With the combination of regular disappointing trips to the multiplex and the increasingly satisfying experiences viewers are having with television in recent years, it is little wonder that we are regularly seeing the debate that TV has now matured to the point of being better than film. But, is it even fair to compare the two mediums?
James Wolcott argues this month in Vanity Fair that films these days do not meet the lofty standards that are now being set by prestige television series. “Does anyone think The Artist is better than Mad Men?” Wolcott queries. Now before we get too far in, let us disavow the idea that Wolcott is talking about all TV shows and all movies. As we’re all aware, 90% of anything (film, TV, books, music, people, etc) is generally crap. Wolcott is certainly not trying to argue that Breaking Bad is better than Transformers 3: The Dark of The Moon. While that may certainly be the case, that is purely a case of apples vs oranges. No, instead Wolcott is stating that the finest offerings at the cinema – the prestige films, are simply not as good as the finest offerings on TV.
How did we come to this argument? Well, there are a number of factors. Firstly, cinema exhibition has changed in the past 35 years. With the rise of the Spielberg-influenced event film, movie distributors are now reliant on tentpole movies to generate their profits. Films showing in cinemas are now geared, more than ever before, toward teenage audiences to the exclusion of adult audiences. Teens have been the driving force behind movie-going for decades, but it is really only in recent years that adults have simply not been turning up for a lot of the films geared toward mature viewers. Movies for adults are in decline.
At the same time, television has gotten better. As with any medium, it has matured. The 80’s saw shows with more mature storytelling on broadcast networks like Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, and Thirtysomething (ugh) emerge. The 90’s saw this trend continue and evolve further with networks screening series like NYPD Blue, ER, The X-Files, Murder One, and Homicide: Life On The Street. Production qualities saw a rise in quality, matching the maturity of the writing. And the on-screen performances matured with that. The late 90’s through to today shifted the quality paradigm somewhat. Thanks to premium TV offerings across the cable networks like HBO, FX, Showtime, AMC, and more, television storytelling became more complex and involving again. While the networks retreated somewhat back to comfort television, cable TV took on a similar approach and sense of rhythm that we’d seen develop through the 80’s and 90’s in independent films.
Premium television became adult and compelling, while the mainstream theatrical cinema experience became bloated and childish.
Ultimately, though, arguing that The Artist simply isn’t as good as Mad Men is simply a silly way to approach the issue. They’re two different forms of storytelling, each with their own structural requirements and intent. A film is a complete story, told with a beginning, middle, and end over an (approximate) 2-hour timespan. A TV series has a similar story told over multiple chapters, with a significantly larger canvas upon which to tell the story. The story beats will inherently be quite different due to the varied necessities in such a story breakdown. A TV series, while auteur driven (depending on the production, of course) is also far more likely to feature a much wider number of voices heard within the final product with a greater number of writers and directors employed over the duration of the production.
Where the value proposition placed upon Film vs TV exists is not with the content itself, but rather in the audience reaction to the content. TV is not better than Film,rather, it has taken greater relevancy in our lives. A shift has occurred in the resonance that TV has over Film today. We simply don’t talk about Film today with the enthusiasm or explore it as often as we do with television. You’re more likely to hear someone go on at length about the meanings that exist within the writing of an episode of Breaking Bad than you would about the writing on the Academy Award winning film The Descendants.
Viewers still consider both to be separate mediums, each requiring their own approach to reading and consuming the text. Consider the new HBO series Girls. Immediately the criticism of the series came from those who found the characters unlikable and unrelatable. They’re rarely criticisms that one would hear regarding a film (outside of market testing, of course). They certainly weren’t complaints made often of Lena Dunhams feature film Tiny Furniture, a film that shares many valid comparisons to her new TV series. The difference lies with the fact that viewers know that the television ride is much longer. To get something out of Girls requires a commitment of at least 6 hours to wade through the first season of the show, as opposed to a 2 hour Tiny Furniture runtime.
If TV is superior to film, why can one seemingly not have a show featuring such challenging and unrelatable characters? Surely, if we’re to use the TV > Film belief, such characters should be able to be depicted across both with few batting an eyelid. Instead, it appears that many viewers cited difficulty with it. I don’t think less of these viewers for finding the idea of spending 6+ hours with the characters daunting, but rather their instinctual reaction is perhaps a sign that they are different mediums and require a different approach that is neither better, nor lesser to what one can do within a film.
Is TV better than film? Heavens no. We’re just talking about it a whole lot more these days.