Sunday, February 17, 2013

Well, That's One Theory: TV vs. Film Part 7

Fun as the “TV vs. film” bathroom stall graffiti competition is, I was disappointed to read Alan Sepinwall’s cheerleading in the introduction to his otherwise terrific book The Revolution Was Televised. He talks about the extinction of adult dramas, “the middle-class movie,” which he sort of defines as taking up the space between highbrow sticks and lowbrow stones. According to Sepinwall, “TV stepped in to fill that void. If you wanted thoughtful drama for adults, you didn’t go to the multiplex; you went to your living room couch.” O RLY? Sepinwall’s pop-historical fly-over depends on this idea that serious television supplanted film over the past few decades. Which wouldn’t be so frustrating with language that isn’t living beyond its means (“extinction”) and a few crucial qualifiers (like “American,” “major studio,” and “except for all these counterexamples”). But this vulgar history is a front for a more pervasive, more dangerous sentiment that promotes the easy while pretending it’s difficult. Not that there isn’t something cosmically satisfying about a person supported by the boob tube telling his audience they’re smart for doing what they’re doing already, but can I get a pillow and a refill, please?

“I loved movies, but I’d also seen in shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere that the small screen had certain advantages over its bigger, more prestigious cousin,” Sepinwall writes. He’s talking about TV shows that aired while cinemas ran The King of Comedy and The Purple Rose of Cairo, not to mention arty stunners like Nostalghia and Wings of Desire (or if we must stick to English, Stranger Than Paradise and Once Upon a Time in America). And, since size is about to matter, marathons like Shoah1. “[TV] could tell very long stories. It could allow characters to grow over extended periods of time. And by coming into my home rather than making me go to it, it could forge a more intimate bond with me.” These are virtues? Very long stories? Real-time character growth? Ease of access? I fear this debate about which medium is producing the best art is really about which medium is our best friend.

It’s not hard to see how self-serving this position is. Oh, the television audience is a smart, sophisticated bunch. It’s the studios who aren’t meeting their needs. Never mind the wealth of cinema since the '80s. Never mind that television couldn’t be easier to watch if it physically got you off. Never mind the routine. Just keep telling everyone that watching TV makes you a thoughtful person and capitalizing on the telephile’s resentment of living in cinema's shadow.

What really boggles my mind is the promotion of the middle-class movie. Television shouldn’t be judged by its People’s Choice Awards. It should be judged by its best candidates. Personally, I think television should aspire to be more radical, more stylized. Most adult dramas on the air are big, blank voids, enormous sinkholes interested in nothing more than self-perpetuation. Maybe it’s just that the phrase “middle-class movie” connotes ‘90s Oscar lineups, but why should Forrest Gump be the goal of any artform?

TV is of course art2, which I define as anything people say isn’t art, and there is challenging, complex, expert television drama. Mad Men may be a soapy thrill to watch each week, but it doesn’t provide easy answers. Only one character is in every episode, communication almost never gets to the root of the problems, and catharsis is so consistently denied that it takes seasons to get resolution. Luck and Treme practically deny narrative, and Game of Thrones is completely, magnificently decentralized. Enlightened is riskier still, peaceful, digressive, and adamantly ambivalent. Of course, these shows are flops in movie terms, hitting highs in the four-million-viewers range, so maybe declining ticket sales isn’t the greatest offense.

No matter how close you get, the goalposts are always moving in these debates. We’re not talking about popularity. We’re talking about creative supremacy. Which is still like TV's walking around in a six-pack T-shirt. Start defining terms and you realize how specific the “TV > film” proposition really is: Mainstream American television dramas are generally better than mainstream American studio dramas, where “better” means “more interesting when it comes to character development and narrative evolution,” and any counterexamples are too highbrow/indie/arty to apply3. Now we’re cooking. I mean, it’s still macho swagger, but at least there’s some muscle there. Serial television unquestionably offers a unique approach to character growth, Jeanne Dielman times a hundred for even supporting characters. Recurring aliens on Deep Space Nine get seven-year journeys. At the very least, television has an interesting opportunity with incremental growth. And rewarding emotional investment on a schedule makes TV pretty easy to keep watching.

Why does that ease go unexamined? Complacency should be checked. As long as people are telling me that TV is better than film but they haven’t seen Tabu or Cosmopolis or The Loneliest Planet, I’m not sure anyone in the audience for this town hall debate needs more comforting that they’re smart and sophisticated for staying home. CBS and its imitators can't even approximate the sickening dread of Killer Joe. As someone said about—forgive me—cultural vegetables, people should want to get better at things. Indeed. People, especially people who want to have an opinion about the relative merits of cinema’s most popular bullhorns, should want to challenge themselves.

