How does the artistry and quality of contemporary television (shows like The Wire, True Detective, etc.) compare to that of film?
I may as well say it like it is: the narrative possibilities of a cable TV series or miniseries are richer, more original, more revealing and just plain better than what lately has been presented to us in Hollywood and independent feature films. There must be reasons for this — complex professional and economic reasons. I won’t pretend to know what they are. What I do know is that time and again, when I watch the very best cable television drama and comedy, I keep encountering deftly written and subtly acted moments that feel decidedly literary. Each time it catches me by surprise. It turns out that the things I’ve long relied on literary novels to provide can also be captured in a TV series. For example, I’ve always loved the very quiet and inward moment in a novel that expresses a character’s essential isolation or outsiderness. The main players in the novel may think little or nothing of this isolated character. He’s too timid or unattractive or insubstantial to merit their attention, but the character manages, against the odds, to be decent and brave — though this decency and bravery goes almost entirely unnoticed. I’ve seen this very understated moment rendered effectively in HBO’s Enlightened and, more recently, in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge miniseries. The quiet poignancy of this moment is part of a larger and deeper complexity I see in new TV series, especially in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Showtime’s Homeland. Literary fiction has long understood how multi-faceted and contrary people are in real life and has tried to recreate that on the page. When the faces of female prisoners flash across the opening credits of Orange Is the New Black, we might be tempted to imagine some kind of common-denominator background for these characters, a shared temperament or system of beliefs. But with every episode those notions get peeled away and replaced with an array of personalities that have the nuances and contrariness of people we know in real life. I find this intricate and authentic range of personality very satisfying to behold.
Apparently, so do lots of other viewers. They like their TV dramas smart. They can appreciate an understated moment. Many of them don’t read literary fiction and therefore don’t know who Elizabeth Strout or Ian McEwan or Lorrie Moore or George Saunders are. But this new generation of cable TV viewers are enjoying a comparable sense of irony and complexity.
They’re also drawn to a pervasive sense of the strange. There’s always been a lot of strangeness in the literary universe. Some of the most compelling novels and stories impart a sense that if you scratch beneath the surface of the real you’ll find layer after layer of the surreal or the unexpected. True Detective is a show that’s infused with strangeness —from the bizarre crime scenes to the forlorn and creepy landscapes to the focused strangeness of Matthew McConaughey’s performance. For a legion of viewers True Detective’s strangeness and compulsive storytelling feels just right. They couldn’t stop watching. But among all the moody or conspicuously strange TV dramas, the strangeness that seemed most refined and alive and literary to me was the more subdued strangeness I found in The Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake. It follows a New Zealand cop as she tries to untangle the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year-old girl. Top of the Lake features two tyrannical characters, one female (Holly Hunter), and one male (Peter Mullan), and their rage and control over others is so vibrant and real that you can’t help but feel that Top of the Lake is addressing something essential about female and male power. The vibrancy of these two remarkable performances and the strangeness that pervades nearly every moment of Top of the Lake feels like the strangeness that’s nested inside everyday life. There’s nothing like it at the local movie theater.
In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minnow called television a “vast wasteland.” No mainstream critics were arguing that Gunsmoke, the most popular TV show, was superior to the Oscar winner, West Side Story. But now the former wasteland is blooming. Quality television shows designed for adults are sprouting up on cable, on Netflix, and even on the formerly reviled major networks. Movie theaters are glutted with superhero remakes and moronic sex comedies that pander to teenagers.
A handful of excellent movies still get produced every year, but applying the Water Cooler Test confirms the top-tier television shows as better —or at least more buzz worthy —than the latest box office winners. Ask yourself: at work, are you more likely to dissect the latest episode of Breaking Bad or to deconstruct the leitmotifs of Mission Impossible V?
The best episodic television is superior to most movies because —like West Side Story —it is more Shakespearean. The Bard’s flawed heroes, and especially his multidimensional villains, give his plays richness and depth. Successful TV shows embrace complex and contradictory characters that most movies don’t have the time or the inclination to fully develop.
Many of the best shows feature outright villains: Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey (The Shield), Al Swearengen (Deadwood), Francis Underwood (House of Cards). Much of our fascination with Walter White in Breaking Bad stems from his contradictory nature. We watch his transformation from hero —a man trying to beat cancer and provide for his family—to a monstrous drug lord and murderer. The most obviously Shakespearean characters are from House of Cards. Underwood, like Richard III, addresses his audience directly while detailing his next merciless move. His wife, perhaps even more ruthlessly ambitious, is a modern-day Lady Macbeth.
Another Shakespearean hallmark adopted by modern television writers is the depiction of court intrigue. Most apparent in overtly political fare like The Tudors, The West Wing, House of Cards and Scandal, this focus on internecine drama carries over into other settings. The ad agency in Mad Men, the jail in Orange is the New Black, the hospital in House, the mob in The Sopranos and even the house in Downton Abbey are all just courts of a different stripe. Everyone is vying for power, currying favor, and wary of a stab in the back. The greater time afforded television shows allows for an intricacy of interrelationships that most movies can’t attempt.
