Here are two pairs of contrasting visions:
- CONTRAST 1: The dark amniotic encasement of a movie theater, surrounded by fellow cinematic worshipers, the screen ignited with vivid color and soaring music, ushering us into an artist’s salutary vision — versus sitting at home in front of a miniature, tube-based “screen,” across which play undernourished time-filler narratives neither funny nor dramatic.
- CONTRAST 2: Trudging spiritlessly into an expensive box with a dirty white screen whose “parishioners” are hostile youngsters lighting up the room with competing social-media screens, loudly chomping and slurping out of industrial-sized barrels of popcorn and soda, the carnival ride onscreen unfolding like all the others they’ve seen that summer — versus sitting at home in front of a high-definition screen not much smaller than the one at the cineplex, with better sound, no noisy neighbors, gourmet treats, and stacks of Blu-Rays and high-rez streaming options representing the best that broadcast media can produce, all binge-able at your leisure.
If you’re a convert to the “television is better than movies” argument, there’s no contest as to how you see the world. It’s an argument that started carrying real weight during the cable reign of The Sopranos and The Wire, an argument that expanded to streaming with the debut of Netflix’s American adaptation of House of Cards: Television’s adventurous new long-form serialized narratives had surpassed mainstream cinema, which was increasingly focused on blockbusters, brands, sequels and reboots. When cable and streaming networks began offering original content, they quickly set the bar higher than the pabulum appearing on the broadcast networks, targeting specific demographics and aesthetic interests.
But can “television” — that catch-all term for the thousands of scripted programs broadcast, cablecast and streamed at levels of increasing adventurousness and quality since, say, 1999 — really stand up to the best 30 or so movies the world has produced each year since the early 20th century?
Don’t get me wrong. I love television, and these days I probably watch more new shows than new films. Just like when I was a kid, television is easier to come by. Also in keeping with when I was a kid, “television” (to include cable and streaming) remains the conduit for new programs and old movies.
The difference then was that one could see — one could feel — that a typical episode of, say, Petticoat Junction was inferior to the annual presentation of The Wizard of Oz, or a surprise Sunday afternoon airing of the previously unknown It’s a Wonderful Life.
Now, when television is good, it can be as great as movies. Digital filmmaking tools have done much to level the playing field as far as visual sophistication is concerned. Moral sophistication, as well: Breaking Bad, Fargo and The Americans revel in the sort of moral and visual complexity (and rewards of re-viewing) we came to expect from film.
But as Sturgeon’s Law reminds us, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” And most small-screen competitors still aren’t all that good. For every Fargo, there is an NCIS (and for every NCIS , there is an NCIS: Los Angeles or NCIS: New Orleans). Criminal Minds, Blood Brothers, The Big Bang Theory, and on and on … an ad infinitum tumble into a slog no more funny or vitalizing than what was on typical prime time in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s.
One could even argue that “peak television” is a 20th-century phenomenon, or has at least … peaked. The Sopranos began airing in 1999. The X-Files began in 1993 but stayed on the air so long that its last few seasons are notably uninteresting. Twin Peaks began promisingly but there was a real tension between the Lynch and the Frost views of what the show should be (one assumes), and in its brief two seasons, looked like a movie but felt like a sandcastle competition. Many people loved HBO’s Deadwood, but its first season told a tale that a movie could have wrapped up in about two hours, with no padding and heightened suspense and complication.
Quality-television standard-bearer HBO has been — and remains — responsible for some remarkably mediocre original programming. Does anyone recall, much less rent or stream, Arliss, Dream On, John from Cincinnati, Luck, Tell Me You Love Me, The Mind of the Married Man, or, to name the most recent and expensive example, Vinyl? HBO has swept more mediocrity into its deep back catalog than ’90s Disney swept under the Hollywood Films logo.
Citizen Kane (still the greatest movie, no matter what Sight & Sound says) envelops the viewer in Welles’ vision; its aura still clings for days. This can happen with great shows — I’m thinking of the 2004 episode in which Tony Soprano kills Ralph Cifaretto. But movies still excel — not just in sheer numbers since 1907, but in their overall attention to idea and nuance.
There remain elements of visual narrative that movies still do better: plotting, cinematography, editing, character complexity, economy of storytelling.
