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Television’s Brave New World: Better Than Film?

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This week, Newsweek ran an article claiming that TV has surpassed film as a visual storytelling medium. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and my conclusion is that TV is in a golden age akin to the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s. The thing that really prompted me to address this is that so many TV shows are hailed for being "more like a movie than a TV show," with seasons made up of a bunch of "little movies." However, the way things have gone, saying that a TV show is like a movie isn't so much of a compliment. I think we've reached the point where the best movies should be hailed for their TV series-like complexity.

Now, the thing about evaluating television is the fact that everything on it is grouped into one catergory. So, you get a lot of people who look down on TV, witness the classic Onion article: "Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn't Own a Television". Yes, the vast majority of stuff shown on TV is crap, but saying you won't watch television because of reality TV is like saying that you won't read a book because of The National Enquirer.

That said, I think peoples' perceptions are changing. The most important development affecting peoples' perception of television has been the rise of TV on DVD. I remember back when the first season of The X-Files was coming out, it was this completely unprecedented thing, that you could easily go back and review the series in order, without having to tape each episode in its syndication airing. It's a lot easier for people to appreciate a series without the commercials, viewing everything in sequence.

Concurrent with this was the rise of the Internet, which made it a lot easier to keep track of series and find other fans to talk about stuff with. The Internet is much more suited to television than film because TV series have new content weekly, and on top of that, there's speculation about the future of the series to talk about. I have no data to support this, but I think reading Internet reaction to shows changed the way producers perceive the audience. If you're not getting any real feedback, it would be tough to tell how much of the show people really did remember, but when the fans are calling the producers of the show on continuity mistakes, it becomes clear that fans are able to keep up with even the most continuity intensive plot lines.

Twin Peaks was a critical innovator in bringing unprecedented artistry and style to television. Following that was The X-Files, which effectively shows the world of TV in transition. On the one hand, it's a standalone procedural series; you can tune into most episodes and get everything you need to know from the hour. However, with the mythology arc, the show ran an extended, long form story that took roughly 60 episodes to complete, many dependent on your knowledge of what happened in earlier seasons to understand.

And at the end of the '90s, two shows emerged that forever changed television: The Sopranos and 24. The Sopranos was notable for many reasons. For one, it started the pay cable original series trend. This was a show that fully exploited its freedom from network censorship, with all kinds of violence and sex.

However, a bigger impact was the fact that the show was just so good that even people who usually dismissed TV had to take notice of it. The Sopranos completely raised the bar on what was possible to do on TV, and other shows struggled to catch up. It was also one of the first shows to consistently present a morally ambiguous universe. Our hero made a lot of bad decisions, and you don't like him — it's more that you're fascinated by him. If previous TV shows used their characters as an idealized alternate family for the viewer, The Sopranos was one where you loved to watch Tony, but had no desire to run into him in real life.

24 brought a lot of what The Sopranos did to network TV, and thus democratized it. HBO's whole slogan was "It's not TV. It's HBO," which appealed to those people who considered themselves above television. 24 showed that a network show could do extreme serialization and still be successful. This is a show where you don't miss an episode — you're either watching the whole day or you're not watching, and that was a new way for network shows to work.

The other change was to bring the morally ambiguous hero to network TV. I think TV changed forever with the second season premiere, when Jack asked for a hacksaw to cut the head off a man he'd just killed. Jack was a guy who didn't care if you didn't like him, he was going to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. And as part of the stories, you frequently saw problems with no easy solution, where Jack would make a huge sacrifice to get something done. Witness the killing of Chapelle in year three, or the Paul Raines vs. terrorist emergency room scene in year four.

Many shows since have taken on the violence and "anything can happen" feel of 24. Battlestar Galactica, particularly in the miniseries, had a lot of those "no easy choice" scenarios. The scene with Roslin leaving the little girl behind to die would not have happened if 24 didn't exist.

And both series are examples of long form storytelling. On The Sopranos, there's almost always a follow-up on what happened the previous week, and when there's not, we know that it's still affected Tony. Everything that happens is part of these characters' lives and factors into the way they live. So, the TV series became less a bunch of episodes and more one long form work, broken into chapters.

So, while all this was happening we've seen people talking about the artistic bankruptcy of Hollywood filmmaking. When a movie like Crash wins best picture, it's clear something is wrong with Hollywood's definition of quality. This has prompted people to lament the fact that Hollywood has fallen so far from its creative golden age in the '70s (including me). And I would stand by the idea that the American film scene is nowhere near as exciting or innovative as it was in the '70s.