Time, however, can be a two-edged sword. Many episodic television shows would profit from judicious editing. The first year of The Killing was suspenseful and seemed to end on an appropriately dramatic note. Season two undid the ending, milked the same story line, and faded into tedium. Despite a captivating beginning, many of Lost’s 121 episodes veered into detours and outright silliness. As Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “None ever wished it longer.” Movies have economy forced upon them; the best TV shows exercise a self-imposed restraint.
This interplay of freedom and constraint is another mixed blessing. Television’s freedom to explore themes previously forbidden is a welcome change. But why must so many shows (Weeds, The Wire, Nurse Jackie, Breaking Bad) depend on drugs as a central plot device? Why are sex scenes —Scandal, are you listening?—so rote and unimaginative? Why are once-banned words sputtered so often they lose their power to shock? In both television and movies, the power of subtlety has been lost.
Thankfully, the constraint of TV production budgets — at least compared to blockbuster movies — limits reliance on special effects. The overly orchestrated car chases, death-defying escapes and never-ending explosions typical of the Bond and Bourne franchises are mercifully less common in television.
No less a Shakespearean than Laurence Olivier reportedly remarked, “We used to have actors trying to become stars. Now we have stars trying to become actors.” If you don’t look like Brad or Angelina, you’re unlikely to land the lead in a major movie. One of the great joys of current television is watching unheralded actors blossom into big stars when given a juicy role on the small screen. James Gandolfini and Brian Cranston are merely the most obvious examples.
Television is at its best when it doesn’t try to ape what succeeds at the box office. When it focuses on character over spectacle; when it creates round characters — in E.M. Forster’s words — over flat characters; when it portrays the complexity of human relationships instead of defaulting to black hat vs. white hat oversimplification.
Debating whether television shows are now better than movies is a philosophical question: one that can’t be decided by facts, only argued with opinions. But great TV creations like Tony Soprano, Francis Underwood and Walter White — like Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth — feel like part of our shared cultural history. They may not rise all the way to great art, but they easily eclipse the majority of the offerings at the multiplex.
Comparing television to film is a little like comparing a short story to a novel; they may seem like similar art forms, but the reality of the constraints placed on each means that the measure for quality in one may not be the same for the other. Television and film are both visual narrative forms that incorporate dialogue, characters, setting, and so forth to convey their stories, but the amount of time TV shows have in which to tell their stories give them greater leeway to explore characters deeply, to take sidetracks (or what may seem like sidetracks) irrelevant to the central plot but that show us more about the characters and the world they live in. Film does not have that luxury, but its budgets often allow for more elaborate sets and costumes, more breathtaking visuals. So which of these elements equate to higher artistic quality? Today, I choose dialogue and character development over visuals and effects and answer television, but that would not have always been my answer.
Until the 1980s, television shows had to cater to the broadest possible audiences in order to stay competitive. With only three major networks offering programming, a niche show with a narrow appeal couldn’t possibly draw enough ratings (and advertising dollars) to succeed, and it was a lot riskier to take chances on anything innovative. Soap fought to stay on air for four years in the late 1970s because of its inclusion of a gay character who wasn’t a freak, a priest who fell in love and left the church, and other then-controversial characters and plotlines. Meanwhile Dallas’s melodramatic portrayal of a rich, dysfunctional Texas oil family was immediately popular and critically acclaimed, garnering numerous Emmy nominations and a few wins, and lasted more than a decade. It had plenty of time to explore the depths of its characters, but it would be impossible to say it is of higher artistic quality than virtually any of the quality films made during that decade —Gandhi, Hannah and Her Sisters, or Broadcast News, to name just a very few. Even my personal favorite 80s show, Moonlighting, cannot compete, despite the snappy dialogue that won it critical accolades and numerous awards and nominations. The cheesy score, poorly executed chase scenes, cheap sets, and Cybill Shepherd’s tendency to overact make me cringe a little every time I watch it now, even as I bask in the glow of nostalgia and Bruce Willis’s grin. Hill Street Blues might be the one show of its decade that can hold its own against the quality films of its day — not a surprise given that its writers included many who would go on to create high-quality series, notably Mark Frost of Twin Peaks and David Milch of Deadwood.
The 1990s was the transition decade. The proliferation of cable channels meant that shows no longer had to win over a large percentage of Americans in order to stay on the air. HBO began its journey toward dominating the quality television series genre with several notable comedies and its first groundbreaking drama, Oz. Oz was too graphically violent and sexual for many critics, but it opened a door that The Sopranos, with its murdering adulterer of a protagonist, would sail through with aplomb. Unlike award-winning shows of the 1980s, The Sopranos easily stands as an equal among quality films — Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, and possibly even The Godfather. While it may be true that The Godfather (combined with The Godfather II) presents us with a comprehensive look at the complex character of Michael Corleone, we do not get similarly close looks at those around him as we do with Tony Soprano. Despite an admirable performance by Diane Keaton, Kay Corleone is a flat character compared with Edie Falco’s Carmela. And we haven’t had enough time to see Michael in his relationships with the men around him, even his brother Fredo, to feel as deeply how murdering them impacts him as we do when Tony kills Big Pussy or Christopher. Additionally, the nuances of character in the Soprano family are accompanied by top-notch production values and music that even Little Steven would approve of, allowing it to stand up to its big screen rivals.
