Is television really the new cinema? Or is that just something TV people like to say?
The telecast of the Emmys on Sunday -- and the "Mad Men" and "Modern Family" dominance thereof -- once more threw into relief the arguments about television beating film at its own game of character and narrative.
The idea that contemporary television does storytelling -- particularly drama -- better than its cinematic counterpart has been advanced for a while now, especially by those, well, working in television. It's been particularly present this summer. Writing about FX chief John Landgraf at the Television Critics Assn. Tour earlier this month, Forbes' Lacey Rose noted that "rather than lament the loss of the creatively ambitious, mid-priced drama that once brought multidimensional characters to the big screen, he, like ... many of his cable cohorts, has stepped up to fill the void."
Storytelling on the small screen is deeper and richer, the television camp maintains, than it is on the effects- and brand-obsessed big screen of the studio system -- or, for that matter, in an indie-film world that has gone stale. Which is why, the argument goes, the best actors now regularly choose cable. Or as Michael Tolkin, "The Player" scribe and unofficial avatar of the disenchanted-screenwriters movement, told us a few years ago: "Character has migrated to television."
Few would deny that cable has upped its game (and everyone else's in television) over the last decade, as the wave of "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "The Shield" hit, followed soon after by "Damages," "Dexter" and "Mad Men," to name a few examples. And network comedies such as this year's Emmy-winning "Modern Family" and previous Emmy darling "30 Rock" can offer a sharp kick to the gut of contemporary life.
The movie industry, meanwhile, has hardly helped its own cause this summer, cynically churning out a series of forgettable big-budget brands wearing the clothes of a real movie.
But the TV First argument has holes aplenty. Those who advance it point to how much more story and character development television offers. But TV has an innate advantage in this department; that's how it goes when you have as many as 20 or 30 screen hours to develop a story instead of 1 1/2 or two. Unlike TV, movies are not designed to play over a long period or to follow the jagged EKG of characters' lives over the years. It's like asking an opera singer to rap and then wondering why she can't rhyme. The better question to ask of both film and television is not how much time each one takes but what it does with the time it has.
And here the film camp gets a big bump. The urgency and immersiveness of the medium still trump television when each is at the top of its game. For all the great TV series in recent years, are there three hours of television as ambitious or energized as, say, "Avatar" or "The Dark Knight"? We're sure some readers will think there are plenty -- or find reasons to hate on those movies -- but we've racked our brains and can't come up with anything.
Films like those get to play with more money than television ever does, you say. Fair enough. Yet the situation isn't much different as one moves down the budget spectrum, right down to the low-mid range that cable ostensibly specializes in. Are there two hours of television in the last few years that achieved, on the screen and in our minds, what "The Hurt Locker" or "Slumdog Millionaire" did? It's hard to see even TV Firsters like Landgraf not jumping at the chance to produce and premiere either of those movies over pretty much any couple hours-worth of material they currently have in development.Film's detractors will say these are the exceptions, and cite the derivative action spectacles and litany of flat comedies that make up so many studio slates these days. But for every piece of two-bit lameness that finds its way to the multiplex there are also many analogues on the small screen, endlessly interchangeable procedurals and three-jokes-per-minute sitcoms. At least with movies they're gone after a weekend.
And much of the TV First argument ignores the material that really powers television: nonfiction programming. Film documentaries have become sophisticated, multiflowered things, serious and entertaining in equal measure -- anyone doubting that need only see movies such as "Catfish" and "Waiting for Superman" this fall. Television nonfiction is largely wife-swapping and karaoke.
Of course, skeptics will say that all quality is subjective. Perhaps. But then the best evidence for film's supremacy over television may lie with what people will sacrifice to watch their favorites. As with film, the biggest TV hits draw tens of millions of viewers. But how many of these people would pay ten dollars dollars to see a episodes?Sure, this summer has been, on balance, dreadful for filmgoing. And plenty of studio development seems uninspired, done by committee, or worse. But that hardly means it's all on a downward spiral. Call it warm-weather optimism, but despite the movie industry's financial and creative crises, the fall is shaping up to be one of the most promising in years, dotted with potential gems such as "Never Let Me Go," "The Social Network," "The Town" and "Black Swan," among others.
There is, of course, room for great narrative in all mediums (well, except maybe Web video). To engage the film-versus-television question is not only to ask how many angels dance on the head of a pin, but which pin they're more likely to dance on. Few outside Hollywood care where strong entertainment comes from, as long as it comes.
Still, if you're going to ask which system is more likely to give us -- and actually has given us -- the most memorable and enduring dramas and comedies, our feeling is that it's nice that television has (inspired by great cinema) upped its level of quality. But much of the strongest and richest entertainment is still where it's always been: at the movies.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Mad Men." Credit: Lionsgate Television
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