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Is television really the new cinema? Or is that just something TV people like to say?

August 31, 2010 |  8:00 am

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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Comments () | Archives (18)

The comments to this entry are closed.

It sounds to me like you are more of a film lover than a TV lover, Steven -- and that's perfectly fine. Regardless of what anyone else tries to justify, quality is indeed completely subjective in the end and one person's narrative gold is another's sleep-inducing trash.

I am both a movie and television lover and they are on all in all equal terms for me in their pluses and minuses; one can do certain things better than the other and vice versa. For anyone who just plain loves storytelling at the end of the day no matter what art form or medium it is coming out of, this is a nice mindset to have.

TV has taken a giant step up in recent years. There were inklings of how good it could be, but when shows like LOST began popping onto the airwaves, it's like the nation's expectations of TV could finally be elevated.

I don't think TV is necessarily better or worse than film, because in each medium, for every gem triumphantly pulled from the pile, someone's sifted through a whole lot of crap to get it. However, TV is a newer art form than film, and because it was such a baby, we learned to expect little from it. Now, as it grows up, the audience benefits, and we should, and can expect more. I think film might need to watch its back...

Mr. Zeitchik ignores one very significant point: theatrical film is largely a visual medium, television has primarily been a verbal one, literally "radio with pictures", as it was once dismissed by either Fred Allen or Oscar Levant. This stems from a major difference between the two mediums sixty years ago. Television could not reproduce the rich visual imagery of even glossy black-and-white A films, nor did they have the budgets to compete. Thus, back then television became a haven for character driven drama and it gradually disappeared from the big screen, particularly after the rise of the tv movie in the Seventies and home video in the Eighties. The easy availability of such films in the home made older adults less willing to put up with the hassles of going to the theater. It's significant that Zeitchik cites AVATAR and THE DARK KNIGHT as examples of contemporary cinema at its best as these are both the type of projects best suited to big screen presentation, but can only come up with examples of art house films for comparison to contemporary tv. Contrary to the usual claims made by most so-called knowledgeable commentators on theatrical film, art house films have never had the popularity of the kind of mainstream films often dismissed by such commentators as "movie movies." This debate needs a more honest and better historically researched discussion.

Rick Mitchell
Film Editor/Film Historian

I can't keep up with all the movies coming out lately. TV has blessed me with shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men. However, I'm still waiting for a Sopranos movie.

What a great article. One can only be amazed at the quality of the writing in general for Television, how well it's done on production schedules that demand bulk as well as quality.

And yet Television too often treats camera and editing as recording devices rather than means of expression. Too often the scripts bog down in dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Too often the editing simply cuts between one on-screen speaker and then the next.

However, in my opinion the single most important artistic advance Television could make would be to start listing directors and writers in its advertising rather than simply listing the stars. How many directors' or writers' names appear in the most recent TV Guide for example?

Many thanks,

Christopher B

An interesting debate to have. I don't necessarily agree with him. This has been a terrible year for movies and I don't see that "The Black Swan" is going to save it.

To begin with his argument that people are willing to spend 10 bucks (where does he live?) on a film but not for TV...he must be getting only local broadcast stations. I don't know about you, but the amount of money I spend on my monthly satellite bill far exceeds what I'm shelling out for going to theaters. The argument also doesn't hold up as those people aren't spending their hard-earned dollars on so-called "quality" product. "Hurt Locker" didn't exactly break the bank. Neither will "The Black Swan"

And the limitations of the 2 hour format doesn't hold up as an argument either. TV churns out just as much lame content in this category as Hollywood (hello, Lifetime, Hallmark and SyFy). But TV also produces "Temple Grandin" and "Grey Gardens" and "You Don't Know Jack" and "The Special Relationship". Do I need to go on?

And as far as non-fiction programming...yes, a lot of reality TV is prurient and tasteless. But so were the "Jackass" and Sacha Baron Cohen franchises. People still lined up to spend their ten bucks on those. So what was this guy doing every Monday night this summer when HBO was airing critically acclaimed documentaries that were produced for TV? Just this week...how did he miss Spike Lee's masterful follow-up to "When The Levees Broke"? And hasn't this guy seen any of the "30 on 30" series that have been airing on ESPN for the past year? "The Two Escobars" alone stands as one of the finest pieces of documentary film making...ever.

So there is room for narrative in ALL mediums...yes, even web video. Most people under the age of 30 (a pretty significant demographic for the consumption of entertainment) watches a lot of their movies and TV on their computers. Get used to it.

The article forgot the most salient point. Huge flat screen TV's WITH DVR's within reach on my toilet, fridge, and puppy.

Small scale TV becomes 50 inch plasma, big scale features become 50 inch plasma. And the TV shows are way more enhanced than the features are diminished. Lastly, I don't get pissed when I see crap on TV, I change the channel. But I tend to get worked up when 10 bucks buys me the drivel that is 90% of studio offerings. Bottom line, TV kicks butt. ps The Dark Knight wasn't fun, it was a massive downer.

Oh, good lord no. Television and film serve completely different purposes. To even suggest they are the same is to not understand the purpose of either.

Add this, as reported by the BBC today. American cinema, while making money due in large part to higher ticket prices, is seeing its lowest attendance in five years.