PLOT: Movies have an economy of narrative. But even the best, most novelistic TV has trouble with digression and bloat. Take Deadwood from above. There is too much of it. As Joe Bob Briggs would say, the plot got in the way of the story. Personally, I thought I’d scream if Timothy Oliphant came to Molly Parker’s door one more time to solicit her happiness. Compare that to Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur: three people, a trip, a river, and exquisite tensions, all in 91 minutes. Then there is Costner’s Open Range, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight …
CINEMATOGRAPHY: No TV show will ever look like Kubrick, or as if it were shot by Roger Deakins; the money’s just not there. Even the most visually ambitious shows still feel hamstrung by budget. Hannibal was visually ambitious, but somehow static. Breaking Bad had an intentionally limited palette, and that’s a great idea, but Sicario had beautiful photography that contrasted subtly with the horrific events it depicted. The Night Manager was luscious when it was resting, but when the action started up, the BBC program fell back on TV’s visual vocabulary of shot-counter-shot, over the shoulders, and close-ups.
ACTING: While TV creates memorable characters, can they take them to the extremes of great movies? Law and Order: Criminal Intent was arguably the best of the Laws and Order series, partially because it broke the series’ increasingly tiresome mode (I still hate that nonsense title, which should have been more accurately Law and Order: Major Case Squad). It was a clever take on the Sherlock Holmes template, with Gorin as a tortured autistic Holmes and Eames as a supportive Watson, our vox populi, two of the most interesting characters in a procedural drama.
Meanwhile, Heat, Michael Mann’s roughly contemporaneous big screen flop from 1995, has grown in esteem, not just because of reality imitating art (the North Hollywood bank shoot-out of 1997), but because of the fantastic cast and characters. There is moral ambiguity in the differences yet similarities between cop and prey, and how their enunciated codes of behavior conflict with their private lives (I’ve always viewed the end of Mann’s movie version of Miami Vice as an “answer” to those who were disappointed by how Heat ends). Ashley Judd’s devoted but clear-eyed criminal’s wife is a painfully beautiful character, and William Fichtner is the epitome of a privileged smooth operator whose surface can easily crack. And who can forget the opportunistic villain Waingro? We remember these characters, while typical TV characters have to remind us each week who they are, and then they never change.
ACTION: 24 was alone in aspiring to capture the tension and pace of the big screen, big budget movie. Through nine seasons (soon to be 10) 24 took the Die Hard premise and expanded it like a Japanese flower. Of course, the genre of cliffhangers goes back to the Perils of Pauline serials, through to James Bond and the Jason Bourne movies, which force the Bond franchise to mature from camp humor to gritty action. But 24 upped the havoc.
Unfortunately, having 24 hours to fill meant that the writers room began to retread certain elements: Jack Bauer doing a choke hold on a friend and whispering “Don’t fight it” (Sutherland is the hoarsest vocalist of TV’s Hoarse Whisperers); your bosses turning on you with an indictment, handcuffs, and a lock up, just because you committed a few ethical or legal infractions on the way to saving the world; a presidential aide arguing one position “between 3 PM and 4 PM,” then, after having convinced the boss, arguing the opposite “between 4 PM and 5 PM.” Often, the writers seemed to be vamping, not knowing where to take the plot next (though Lost was much worse). Padding is the downfall even of the short season show. Bloodline, which could have had more action in it, could have been told in six hours, not 13.
By contrast, Die Hard remains one of the great action films. Repeated annual viewings never blunt the sharp edge of its well-known fight scenes, all perfectly shot to convey everything the viewer needs to know about where the characters are and the dimensions of the locale. (By the way, let’s start another meme, and note that Die Hard 2 is a better “best Christmas movie” than Die Hard, because there is actual snow in 2.)
WIT: Die Hard also makes up in spades what most TV action shows lack in humor. John McClane is a Keaton-esque figure of wit, grace, and imaginative problem solving, and director John McTiernan and the writers can pause the film for the grace note of a “terrorist” pausing in a building lobby to grab a candy bar from under a counter. And don’t get me started with the painfully opposite differences between the TV show version of Lethal Weapon and the big screen work of the original movie’s writer, Shane Black, in one of 2016’s best movies, The Nice Guys.
This is a debate that could go on forever, and many people will either whole-heartedly disagree, or proffer different shows / different movies. Unfortunately for me, there are also counter examples that prove the opposite, that TV is better than movies. I could easily write a rebuttal to my own essay. For now, though, I’ll let someone else write that essay. I have more TV to watch.
D.K. Holm lives in Portland, as seen in the documentary series Portlandia.