Sunday, February 17, 2013
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.
UPDATE: Just to clarify, The Revolution Was Televised is a fascinating read. I'm just jumping off from a few comments in the introduction.
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 3:46 AM