project might be putting it too strongly, but the project stemmed directly from a Jeff Bezos directive for Amazon to make a Game of Thrones-killer. In theory, it will run for many years, a sprawling fantasy universe, populated by a diverse cast, that will lure viewers from Dhaka to Delaware. I’m sure it will look expensive, but if the scripts aren’t up to it, no amount of money can help. Conversely, series with the pressure of a large budget also have their scripts endlessly rewritten to remove any possibility of failure, which in turn can let all the air and life out of them. Look at No Time To Die, a three-hour film that felt cramped, and somehow failed to convey any depth to its characters. Thrones got its worst reviews for the series with the biggest budgets. The dragons and battles got attention, but what Thrones spent most of its money on, at least in the early years, was great actors having conversations in plausible locations.

The Bezos issue brings us to a related problem, which is that as TV has merged with big tech, the people in charge of the purses are, increasingly, massive nerds. Senior network executives used to at least have worked their way up through TV, by which time they had hopefully picked up one or two things about what makes it good. Bezos may be the most extraordinary retail genius who has ever lived, but sadly that is not the same skill-set as bringing a long-running fantasy series to the small screen. The differences between Game of Thrones, Highlander and Xena: Warrior Princess are vanishingly small and the cash is no guarantee.

By the end of its run, ‘Game of Thrones’ was spending as much as $15m per episode

None of this is to say that it can’t help. The average standard of sets and lighting and costume are unrecognisable from what they were 20 years ago. One of the refreshing things about Succession is that while it is insanely expensive, the subject matter means its lavish spending doesn’t strike the viewer as ostentatious but merely the natural course of things. Billionaires travel by private jet, helicopter and yacht, so it is natural that we will see these characters doing these things. If you watch it with a TV producer, however, you will witness a series of minor heart attacks as the characters move from lavish exterior to lavish exterior. The money does not feel like a luxury but a necessity, fundamental to telling the story on its own terms. Is that the same as having Rosamund Pike lavishly fight a number of dog-men? We’ll wait and see. Whether The Wheel of Time succeeds or not, it will remain true that while money might pay for a rocket to blast a 90-year-old William Shatner into space, it can never buy the magic that made Star Trek so beloved in the first place. That might be sad for Jeff & Co, but it is reassuring for the rest of us.

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