But easy surface stuff rules so much of the television discussion. It sticks with discrete elements, evaluates them according to arbitrary rules (plausibility, beauty, “good acting”), and calls it a day. Bryan Cranston gave me chills. Joan wouldn’t do that. Glee is immoral. That shot was pretty. This season is a roller coaster. It’s friend-art. We dish about the latest thrills, we judge bad behavior, and we celebrate emotional attachment. Just look at how sudsy Girls was thrown a months-long print parade while tougher-nut-to-crack Enlightened became something for everyone to discover in season two, if then. All of this certainly has its place, but as long as we’re talking in big, sweeping, better-than, best-of terms, it’s useful to remember that a television show/season/episode is a whole. It isn’t individual parts but the interplay. It’s the cumulative experience of all those people turning dials and pulling cranks as video dances across your screen for an hour. A TV show isn’t just a cool five-year arc. Greatness has style and worldview and Tom Hardy.

Film criticism has had generations to absorb, and modern film crit demands real cinema. Television criticism demands middle-class movies, and then it tells us TV is better than film. It’s a popular notion. Sepinwall again: “As Sopranos creator David Chase – who once upon a time wanted nothing more than to get out of the TV business and write films – puts it, ‘Movies went from something really interesting to what we have now.’” I don’t know when Chase said that, but he just made one of the best movies of the year, and it’s more radical than most TV time-capsules dream of. Not Fade Away saw a wide enough release that I caught it at my local AMC-30—and let me tell you Houston is not big on indies—but it was gone before I could see it again. But here’s the salient point: It's not in theaters because nobody saw it, not because nobody made it.

1 More marathon movies that were made for or originally premiered on television: World on a Wire, Scenes from a Marriage, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fanny and Alexander, Heimat, The Decalogue, Carlos, Mildred Pierce, Mysteries of Lisbon. But those don’t count, obviously.

2 Though I’d love to hear why The Immortal Story isn’t art just because Welles made it for television.

3 The fact is they are making adult dramas. Flight, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty are generally accessible. Bernie, The Master, and Magic Mike might take a bit more effort, but they qualify, too. And I haven't even touched thoughtful genre fare.


  1. Great great piece. Thank you.

  2. Then why do you write about television?

  3. I'm very glad you wrote this essay, Brandon. You are correct that the argument "TV is better than film" usually means "American mainstream narrative fiction TV is better than American mainstream narrative fiction film". Critics and writers who argue that TV is better than film usually just pick a few very restricted and narrow examples from both mediums: usually along the lines of "'Breaking Bad', 'Homeland', and 'Mad Men' are better than (the three most recent mainstream vehicles that are doing well in theaters)". The writers who stridently argue that TV is better than film almost never mention reality TV, non-game sports programming, or children and family programming in the TV category, and they rarely mention documentaries, independent film, foreign, and experimental movies in the film category. They also only include and discuss American television and some British TV, and they're always only talking about first-run primetime.

    Why does one medium have to be better than the other? Film and television are very similar mediums, but they are also distinct and separate based on duration time as you mentioned in your post. There are always going to be some films that are better than some shows and some programs that are better than some movies. I think that the trend of some cable and premium channel shows beginning to look and feel more like movies is an interesting change to follow, but that trend in itself does not warrant a need for one medium to be labelled greater than the other.

  4. "Why does one medium have to be better than the other?" As far as I'm concerned, that's all that needs to be said on the subject. Turns out you can explore and engage and love (where "love" is something deeper than puppy slobber) both Enlightened and Side Effects.

  5. Where this hews closer to legitimate controversy is comparing the movie version of an idea and the television version of an idea. Say, MASH, as the ubiquitous example of such things. But even there, your argument stands, that there is more flexibility in depictions of reality in film (so the movie must be better!) whereas there is more opportunity for depth of character in the longer format (so the tv show must be better!). As both have some legitimate ground to stand on, they are both better and both worse - and both certainly offer a specific brand of enjoyment that the other can (generally) only reach for.

    Great post.

  6. Thanks. I sometimes wonder what people mean by "character depth." Certainly TV tends to offer growth: We get to know 2008 Walter White and 2009 Walter and earlier and beyond, although Breaking Bad has made the idea of change a priority. But I'd say we know Lisa in Margaret or Russell in Weekend or Eisenberg's Zuckerberg about as well as we know Coach Taylor or Laura Roslin or Amy Jellicoe or anyone on Luck or Treme. We usually see those TV characters in more situations, but at a certain point, it's rare for longevity to keep fleshing someone out.

    That's off the top of my head, though. I'd love to see a closer analysis that really examines the advantages of TV and the equivalent movies with specific examples.

  7. Point taken, but I think seeing characters in more situations on tv is tantamount to character growth, so long as the situations are novel (uh oh) and the characters' reactions are clearly presented. It's like when I take my lovely lady to Temecula just cause I've never seen her in Temecula. It's her doing the same things she usually does, only with a different background behind her. Makes me feel like I know her better. Sounds weird, but tends to work - in life and in fiction.

  8. I think that comparing the two mediums in terms of "value" (as everyone everywhere seems to want to be doing right now) reveals a problem with the way in which we see TV: as if it's supposed to be replacing cinema, as if being "movie-quality" is it's ultimate goal. Which is ridiculous! It's like saying sculpture>painting. They're different forms that should be used to achieve different fictive goals. That's why my favorite shows are ones that exploit their episodic and seasonal structure in new and creative ways. Television exists. Movies exist. Both can be stupid. Both can be thought provoking. Both can be fun and silly. Both can be excellent, But they're just different things.