THE 'TELEVISION IS BETTER THAN THE MOVIES' MEME by David Lavery

Printable version Friday 14 December 2012 Last updated at 12:38

 

Image from Entertainment Weekly Online

As an admitted one-time (TV)antipathist, my first conscious encounter with the now proliferating “Television is better than the movies” meme1 (hereafter TViBttM) was “TV Saves the World,” a 1995 article by Bruce Fretts in Entertainment Weekly which offered, two years before  Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted, four years before The Sopranos defined “not TV” for HBO, and twelve years before the exquisite Mad Men graced our living rooms on the unlikeliest of basic cable channels, ten solid reasons for television’s superiority, nine of which remain still timely2:

1. Women thrive on TV.
2. We care more about TV characters.
3. TV does better with drama.
4. In TV, the writer rules.
5. TV is more fun to talk about.
6. TV deals with mature themes more maturely.
7. TV is more convenient.
8. TV does better with less money.
9. On TV, you can change the channel.

I found it impossible to argue then with any one of these contentions, and now, after fifteen years of admiring such brilliant women as Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie), Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), and Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica); of being enthralled with characters like Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), Sam Tyler (Life on Mars), and Dexter Morgan (Dexter); of getting dramatic with Big Love, The Good Wife, and Being Human; of “reading” (and viewing) the work of ruling scribes like David Milch (Deadwood), Aaron Sorkin (West Wing), and Steven Moffat (Doctor Who); of talking, online and off, about LOST and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Northern Exposure; of coming to maturity with ER and Oz and Six Feet Under, television remains more convenient and continues to do more with less, while the choice of channels has increased exponentially.

In the bibliography (on the right) you will find ten different examinations of the meme, all of which count as evidence that the proposition is being taken seriously. (Take note that half of the ten specimens appeared in 2010, while four are from the second half of the century’s first decade.)

Admitting that he once considered television as “low-budget dreck,” Steven Axelrod has come to feel quite differently. Harkening back to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s “battle cry” in an Emmy Award acceptance speech—“The difference between me and the rest of you is that I have complete creative freedom”—he writes:

Matthew Weiner (photo from adweek.com)

The quality of work that such unfettered inspiration produced over the last decade—from The Sopranos, Six feet Under and The Wire to Weeds, Dexter and Treme—has made most of the films produced in this era look puny and venal by comparison.

Axelrod finds it impossible that any careful observer could conclude otherwise: “We are living through a golden age of television right now—a mass medium that triumphed precisely because it chose to narrow the appeal of its shows, even as movie studios seek to reach the largest possible audience with the most possible explosions and the broadest narrative gestures.” Television, he is convinced, is the true heir to great literature: “we await the next season of Mad Men just as we anticipate the new Jonathan Franzen novel or the American readers lined up on the dock for the next installment of Little Dorritt. The novel isn’t dead—it’s alive and dangerously robust, and television of all things, that ‘great wasteland’ that gave us Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard, proves that extraordinary fact beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

For Edward Jay Epstein the answer to his title’s questions (“Why Has TV Replaced Movies as Elite Entertainment?”) is to be found in large part in the cinema’s inclination toward crass subject matter. “Once upon a time,” Epstein writes,

over a generation ago, The television set was commonly called the “boob tube” and looked down on by elites as a purveyors of mind-numbing entertainment. Movie theaters, on the other hand, were considered a venue for, if not art, more sophisticated dramas and comedies. Not any more. The multiplexes are now primarily a venue for comic-book inspired action and fantasy movies, whereas television, especially the pay and cable channels, is increasingly becoming a venue for character-driven adult programs, such as The Wire, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire.

