Movies and TV: Better or Worse Than Something

I would like to direct your attention to Noel Murray’s post about the relative health of movies and television, where he counters the (already) conventional wisdom that movies are stuck in an uncreative rut and that TV is the place to go for real innovation and grown-up storytelling. As he says, movies are not in particularly bad shape, and they benefit from being something you pay for directly — meaning that an unconventional movie can become a big hit if enough people (of whatever age, location or demographic) pay to see it, instead of being dependent on advertiser money or subscribers to an entire channel. Which means that when it comes to that important goal, a work that is challenging or unusual and also a mainstream hit, you’re more likely to get it at the movies: many unusual or personal films became hits last year, while TV is in one of those cycles where the hit shows seem pretty impersonal.

Not that TV and movies can be directly compared in every way, or that the health of one medium has to depend on the ill health of another. It’s perfectly possible that both TV and movies are improving. But the “TV is better than movies” talking point seems a bit worn out, especially since people have been arguing it nonstop at least since The Sopranos hit TV, and even before that.

It’s an argument that is particularly liable to be made because the people who write these arguments are, well, writers, and TV usually gives a lot more power to scriptwirters than movies. The fact that writers can be the bosses in television is obviously, and rightly, very attractive to writers. But it comes with its own set of disadvantages. Specifically, that in TV the director, the person shooting the film, is a hired gun with little power. (This is not unprecedented in feature films either, of course, but it’s a system that doesn’t usually produce the best features.) Which helps explain why even big-budget dramatic TV can look more drab than a low-budget feature film where the director is free to show his or her personal style.

Same with the ability of TV to tell long stories and have character development over time: that is a major advantage but comes with its own set of disadvantages, the most obvious one being that most TV series don’t have much of a structure or plan for the way characters develop, and can wind up putting characters through what Roger Ebert called (when Hill Street Blues touched off an early round of “TV is better than movies” talk) “identi-kit emotional fixes.” TV has been compared to serialized novels, and the comparison is valid, but it’s most comparable to some of the looser Dickens novels that he made up as he went along, not to the ones that actually have a rigorous theme and structure to the whole thing. For careful overall planning, a closed form — movie, novel — is still the place to go.

This is not said to bash television or exalt movies, and I’ve frequently said that TV drama in the ’00s was better than ever. (Whether it’s going to get still better in the ’11s is another question. As Murray says, there are a lot of commercial pressures making this difficult. The President of FX recently said that it’s no longer comercially viable to launch a true serialized drama.) But I don’t hold with the idea that TV is advancing relentlessly while movies are sinking into a quagmire of unimaginative sequels and blockbusters. The same thing has been said for something like 30 years now.

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