TV vs Film

Mark posted briefly a few days ago about finding TV more compelling than movies lately.  I don’t know whether I agree or not, but it something I’ve thought about (especially as a film buff who only a few years overcame a prejudiced and condescending view of television), and his post made the wheels of my mind start turning on the subject again.

I tried to come up with a cohesive essay-type thing with a thesis and everything, but it didn’t work…it’s too large a topic with too many variables and exceptions to deal with so quickly and with so little thought.  So here’s just some observations.  Make of them what you will.

  • Television really has improved over the last five or ten years.  Its reputation as the “bastard stepchild” of cinema is quickly falling by the wayside as actors and writers and directors and producers move more fluidly from tv to movies and back, bringing both quality and respectability. 
  • The fact that the average TV drama runs 18 hours per season (22 one-hour eps minus commercials) and may run for 3-7 seasons or longer means that a good showrunner can delve into much more complex plots and develop many more fully fleshed-out characters than is possible in the average two-hour film, yielding a more fulfilling and longer-lasting experience for the viewer.  On the downside, if the showrunner doesn’t have enough plot ideas or character development to fill the time, you end up with the “let’s try this, nope, let’s try this instead” style of writing that plagued the last couple of seasons of The O.C..
  • As well as being longer than film, TV is also shorter than film.  Each episode of a TV drama is roughly 45 minutes long without commercials, a much more easily consumable chunk than a 2-hour film.  This isn’t really a point for or against television’s quality, but just an observation that smaller chunks are appealing.  (Even books with lots of short chapters are a lot easier to read than ones with a few long chapters, even if the total page count is the same.)
  • Because a television show carries the same characters, world, and overall story (or at least setting) from week to week, it begets familiarity.  Sometimes different is good, but a lot of times familiar is good.  When I get home from work, tired and glad to be home, I tend to opt for the next episode of a TV show I already know rather than a movie that’s unfamiliar.  TV has the capability of being new and familiar at the same time.  And because it’s meant to be that way, it doesn’t suffer from sequel-itis like movies tend to do.  (Although it can, if the TV execs somehow manage to keep it on the air for a couple of seasons too long rather than cancel it a couple of seasons too early.  Can I trade two seasons of The X-Files and a few of Friends for a little more Wonderfalls and Firefly and Arrested Development?)
  • TV is more available and availably eclectic than film.  There are five major networks, each of which has ten to fifteen shows a week.  That’s at least fifty possible shows a week available.  Any given week, you won’t find more than twenty films or so in release, at least not in St. Louis, and that’s including independents. These shows are split between relationship-based dramas, science fiction, procedurals, sitcoms, reality shows, competitions, sports.  And that’s not even including cable channels, which adds in every sort of show imaginable.
  • Related to the previous point–film has a dichotomy of production/distribution models.  Mainstream Hollywood is often a very different thing from independent and world cinema.  Television does not have this dichotomy.  I suppose you could make a case that the big five equate to mainstream and cable equates to indie, but that doesn’t work entirely, simply because network TV itself contains more variety than mainstream film offers.  What multiplex would show Veronica Mars?  or Arrested Development?  These are cult shows that have a very devoted following, but simply aren’t mainstream (not that TV is a safe haven for them either, judging by the cancellation of AD despite an Emmy win).  The point is, if these shows were movies, we’d be watching them at indie theatres, not multiplexes.
  • I’ve put forth a lot of thoughts about TV over film.  But really, these are just the areas in which TV does have advantages over film by nature of its medium.  In other areas, film has it all over TV.  The ability to sustain moods–TV can’t sustain a mood for longer than fifteen minutes because of the commercials.  Immersion–for the same reason.  I don’t know how to term this, but storytelling that covers only a short period in someone’s life…a turning point, or an epiphany.  Garden State was an amazing and beautiful film, but it would’ve been a horrible TV show, because it’s about one weekend that changes a man’s life.  You can’t make that happen every week on a TV show.

The crux of the matter is this: Is TV really more compelling than film right now?  If by “TV” you mean Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars and Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Farscape and Babylon 5 and Arrested Development and Grey’s Anatomy, and if by “film” you mean whatever wanna-be blockbuster is playing at the multiplex, then YES.  But that’s the cream of TV’s crop versus the mediocrity of mainstream Hollywood.  Good TV may be easier to find than good film, just because it’s there on your TV set right next to all the Everybody Loves Raymonds and the Yes, Dears and the King of Queenses and the third season of The OC.  But good film is out there.  Here’s a few great films I’ve watched this calendar year: Match Point, Good Night and Good Luck, Cache, Pickpocket (a bit of a cheat, since it’s from 1959, but I did see it in a theatre, so there), Primer, Wallace and Gromit, Walk the Line, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Inside Man, Thank You for Smoking, The Constant Gardener, Brick, Downfall, Thumbsucker.  Only three of those played at the multiplexes.  I think three of them didn’t even play in St. Louis at all.  I realize I sound elitist.  But I think the dichotomy of film distribution is making people think that good film is more scarce than it is.