Like Axelrod (and like myself), Marshall Fine acknowledges that he was once “a movie chauvinist and believed that anything TV did well, it did accidentally,” but full immersion in both media has turned his head. “In any given week,” Fine writes, “I see between two and six movie—and I'm lucky if there's one that I'm willing to recommend to other people. Or even one every two or three weeks.” The experience of television is decidedly different: “in any given week, there's a minimum of one series a night—and often more—that I make an appointment to watch.”  He sings the praises of that moment when “[a]pparently some networks finally decided, hey, maybe we can draw an audience with programming that doesn't insult viewers' intelligence. It's no more of a risk than something stupid.” He rejoices in particular at the wonderful series now being generated on basic cable channels like AMC, FX, and TNT: “shows [that] help improve my mood and my faith in the creative impulse each week, just by being on.”

Mark Harris, author of the impressively researched Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), concludes that “[t]he kindest thing you can say about [Summer 2010’s] movies is that they were creatively unnecessary; not one of them exists because the people behind them believed that they had a great story to tell.” He is especially tough on television series transformed into movies:

Image from IMDB       

SATC 2 transformed four once mildly likable characters into rancid, obliviously overentitled grotesques, and thus proved that the movies have now sunk so low that they can't even replicate decent TV. (Forget decent TV: They can't even replicate MacGruber.)

In an important road marker for the advance of the meme under our consideration, Harris states emphatically: “Four or five years ago, it was a jaunty provocation to claim that ''TV is better than the movies. . . . Today, it's just a fact.”

In a suggestive reflection in a regional American newspaper (The Louisville Courier Journal), Tamara Ikenberg acknowledges that the TViBttM makes her almost nostalgic: “Remember when people would brag about not watching TV or not even owning one of those brain-dissolving objects? Well, it's nothing to brag about anymore. Ignore TV and you're ignoring some of the best acting, writing and directing on any screen.” Serious actors know television is superior. She quotes TV Guide editor Tim Molloy: “Actors really want to have a character arc they can really explore and play with. In a movie, really every single scene has to count and you might only get one brief scene to get across who somebody is. . . . Michael Corleone (The Godfather saga) is one of the most famous characters in cinema and we've spent what? Nine hours with him? We feel like we know him so well, but we haven't spent that much time with him at all. We've probably spent about 35 hours with Don Draper (of Mad Men) so far and I'm still figuring him out.”




Don Draper (Mad Men). Photo from AMC Website

Steven Johnson’s often brilliant book Everything Bad is Good for You is not just about film and television of course, but it makes important contributions to the TViBttM meme. While charting just how complex television narratives have become in the age of LOST, Johnson argues that the movies are now a bit jealous of a medium they once feared (at the inception of the small-screen era) would replace them:


Image from Wikipedia

[F]ilm has historically confronted a ceiling that has reined in its complexity, because its narratives are limited to two to three hours. The television dramas we examined tell stories that unfold over multiple seasons, each with more than a dozen episodes. The temporal scale for a successful television drama can be more than a hundred hours, which gives the storylines time to complexify, and gives the audience time to become familiar with the many characters and their multiple interactions. . . .3 By this standard, your average two-hour Hollywood film is the equivalent of a television pilot or the opening training sequence of a video game: there are only so many threads and subtleties you can introduce in that time frame. It's no accident that the most complex blockbuster of our era—the Lord of the Rings trilogy—lasts more than ten hours in its uncut DVD version. . . . [T]he most crucial ingredient is also the simplest one: time. (131)

In a comparison of the Academy Award winning 2006 film Crash (Paul Haggis, 2006) and the reality television show Black. White. (FX 2006), Time’s TV critic Poniewozik offers an unusual version of the TViBttM meme. Poniewozik suggests that the movie, for him an “exaggerated image” of racial issues in America “that lets the audience off the hook, because we can feel easily superior,” could still have learned a lot from the deeply flawed television series.

Even the New York Times film critic has his doubts about his chosen medium’s claim to supremacy. While ready to contend that

movies still occupy an Olympian position in the pop-culture landscape. They are bigger than television, grander than video games, more important than viral Internet videos—even if those things can often be more interesting, more profitable or more fun. Movie stars are coveted for magazine covers and talk-show guest spots; the premier movie awards show is a red-letter date on the global television calendar; movie advertisements festoon billboards, buses and Web pages. Movies are everywhere! Everyone loves movies!