But, looking at the situation, I realized that in thirty years they're going to talk about today's TV like they're talking about the films of the '70s. What are the similarities? For one, both eras came about as a result of the easing of standards. It's mind boggling to think that into the '60s, the production code was still strictly regulating the content of films, and for a long while, those same standards were held on television. The emergence of cable shows has completely changed the game, allowing for shows that have even greater boundaries than most films.  Even on the networks, there's room for a lot more sexuality and violence than would have been possible earlier. There may be some groups trying to stop that, but for the most part, there's more room for developing stories than there was before.

What was the other big development of the '70s? Auteur filmmaking, and on TV we're beginning to see the emergence of a class of auteur show runners, who have near total control over the content and direction of their series. Because shows became more long form, the guiding hand of the show runner became more apparent. In the '70s, filmmakers were given a lot more freedom to do what they wanted without studio interference. With TV, it seems like most of the show runners are being given a free hand to do what they want, certainly more than filmmakers who are dealing with constant studio interference. The reason for this is if your show gets high ratings, you've basically proven that what you're doing works. So, the network has no reason to mess with it. No studio is going to make a film as consistently ambiguous as Lost, but on TV, as long as the ratings are good, they'll let the ambiguity continue.

Obviously, some people have more autonomy than others. I get the feeling that David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, has become the Kubrick of television, doing whatever he wants whenever he wants. If Chase was doing a film, there's no way he'd have the autonomy that he does on The Sopranos because there'd be no guarantee that it'd be successful. People aren't watching The Sopranos for David Chase, they're watching it for Tony and his family. Like in film, very few TV people have become brands unto themselves. Joss Whedon is probably the most notable example, though his fan base clearly wasn't large enough to support Firefly on its own.

But as long as you stick with the main show, you can do whatever you want. Chase may take heat for his dream sequences, but people are still watching the show. TV gives you the ability to experiment with an almost guaranteed audience, and the critical reason why that's possible is the emotional connection to the characters. David Lynch's most abstract work is in the last episode of Twin Peaks, a piece that can be completely symbolic and abstract, and still be emotionally affecting. Because we know the character so well, when Cooper goes through the lodge world, we don't watch with a detached perspective, we're on that journey with him. Similarly, Joss Whedon's experimental Buffy episodes, notably "Restless" and "Once More With Feeling" work because of what we know about the characters. If he was to just write an original musical, it'd probably be good, but in combining the musical with the existing TV universe, it becomes great.

Over the past few years, as I've watched a whole bunch of fantastic long form TV shows, I've also become increasingly disenchanted with traditional Hollywood films. The depth and nuance of the characters on a Buffy or Six Feet Under makes the plot-serving people in most films seem utterly contrived. Compare Firefly the show to Serenity the film. In Firefly you've got a large ensemble cast of people, all doing their own thing, living their lives as the show goes along. Sometimes big stuff happens to them, sometimes they just coast. Even though Mal is the leader, everyone has an equally interesting and developed life.

In Serenity, Mal is clearly front and center, and a lot of the supporting cast is defined by just one trait. They all have their own little goals, and they're so resolutely focused on them. It's the necessity of the film to fit everyone into an arc, and Whedon does an admirable job of it, but it feels contrived. Compare the tentative dance of the developing relationship between Simon and Kaylee in the show to the very clear "she wants this guy" arc in the movie. In the film, that goal is her sole characteristic, the thing that defines her. There's a much clearer main character/supporting cast divide in film, whereas the genius of Buffy, for example, was that we got just as much insight into Xander or Willow as we did into Buffy. The main character is usually the least interesting; Han Solo trumps Luke Skywalker and Willow or Xander trumped Buffy. But if Buffy were a movie, even one true to Joss' vision, Xander and Willow would have been little more than one-note comic relief, and Buffy herself would never have the depth that she did on the series.

Up until recently, most TV people talked about using it as a way to get into films. David Chase made it clear that he'd rather be in films and Joss Whedon did as well. Recently, Chase seems to be acknowledging that what he's done in TV goes beyond what could be done in a film. Alan Ball also made it clear that Six Feet Under was his greatest creative achievement, and he's already jumped back in to work on a new pilot for HBO.