I love going to the movies but don't see many Hollywood big budget movies--I don't have to I live in LA. This was a summer rich in documentaries (Restrepo and The Tillman Story), repertory (M and Night of the Hunter at the New Beverly), foreign (Valhalla Rising and I Am Love), and revival (Breathless). Inception was the one Hollywood blockbuster I saw--I loved it and saw it again. I also love what's going on on the television screen. My time spent watching The Wire were some of the finest times I've spent watching television-simply amazing. Bleak House and Little Dorritt still haunt me. Mad Men is just perfect. I also really like The League, Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Louie--awesome on the edge comedy not found in movie comedies (with the exception of the hilarious Hangover). I miss good Hollywood movies but I feel privileged that these two mediums so perfectly work together right now. Oops--got to go--need to clear my DVR queue for Sons of Anarchy and get my tickets for Machete- ain't life grand!

I've thought much the same over the last year or two. TV in many ways seems better right now. Dexter, Six Feet Under for a time, Rome, Deadwood, Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire and now Breaking Bad are all right on films doorstep with some real advantages. The real advantage being they let you enter that world for a long period and have more time to tell you the story etc.. Perhaps it's the acting has gotten better as well for TV? And movie acting? Well do many act anymore or just props for the fireworks, car crashes and gun scenes or flying. And there are great movies but many seem less than. Redone retold stories with new faces. And you say but how can we be original in such a flooded market but Mad Men. Deaxter, Breaking Bad have done it. So where's the remote? The movie theatre's have now become punishment boxes before the movie begins with 20 previews of things you do not want to see nor hear.

I didn't even read the article, no time right now, but just my answer to the first question in the title: I sure hope not.

One thing I think you're overlooking is that the technology of television has changed - screens have become larger, the image is higher quality, and the sound has improved.

That's really forced television to make the visual and aural experience more cinema-like. The smaller tvs with low definition and smeared colors would really hide some of the shortcuts in sets, cinematography and direction that would happen with quickie tv shows in the past. In addition, the home viewing experience is really closer to a "home cinema".

The movie industry is doing the same thing it did in the fifties when tv first emerged as a competitor. Rather than touting widescreen Cinemascope epics, color, stereophonic sound and 3d, the studios are rolling out films that feature things you can't get in a home theater - really loud sound, expensive cgi, and, of course, 3D.

I think the business will shift in a few years. Movies had a renaissance for adult audiences in the 1960s and 70s when they focused less on technology and more on stories, characters, and filmmaking techniques that could be experienced, shared - and talked about - as a communal experience.

In the end, that communal experience of an audience filling a theater is the thing that home viewing can't duplicate and that's where cinema's future is.

I wouldn't call Avatar or The Dark Knight movies that had much character development or plot. They were more what movies tend to be these days - visual extravaganzas and little else. I remember seeing coming attractions when I went to see Avatar and the three films the theatre previewed were all exactly the same in look, feel, noise, you name it. Movies are turning into giant video games, and it's getting old. TV is picking up on the lack of character and plot and running with it. The briefer running time of a film is no excuse. Something like The Hunt for Red October had plenty of character, plot AND visuals in a couple hours. The film people can do it and will do it when attendance hurts the pocketbook.

You cite comic books made big as great Film? Flat out sad.
What you're touching on is the inherent disadvantage of the two hour Plex. Truth is for "character development" between novels and short stories the novel wins out. But novels usually suffer when made into movies; short stories are the basis of many a great film however. The TV form offers a far more tractable medium for novelization and if in the modern age networks become more comfortable with limited series again cf. "Shogun" "Roots" I think you'll see even more filmmakers drawn to TV.
As for me, the best thing in the last 20 years in anyway shape or form was "Twin Peaks".

I am a fan of both media, but I will disgree with you by answering your questions:

Q: 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"?

A: The pilot of "LOST"; the first 3 hours of Season 1 of "24"

Q: 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?

A: The Season 2 finale of "Fringe"; "Temple Grandin"; the 2 hour Hawaii arc of "Modern Family"; I found the pilot of "Battlestar Galactica" to be the equal to "Hurt", and the single episode of Desperate Housewives with Beau Bridges as 'Eli Scruggs' made me laugh and cry more than "Slumdog"...

It's not just people working in television that are saying this, but it might comfort you to believe otherwise. Try A.O. Scott (read his piece "The Screening of America") and even the late Pauline Kael in one of her final interviews.

In response to "The Hurt Locker," see the HBO miniseries "Generation Kill." As for "Slumdog Millionaire," well... I'm sure you could have come up with a better example than that.

Are any two hours of television as memorable as "The Hurt Locker" or "Slumdog Millionaire"?

Yes plenty,... if we were to compare oranges with oranges for "The Hurt Locker" try "Over There" or even "Generation Kill'' on for size. It is the narrative scope of the FX and HBO series' that made me care, even worry for the fate of its characters."The Hurt Locker" on the other hand came off as a well executed but dim-witted tale of an adrenaline junkie that deserved to be blown apart if for nothing than just for those bloody cowboy boots and everything compressed into that purportedly clever but spectacularly dumb signifier.

And the "Slumdog Millionaire" was a 2 hours long crash course in affirmation of every clichéd trope about India already circulating in the West; from child prostitution to call centres. If these cultural soft spots had been spread over the course of say a 13 episode series they would have emerged as less of contrivances than they did in the film. And perhaps the tale would have been less of an insult than so many Indians obviously felt this film to be.


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