A. O. Scott nevertheless admits that, over the last decade, “How many films have approached the moral complexity and sociological density of The Sopranos or The Wire? Engaged recent American history with the verve and insight of Mad Men? Turned indeterminacy and ambiguity into high entertainment with the conviction of Lost? Addressed modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of Modern Family? Look at Glee, and then try to think of any big-screen teen comedy or musical—or, for that matter, movie set in Ohio—that manages to be so madly satirical with so little mean-spiritedness.” Rhetorical questions, right?


Screen Capture from Vanity Fair’s Website

In the best written, most provocative of the pieces under consideration—an essay adorned with a wonderful illustration showing a movie theatre crowd gathered to watch on the big screen before them an episode of The Sopranos—James Wolcott suggests that TViBttM can be summed up elegantly in the maxim: “TV promises so much less, yet gives so much more.” Television superiority is a “simple” matter of epistemology:

television syncs to the synaptic speed of our minds, our ability to process information and achieve pattern recognition. Series such as 24, the C.S.I. shows, Bones, and Numb3rs lay down an acoustic strip under the alphabet-soup techno-jargon that correlates to a mental hum, as if the shows were thinking along with us (whereas so many movies are thinking for us, bringing the word down from on high).

Like Axelrod, Wolcott is convinced the secret lies, too, in the creativity television fosters: “TV is less hierarchical than Hollywood, more willing to share. The intimacy of television offers an ideal frame for the sort of teamwork at which Hollywood once excelled. . . .” Like almost all these commentators, Wolcott singles out television’s luxurious excess of time:

Charles McGrath observed in The New York Times Magazine (October 22, 1995). “To think of a character in recent American fiction who actually evolves this way—who ages and changes before our eyes—you may have to go back to Harry Angstrom, in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ novels. In so many contemporary books, you get just a few days or weeks in the lives of the characters, or a year or two at most. There isn’t room enough for a whole lot to happen.” Movies are more like one-night stands. Either you get off or you don’t, then it’s on to the next.

“Are there two hours of television in the last few years,” Steven Zeitchik writes in a thoughtful LA Times comparison and contrast of film and television, the only one of our ten that takes the side of the movies, “that achieved, on the screen and in our minds, what The Hurt Locker or Slumdog Millionaire did?” I will let Entertainment Weekly’s Dennis Franich respond: “That’s a good question, and my answer is ‘Yes, The Pacific episodes 7 & 8, and any two episodes of Breaking Bad.’” (In another essay relevant to consideration of TViBttM, Franich goes on to insist, idiosyncratically, that the real test would be to compare the two media at their worst.)

Before the 1990s the TViBttM meme was unthinkable. Now, for all but the most cine-chauvinistic (we’re talking about you Roger Ebert), it has become common sense. Will the meme endure? A decade from now will the pro television argument still persuade? Given that it is difficult to say in 2011 what television, the original “new platform,” will become in the age of convergence culture, prognostication is difficult, but it seems likely that memetic historians will one conclude that 1995 to the present was TViBttM’s golden age.



1 The online Urban Dictionary offers some good entries on “memes.” Here’s a pertinent one:

an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media).

2 Now no longer relevant: “James Burrows Does TV.” Burrows, of course, wrote for/created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, and Friends.↩

3 Video games are likewise the object of duration envy: “the average video game takes about forty hours to play, the complexity of the puzzles and objectives growing steadily over time as the game progresses” (131).

Comments:

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  1. Ben Edwards

    2013-06-14 16:02:15

    (updated comment) For me the most important is missing from the list. Film are generally under 3.5 hours and normally a lot shorter. A TV season, that can include 24 single hour or 45 minute episodes that have a bit season story arc. Tniker Talor Soldier Spy is a good example. The TV series cas 7 parts. Good TV allows much deeper and sophisticated stories to be told than film does.


