An Analysis – Television vs. Film

This has been percolating in my head for awhile. About how many people consider TV in a new golden age in the 2000s? With Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Dexter, and new shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones emerging as well, the argument is strong. But now the bigger debate: is TV now the place to find stronger, edgier forms of entertainment, over film?

The argument is that TV has been willing to take more chances lately and do more with characters and storylines. Martin Scorsese said this, about working on Boardwalk Empire, in the LA Times: “It was almost like the way Victorian novels were written. They were serialized. Dickens wrote that way. We had always hoped in the ’60s when films started to be made for television that long-form films were going to be created for the medium, and it didn’t really work out that way. I think you really have an opportunity here now, and I can see it even more so than what is possible in independent cinema.”

What he is saying does have a lot of truth to it. With the advent of premium stations like HBO, Showtime, and AMC, serial TV shows have started to take off. Episodes are merely launching pads into a long-term arc story; there is no longer a stand-alone episode. Even the networks are taking a cue from this, with shows like 24, Lost, and The Good Wife. There is time taken to develop stories and characters now; this had not been going on in televison even two decades ago. Audiences seem to love it, giving high ratings to these shows, and the critics and the industry are loving it as well. In fact, since the 2000s began, only serial dramas have taken the Emmy award for Best Drama.

Now, I have come in late to this phenomenon. I do not have access to a lot of the stations that show the “critical” hit TV shows. For the longest time, I was of the opinion that televison was not up to the level of movies. TV could be good, but the epic feel of film could not be replicated. I was wrong. Having gotten into these shows through the glory of DVD collections, I had a similar reaction to what I did ten years ago when I started seeing movies beyond the popcorn variety. I saw a medium that could truly say something and make an impact. Now I am going through a similar time with televison and trying to get as many of these shows watched as possible and finding which ones I believe are truly great and want to add to my DVD collection.

Though, with all that is happening, does this really mean that auteurs have more options with televison now? The best that can be said is a good, solid “maybe.” I think perception is part of the issue. For one thing, TV has better press generally, so it is easier to find a hit show. Even people who do not get the premium stations know about the hit TV shows. Those who watch them talk about them in groups, and anyone interested in entertainment news cannot help but hear about TV shows. With that, there is also more longevity within TV. They have several months of episodes that can have people talking. A movie, for the most part, has the opening weekend, and maybe some good press beforehand if the film screens early for critics. A buzz can rise for a film, but that is still just one movie, instead of several episodes building buzz.

The argument about TV taking more risks is also debatable for me. Take the movie Shame. It hasn’t been released yet, but it has great reviews coming from the Venice Film Festival and deals with the subject of a man that cannot connect with women and is addicted to porn and having random sex. He then has to deal with his younger sister moving in with him, who has hang-ups of her own. Sight unseen, I have no idea how well this concept will work, but many have talked about the great acting done here and how we see into these two damaged people. This is a movie that is taking some chances, taking on the topic of sexual problems, a topic not usually brought up, period. While it is edgy, I doubt that it will be on many people’s radar even when it does come out. The subject matter alone will make it to difficult to get seen by a large group of people. To go to the movies, they need to take a chance that the subject will be handled well, without being just gratuitous.

Plus, with film, we have to wait longer to find the more creative stuff. We feel the glut of films that come out each week and really have to look hard to find some of the more creative works. Some hit it big and they become bigger. Black Swan is a perfect example; it started in independent theaters and then went on to bigger mainstream theaters when the praise and demand got big enough. But for the most part, these films will be harder to find, need more money to be spent, and the effort to get out and take a risk that the film will be worth the time is something we worry about every time we try something new.

The longevity with TV that Scorsese mentioned is a double-edged sword. For every show that does well, there is a show that doesn’t know how to handle all the time it is given. The Killing started as one of the most talked about shows of the year, and it ended up getting complaints about episodes that seemed to lag, like they were just filling time, and then had an undramatic finale for the season. Even worse are the shows that do not know when to quit. So many once-great shows go on for so long you forget they are even still on. This can take away some of the strong feelings we originally had for a show…*cough* The Simpsons *cough.* With a film, you have a limited time with the characters, but if done right they can leave an impact as strong as interacting with characters for years.

So, is one better than the other? No, we are simply getting different options now, more so than ever before. In the end, I think the argument has actually been great fun. Here we are, arguing over which viewing medium is now better. Granted, we can take examples from each that make us want to gag and wonder what is wrong with people who like that, but we can point to just as many examples that are great. There is actually hope that we have something to look forward to in the future. Go to the cinema or turn on the TV? You are bound to find something good on, either way.


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

You can reach Benjamin via email or on twitter

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