Thursday, September 9, 2010

TV vs. Movies

Did you read the recent NYT editorial "Are films bad, or is TV just better?". The article cites the obsessive fandom and acclaim for several great TV series and wonders why movies can't excite the public in the same way? There are a few interesting online responses to this perennial question. I love this history heavy emotional commitment focused piece at Observations on Film Art. And Movie|Line responded with some smart points beating me to the punch.

There’s something inherently flawed with that initial premise because Scott seems to be forgetting about plenty of recent, comparable movies; didn’t The Kids Are All Right address “modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of Modern Family,” only moreso? Isn’t there an apt comparison to be made between Inception and Lost, two twisty sci-fi genre amalgams that sparked fervent discussion and debate?
I actually wrote up a piece on this very editorial before it was published and saved the draft. I can't find it right now. Argh. "How could you respond to something before it's published" you ask? Well, because this faulty argument is very familiar. In this years-old argument people cite absolutely brilliant TV series like Mad Men (or The Wire or The Sopranos in previous years) and other well loved series like Lost or Breaking Bad or Modern Family or outrageously popular ones like True Blood or Glee and then they begin gnashing their teeth and uttering things like "what's wrong with the movies?" after which they cite numerous lame studio releases as evidence that they've asked a good question.

Well, it is a question. I don't know about good.

Comparing the best of one medium to the average to worst of another is always going to get you into trouble. It's a) unfair and b) dumb. The best of one artform will be better than the worst of another 100 times out of 100. But, what's more, the two mediums have a different set of artistic rules and should be judged separately. Yes, it's very exciting what's happening in the best of television these days. I wholeheartedly agree. I'm watching more television this year than I have in probably a decade. But what's happening in the best series is not happening to all of television anymore than the glorious build up and maintaining of tension in last year's Best Picture The Hurt Locker is true of all action movies and thrillers or that the quality of the 3D in Avatar extends to all movies released in 3D.

my 10 favorite current TV shows (alpha order): 30 Rock, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Glee (guilty pleasure division), Mad Men, Modern Family, Nurse Jackie, RuPaul's Drag Race, True Blood and United States of Tara

My theory as to why this question keeps cropping up and why television is having a very good run boils down to the HBO model and a matter of accessibility, two things that the movies can't have and choose not to have, respectively. The HBO model of short seasons without reruns interrupting the initial run has finally begun to trickle down into the networks. Seasons are shorter insuring easier quality control, less creative burnout and a more cohesive longform narrative; the latter is what TV was always built to do brilliantly but which few shows used to capitalized on preferring half hour or one hour complete within themselves mini-movies (with notable exceptions like Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The accessibility issue is more complicated. TV is always going to be more popular than movies because it's easier to see and it's free (or charges on a subscription basis, which is easier to pretend you're not paying for ...and even then it's still way cheaper than going to the movies.)

So I'm confused as to why people suddenly think TV is more popular? Hasn't it always been? It's rarely been as respected but it's popularity has never been in question.

The question that people should be asking is so complicated that I don't even know where to begin. Plus, I can't pretend to have an answer. The right question to ask is not "why is TV better than the movies?" but maybe "Why do audiences get excited and obsess over critically acclaimed television but avoid so many critically acclaimed movies?"

I think that that's the question to be asking. Theoretically wouldn't the audiences for smart, creative and/or emotionally complex television shows also enjoy movies like The Hurt Locker and Winter's Bone and Julia and Bright Star and Inception and any number of foreign imports and even experimental or foreign festival sensations instead of going to see The Expendables or lining up for the latest superhero flick with everyone else? Why do people obsessively love Mad Men but complain if they see a movie where the characters are unlikeable? (Watch Mad Men for more than two episodes and you realize that there's not one character that's warm and fuzzy. No, not even Peggy.)

tiny box office / obsessive fan love
Why are they never cited in 'movies > tv' arguments whereas critical darling tv shows are cited, despite being midgets compared to almighty ratings champs like "Two and a Half Men"?

I'm assuming the complicated but as yet unrevealed answer involves economics. Movies cost way too much to make and market and are mysteriously not supported by advertising the way television is despite having the same amount of commercials. We've also got a broken distribution system which we've discussed to much already -- even if someone wants to see I Am Love they have to live in certain places in order to purchase it. Finally there's the very real issue of habit and conditioning. It's easier to give a television series you've heard is great a second chance even if you didn't like it the first time you watched than it is to buy a ticket to a movie you didn't "get" the first time after reading reviews proclaiming it to be a masterpiece. And that's just one example. But how would the movies get more accessible besides dropping prices which they should have done long ago?

And how would the audience get less suspicious of the unfamiliar? TV shows have an easier hurdle here in terms of original concepts getting play. They really do... though you wouldn't know this from the still ubiquitous three choice drama problem: do you want cops, doctors or lawyers? If a totally unique show has been on the air for a few seasons you get acclimated to it without even watching it (it's in the pop culture air). Eventually you might join in and catch up but movies only get one shot at your love and if you don't like the ad campaign the first time they're toast. They don't really stay "in the air" because they have such short windows of play and those windows aren't cyclical. If a TV show isn't cancelled it gets several years to convince you to watch it.

The good questions are complicated. Nobody seems to be asking them, preferring to compare apples to oranges and stating their apple preference. I'm an orange man myself though I absolutely enjoy fresh apples more than rotten oranges.

Who doesn't?

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