It turns out the revolution is being televised, after all.

The past decade has seen a shift in the entertainment world's creative paradigm. Television was once seen as a place where those who had failed to reach the promised land of cinema were condemned to work in relative obscurity. These days, by contrast, a whole host of award-winners, box-office champions and art-house darlings are fine-tuning their skills on shows crafted for what was once rather unfairly labelled the "idiot box".

Led by Oscar winners Kevin Spacey (star of TV series House of Cards) and Matthew McConaughey (one of the two leads in True Detective), and Academy Award nominees Clive Owen ( The Knick), Woody Harrelson (the other True Detective) and Jane Campion (who was behind the New Zealand-set series Top of the Lake) - and backed by "non-traditional" broadcasters such as HBO and, more recently, Netflix - television productions are increasingly becoming the moving pictures everyone is talking about. And who wouldn't want to immerse themselves in hours of plot development when cinemas are dominated by comic-inspired actioners with wafer-thin plotlines and cardboard-cutout characters who come and go in 90 minutes?

It has taken a little longer for the penny to drop in Asia but the possibilities modern television offers are slowly but surely being explored. Last year saw the film noirish 10-parter Serangoon Road launched as "HBO Asia's first original series". A Singapore-Australia co-production, it collected talent from across the region, casting the ever-reliable Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, alongside Australian Don Hany (previously seen in award-winning drama/comedy TV series Offspring) and scene-stealing Singaporean Chin Han, and placed them slap bang in the middle of the tumult of the Lion City in the 1960s.

The reviews, however, were mixed. Maybe the HBO series we are used to watching - groundbreakers such as The Sopranos and The Wire - have spoilt us for choice, because despite fabulous costuming and art direction, Serangoon Road leaves something to be desired when it comes to what really matters: the drama.

Even The Straits Times, a state-run newspaper not noted for criticism of anything remotely Singaporean, was left wondering "what if?"

"It passes the time quite nicely. But then nice is both a positive and a negative," wrote The Straits Times' Jonathan Robert. "Considering it involves the CIA, secret societies, affairs and murder, it's far more gentle than you'd expect - or want - from the HBO brand. If it had more edge and pace, it could be essential viewing."

Although coy on viewership figures, HBO Asia reported it was "very, very pleased" with the show's ratings and reiterated that it was the first of what the organisation hopes will be a yearly series produced out of its Singaporean base.

Which brings us neatly to a side room in the city's Conrad Centennial hotel, where I am being attended to by HBO staff and discussing the history of television with Russell Wong.

The Chinese-American actor has long had a foot in both camps - cinema and television. In the late 1980s and early 90s, Wong popped up as a bit-part player in TV series of the 21 Jump Street and The Equaliser ilk - low budget and low brow by today's standards, certainly, but a place where a young actor could get noticed, as Wong did. In 1993, he was cast in a breakthrough film role, Wayne Wang's acclaimed reworking of author Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.

Wong was among the Serangoon Road supporting cast and he has been called back from his home in the United States to take the lead role in HBO Asia's latest production, the four-part horror-thriller Grace, which begins showing across the region this Friday.

"In the States, the offers I usually get are gangster roles and kung-fu guys, so I get a little bit tired of that," says Wong, 51. "It's changing a little but there's still stereotyping. What's unique to Grace is that it's just about a family and it has nothing to do with whether you are Asian or not. It's about a family whose father goes through this sort of Greek tragedy and the whole family gets sucked into it.

" Serangoon Road was Asian content in English and I liked the idea of the audience that can reach," says Wong. "It is the same with Grace. It means it can travel more than if it were in Cantonese or Mandarin. It's more international." HBO Asia sold Serangoon Road in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Latin America, France and Scandinavia.

"The expansion here in Asia is presenting good opportunities, there's no doubt about that," says Wong. "[But] television now is a global market, and access is so wide, thanks to the internet, so more stories can be told for an international audience not just in this region. That would have to appeal to any actor."

IT MAY HAVE LOST ITS way towards the end of the last century but, in its formative years, television was cutting-edge.

In the US, tiny budgets inspired a great deal of experimentation and the small-screen treated viewers to the first, lightly produced versions of what would later be acclaimed feature films, such as Requiem for a Heavyweight and the Oscar-winning Judgment at Nuremberg.

Hong Kong and Singapore used television as a training ground for young talent; new wave directors Ann Hui On-wah and Patrick Tam Ka-ming cut their teeth on productions for studios such as TVB, as did actors including Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

But the desire to keep budgets under control and to maximise profits meant that, for decades - with rare exceptions - television broadcasters kept it light when it came to entertainment. The quantum change came about because of the growth in the number of cable and satellite stations, and the need for more content. Advances in technology also meant that what once could only be viewed on a television set at home could now be watched on a smartphone on a plane, train or bus.

Emboldened by the possibilities, "serious" artists were drawn to the small screen.