Joss remains pointed towards features, and that's not something I'm thrilled with. I would guess part of that is the fact that his two most recent shows were canceled, but I'd rather see him try to get a pilot on HBO than go forward with Goners. I'm sure it's a terrible grind doing a series, but creatively, Buffy or Angel make nearly every feature film ever made pale in comparison.

The way I see it now, TV has raised the bar for film to a different level. Serenity is a perfectly entertaining movie, a well told story, but that's all it is. Compared to Joss' TV work, it's pretty insignificant. The films I'm most interested in seeing now are the ones that do what TV cannot, namely focus on style and composition in a way the TV schedule doesn't allow for. For all its merits, TV still suffers from the fact that it must be filmed so quickly. Even the best directors can't make every shot great when you're shooting an episode in eight days.

What films can do is make those perfectly constructed worlds. Wong Kar-Wai is a perfect example of this, a guy who creates films where each image is a beautiful work of art unto itself, films that are more an atmosphere, a feeling than a story. I want films that you get lost in.

That's not to say you can't still make a good film that's a straightforward narrative, just you have to raise the bar. Magnolia is an example of a film that is simultaneously a wonderful piece of visual/sonic fusion and also creates characters with the depth of a long-running TV series. It's a movie I would say is more like TV than cinema and mean it as a great compliment.

And finally, much like the creators of the show, a lot of TV actors used to see it primarily as a stepping stone to films. Sarah Michelle Gellar left Buffy for the "greener pastures" of cinema. Now, from a money and time point of view, film is much better for an actor than TV, but from an artistic perspective, the best TV shows offer actors so much more than films.

As Buffy, Gellar got to do everything, from really broad comedy to painful drama, often within the same episode. Watching her in The Grudge, she didn't even have a character. She was just a person who stood there while stuff popped out. I think she spent more time promoting The Grudge than she did actually acting in it.

For an actor, doing a TV show is a risk. You could end up in a show that fails, which would tarnish your reputation and hurt your chances of getting future film roles. Or you could end up on a show that gets enough ratings to keep going, but no buzz. The actors in Lost may get written about now, but come season six, will anyone still care? And more importantly, you'd be past your prime and thus unlikely to get any good parts once the show finishes. And even in the best of cases, you're still stuck in one role for many years.

However, the best shows give actors possibilities they would never have in a film. James Gandolfini is a prime example. This is a guy who's been in a bunch of movies in supporting roles. Then he does The Sopranos and creates one of the most compelling characters ever seen. Alyson Hannigan is another prime example; seeing her in something like Date Movie is painful because on Buffy she showed such varied potential, and post-Buffy she's just doing one type of role.

In a lot of cases, the acting on these shows is so good, people forget that these people aren't just playing themselves. I was shocked when I heard James Marsters or Alexis Denisof's actual speaking voices, you completely believe that they're British. Same thing with Gandolfini's accent. It's not until you're aware that this is in fact a performance that you can appreciate what they're doing. This is where the fear of typecasting comes in. When someone is so good, it becomes tough to see them in another kind of role. I've talked to multiple people who were really surprised to learn that neither Michael C. Hall or Matthew St. Patrick were actually gay.

Ultimately, I feel like this is what real acting is about, totally becoming a character. The Academy Awards usually award showy performances, where the performance is an attraction in and of itself. It's like special effects, the Academy is going to award the shot that makes you go "Whoa, that was an awesome effect," whereas the best effects are the ones you don't even know are there. And that's the best kind of acting. You never say, "Wow, Peter Krause is great as Nate," you only see Nate.

So, what's the conclusion? Basically, the most exciting and innovative storytelling right now is happening in TV. If I had the choice between having the chance to make a big studio movie or an HBO series, I'd go with the series, and an increasing number of creative people are making that choice as well. We've been so conditioned to think that two hours is the time that a story must be told in, it's liberating to have the chance to see something that goes into more depth.

Conventional wisdom holds that The Godfather is one of the top five movies of all time. The Sopranos does everything The Godfather does and goes way beyond it; doesn't that mean that The Sopranos is better than any movie ever made?

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About Patrick

  • Patrick. Your article on TV vs Movies (the line begins to blur more when both can go on a vcd, dvd, iPod, or Swiss Army Knife) is so well-written, considered and backed up that it is extremely hard to disagree.

    In spite of liking the article and your extensive, personal blog, I have to disagree with the basic premise. TV is not the same as movies and normally fails to compete. There seems to be some basic lack that – not the screen size anymore – TV and TV series cannot overcome.