  2. Ben Edwards

    2013-06-14 16:01:22

    For me the most important is missing from the list. Film are generally under 3.5 hours and normally a lot longer. A TV season, that can include 24 single hour or 45 minute episodes that have a bit season story arc. Tniker Talor Soldier Spy is a good example. The TV series cas 7 parts. Good TV allows much deeper and sophisticated stories to be told than film does.


  3. Bruce Fretts

    2011-06-11 14:07:02

    As the author of the original EW story, I stand by all 10 of my assertions. James Burrows still does TV. He directed the pilot for CBS' new sitcom "Two Broke Girls," and helmed multiple episodes of "Mike & Molly" last season. He's not doing his best work, but that may be because the sitcom format has moved away from his preferrred three-camera, laugh-track style to a single-camera, no laugh track format. Glad to know I invented a "meme," though. If only I really understood what a "meme" is, and yes, I read the urbandictionary definition.


  4. Paul McDonald

    2011-04-28 16:29:08

    'Television is Better Than the Movies', supported by nine assertions. Not the way to a strong argument, methinks. It isn't necessary to be a social scientist to observe that taking the best of TV and comparing it to bad cinema is a flawed method of sampling. Who is to say that the supposed benefits identified by those nine assertions are the criteria for measuring the value of one medium against another? The argument seems to rest on judgments about examples of lousy movies but none are named. In fact there is little to no evidence of any knowledge about the range or diversity of contemporary cinema (most recent reference seems to be ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and the last instalment there was 8 years ago). TV is TV, film is film. There's good TV, there is bad TV. Likewise, there are poor movies and great movies. I'm not convinced by the one is better than the other argument at all. It has all the sophistication of the old ‘books are better than films, television, the internet, etc...’ arguments that have been, and still are, used to assert the superiority of literature over other media.


  5. Kim Akass

    2011-04-27 18:44:03

    Although I agree with your comments about not being able to watch what I want and when I want (a 13 year old is not quite old enough for Breaking Bad) the point still stands that the writing for these 'high end' shows is far superior to that of the recent Hollywood films I have seen. And while I still love going to the cinema (partly because it means I get time away and can watch what I want) I often come away from the cinema feeling cheated, comparing the films unfavourably to the TV shows that I wish I could watch. And it isn't just about convenience after all, the reason I started writing about TV was because it was more convenient with young children. It just isn't anymore - I was only bemoaning that fact last week - but this too will pass and I will be able to watch fine shows with parts written for women that will never be given screen time in films. Surely this is what is important?


  6. Jeanette Monaco

    2011-04-27 17:19:00

    I have a problem with what appears to be the tendency (still) to pose TV and cinema as binaries, with one as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad’. Surely, we cannot neatly designate our TV and cinema viewing relationships this way? While I gain pleasure from TV the domestic conditions I watch these shows in are far from ideal and often leave me yearning for escape from my living room, the only space in our house that has a large enough, high-definition TV screen that allows us to appreciate ‘high-end’ TV. When considering the chaos of life with children who are old enough to be up late and participate in demanding what they want to watch, the argument that ‘TV is more convenient’ does not always stick. I am simply not allowed to watch what I want whenever I please. The Sopranos screened at the ‘theatre’ looks like an appealing prospect. It’s a shame that most of us are not afforded the same luxury of the Sopranos’ family who had their own screening room where Carmela hosted her ‘film nights’. While there are more sophisticated television capabilities that compare to the cinematic, it is unlikely during a recession that average earners will splash out for expensive screens with digital subscription choice for ‘multiple rooms’ in their households. What also comes to mind with this image is the suggestion that there is still something special to be gained through the physical experience of viewing in the dark, yet public space of the cinema.


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