Spacey said in a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival last year that he saw political drama House of Cards - a remake of the BBC mini-series of the same name - as a means of "creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time, and relationships that would need space to play out".

The American actor said that the entertainment industry needed to update its definitions of core genres.

"I predict that in the next decade or two, any differentiation between these platforms will fall away. Is 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole really any different than a film? Do we define film as being something two hours or less? Surely it goes deeper than that. If you're watching a film on your television, is it no longer a film because you're not watching it in a theatre? If you watch a TV show on your iPad, is it no longer a TV show? The device and the length are irrelevant. The labels are useless.

"Watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV or watching Game of Thrones on a computer - it's all content," said Spacey. "It's just story. And the audience has spoken. They want stories. They're dying for them. They're rooting for us to give the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook, make fan pages, silly GIFs, and god knows what else about it; engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of.

"And all we have to do is give it to them."

HBO Asia says that's exactly what it is trying to do.

"Horror is a genre that really works in Asia," says Erika North, head of programming at HBO Asia and executive producer on Grace. "It's a relatively new format, even in the US, with The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. We wanted to create something different, an event for our viewers."

HBO Asia chief executive Jonathan Spink says one of the biggest challenges with Grace was accounting for the restrictions presented by Asia's many markets, across which religious and societal norms vary enormously.

"The potential is we can push the boundaries of what we do," he says. "You don't have to be controversial to be a good story. We want good stories that work and that attract an audience."

And that was the attraction for Australian director Tony Tilse, who was also in the chair for Serangoon Road.

"Creative solutions are much more interesting than taking the easy way out," says Tilse. "[ Grace is] an interesting hybrid that's more supernatural thriller than classic horror. It comes out of the censorship issues; we couldn't do the gore, that sort of stuff. And with four episodes, we had to have more of an emotional core."

So what exactly does Grace promise? Asia's entertainment media have been gathered in Singapore to learn about the series but, in keeping with the genre, HBO Asia is not giving much away. Maintaining suspense is the key when it comes to the supernatural and the suspense is certainly killing us after we are shown a brief trailer that poses more questions than it answers.

Grace will be screened in four hour-long parts and what we do know is that when the man in the middle of the series decides to stray from the family nest, things start to go horribly wrong.

"It's The Shining meets Fatal Attraction," says that man, Wong. "My character, Roy, gets involved with a mistress and he gets caught. His wife wears the pants in the family - he married into wealth. He strays … and he gets into trouble."

And the trouble he gets into is played by Pamelyn Chee, the 29-year-old Singaporean-Chinese actress who portrayed wannabe detective Su Ling in Serangoon Road. Grace, says Chee, has given her the chance to explore a character with a wild side.

"I had to do everything in my power to convince them I was the best person for this job. I think it is a dream role," says Chee.

Raised in New York, Chee has been a familiar face on Singaporean TV since returning to the island state six years ago. Although she continues to court roles in the US, she says overseas-based Asian actors are increasingly looking "back home" for work.

"It's a growing industry here," says Chee. "We're not Hollywood but, because we are just starting out, people can really push the boundaries of what they are doing. There's even a lot of room for errors. I think you have to find people to work with who tread that fine line between bravery and foolishness."

Chee believes the genre Grace is dabbling in opens up possibilities in terms of markets and audience reach.

"Everyone knows Asians have a strong cultural belief in ghosts," she says. "So it's easier in this market to create a story around that, as people believe it. It's harder for a Western audience but that's one of the exciting things about being involved in this production - taking Asian characters and stories international."

Constance Song is a veteran actress of Chinese-language dramas and says her biggest challenges while working on Grace were to make her English sound natural and to keep a lid on the histrionics.

"The director wanted everything more subtle, a lot more subtle than Chinese dramas would be, so I had to tone down my acting a lot," says Song, who plays the wife of Wong's character.

"It is a totally different angle after doing local things for so long. It is a chance to go regional, even international. So there is pressure but it is a good pressure. I know people will look at me and ask, 'Can she deliver? Can she speak in English?'

"Down here our television industry is small. Overseas, the money is good but down here there is not much. So what keeps me going is the passion and the promise that things will keep developing."

Rounding out the Grace actors today is newcomer George Young, who's recently been working on award-winning Singaporean director Eric Khoo's erotic thriller In the Room, alongside Josie Ho Chiu-yi.

Young, 34, trained as a lawyer before giving in to a school-boy fascination with acting. "I used to take sick days to go to auditions," he says.

"I didn't know much about the industry here," says British-raised Young. "[But] as you see with Grace, there are increasingly more global-scale and global-standard productions coming out. HBO is here, other companies are here and the opportunities are here. I think you'll find more and more actors wanting to work in Asia and everything they are doing here in Singapore is first class. The fact that somebody from that side of the world, like Russell, comes here and loves it and loves the quality of what they are doing here is testament to that.

"I think people will be in for a wild ride."

 

Grace will premiere on Friday at 10pm on HBO and HBO HD.