    “The Sopranos” I find totally unwatchable although I have tried. The Godfather was an epic work with some great actors (Marlon Brando on the other end of his career from On The Waterfront) and acting, excitement and enough violence to please the most battle-hardened 12 year old boy. I saw it. I realized it was a fine work. I didn’t like it.

    The Sopranos is similar. Lighting has gotten more depth than soap operas had, the acting is, perhaps, more effective than some old TV series but the basic lack of creativity, vision and excellence that is, sometimes, seen in a real movie is still missing. Only the chase scenes remain with a layer of purely prurient, often violent sex added. An expectation of our times.

    I write from the viewpoint of living mostly on the southern frontier of Mexico and unwilling to pay for satellite service, I have missed most of the last decade’s shows. It was not a great loss. During the past few weeks living in Florida I had cable with 70 channels or so and a lot of work finding something worth seeing. I always ended up with a movie after some news.

    Magnolia is a film I just saw and am digesting. The jury is out. The things that annoyed me in it were TV flaws — violence, grittiness, lack of motivation and plot twists a la David Lynch that were merely odes to Lynch rather than useful devices.

    It still leaves me admiring your article whether or not I agree with it.

  • foolkiller

    “The Sopranos does everything The Godfather does and goes way beyond it; doesn’t that mean that The Sopranos is better than any movie ever made?”

    You completely fail to take into account the time factor. How many hours of experience are in the Godfather, compared to how many hours of the Sopranos?

    The TV pieces you lavish deserved praise upon are all huge pieces of work, and to attempt comparison is like trying to compare a comic strip to Lord of the Rings (the books). One has much more time and words to expand and fill the imaginative world out.

    I will say, it is a thoughtful and well written article, the only flaw is as I have pointed out, one should refrain from attempting to compare different things as if they were more than superficially similar.

  • Thoughtful piece, Patrick, and while I haven’t seen The Sopranos, I do have to say that both Buffy and Battlestar Galactica are huge favorites of mine.

    Having said that, I think that comparing these two mediums (media?) is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. One of the reasons that television is so compelling is that the characters are people we build up a long-term relationship with — we invite them into our homes on a weekly basis, sometimes for years at a time. A movie is a different animal altogether.

    If The Sopranos goes far beyond what The Godfather did — and what does that mean, anyway? — is it necessarily better? No, it just means it’s a different type of storytelling designed for a completely different venue.

    We do need to get rid of our “TV is inferior” mindset, though — many of the shows you’ve mentioned are certainly as good in their way as a good film. Some of it is utter crap, but then so are a lot of movies.

  • foolkiller

    Oh yes, simple correction. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was indeed a movie, long before the TV series, starring Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland.

  • Angus

    Totally agree.

  • Chris

    The only problem I have with TV shows is they almost never have a decent ending. The drive to keep a successful show on the air is so strong that a solid ending frequently fails to materialize (X-files). If it is doing poorly in the ratings, the show just ends (Twin Peaks). Neither of those is a good idea.

    Shows that have a tendency to end seasons on a cliff-hanger (Battlestar Galactica) make me nervous because you never know when it will just disappear. Buffy had it right; make each season ender a satisfying potential end to the series.

    With a movie, at least you always get an ending, and even if they overstay their welcome with a long run time, it is never more than an hour, and rarely ruins the movie, whereas a weak last season or two can really kill the memory of a show (X-Files again, Smallville jumped a couple of seasons ago, and I’m afraid Lost is next)

  • Mike

    WORD. I’ve preferred TV to film for a couple of years now, and own more seasons of TV shows (Buffy, Angel, Wonderfalls, Firefly, West Wing, BSG, Dead Like Me, Rome, et. al.) than I do movies.

  • “TV is not the same as movies and normally fails to compete.” – Howard

    Thanks for the compliments on the article, if I hadn’t seen the last decade of shows, I’d agree with you, up until recently, TV was missing something that the movies had, but it’s changed recently. I would agree that film generally has higher production values, but even that’s changing. Battlestar Galactica is as consistently visually inventive as any film you’re likely to see in the theater.

    In general, I’d agree that the disparity in time makes it difficult to compare, but I’m more interested in redefining the terms of the argument, which up until recently had said that movies are by default better than TV.

    That said, endings are still an issue. I’m hoping we’ll see more shows like Babylon 5 and Buffy that had a clear creative direction, and chose to end at a logical point in the story, rather than something like The X-Files whihc just kept going and killed the good work of the previous seasons.