The Sopranos is, of course, an easy (even cliché) choice to use as an example, given that virtually every critic in the past fifteen years agrees on its quality. But the proliferation of quality series that present complicated characters and issues has been an ongoing trend, moving beyond paid cable to basic cable and even to the networks: Six Feet Under, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The West Wing, and many others. Even The Gilmore Girls, despite its bad rap as a chick or teen show, is well written. It may be the only show in which one character insults another by calling him Brobdingnabian and respects the intelligence of its audience by not stopping to explain.
While television shows have gotten dramatically better in the past two decades, films have — as a trend — taken a dive. In 1985, the top ten grossing films included Back to the Future, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, The Goonies, and Witness. In 1993 they included Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Sleepless in Seattle, and Philadelphia. These films were engaging and original, and many won critical acclaim. In contrast, eight of the top-grossing films in 2013 were big-budget sequels, remakes, or reboots and most were action-centric — which isn’t to say that they weren’t entertaining, but their lack of originality and reliance on special effects make them pale in comparison to more original television programming. (For those who may be wondering, the two films that were not sequels or remakes were Frozen and Gravity.)
For any television series you might name, even one of my favorites, I’m sure I could counter with a film of higher artistic quality. But a great film does not have to maintain its greatness over extended periods. How many TV series have I watched intently for a few episodes only to be disappointed with the lack of logical direction or ingenuity, to lose interest in the characters and their fates as the series plodded on? For a filmed narrative to hold an audience’s attention over an extended period of time, and to do so in a well-rendered, visually compelling environment, is an enviable and admirable feat, one I’m glad has become the trend as big screen offerings seem more and more alike and less and less appealing. I’ll venture out to the theater when Richard Linklater lures me with something new, but until then I’ll be on my couch.
HBO’s True Detective elevated itself beyond ordinary television to artistry with a six-minute-long take at the conclusion of its fourth episode. Press offices across the nation and writers’ rooms throughout Los Angeles buzzed the next morning, exuberantly proclaiming near-universal praise with strings of adjectives three-columns wide. We’d seen this sort of shot before on the big screen (Children of Men, anyone?) but never on TV. Was this the moment it all changed? Was television’s long rise out of the artistic bogs finally complete? Was this show “more artistic” than the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave?
The problem with deciding if television has surpassed film in artistic quality is in how you define that artistic quality. Are we talking about message? Plot? Dialogue? Character development? Technical aspects like lighting, shot construction, and editing? Or are we talking about everything as a whole? And do we compare a film to individual episodes or an entire season, or even an entire series? In any case, it is an unfair comparison. Despite their surface commonalities, television and film are entirely different mediums, as distinct as a poem and a novel. Just like pondering if Whitman is more artistic than Vonnegut, asking if True Detective surpasses 12 Years a Slave is an equally fruitless endeavor, and it all goes back to the incentives and motivations behind producing a feature film or a television show.
While the quality of television has improved to the point where shows like Breaking Bad allow us to honestly debate this question, the purpose of television has never been to create art in the same sense that many films are produced, so much so that certain feature directors are referred to as auteurs because they control every aspect of their films, just as a painter with his canvas. Tree of Life, a film by Terence Malick, is not an attempt at entertainment but a piece of art wherein the auteur attempts to convey his message by overwhelming the viewer through atmospheric beauty in lieu of a traditional plot. Even the most ardent of his apologists would never claim Malick creates films to entertain because his willingness to abandon established structural paradigms often leaves audiences with more questions than answers.
Anyone with a million dollars can produce a film, and if the producer doesn’t care about recouping that million, there are no restrictions on the limits of that film’s artistic vision. Even if no major studio wishes to buy the project, there are hundreds of ways to make the film available to the masses (Netflix, Video-On-Demand services, etc.), but television is handicapped by the distribution monopoly of the major networks and studios. For a show to make it on air, it must believably have a shot at covering its costs, and that often means pandering to a broad audience more concerned with laughter and escapism than artistic quality. Even at the premium networks, there is no such thing as straightforward awards-fodder TV.
When viewed as a whole, The Wire, perhaps the greatest television program to ever air, may ultimately touch upon and even surpass the same themes of a Tree of Life, but on a week-to-week basis the show was forced by the realities of its medium to confront less lofty ambitions, handcuffed by the need to provide a clearly defined episodic start, middle, and resolution. By its very nature, television needs to ensure that the viewers come back next week, while the second a moviegoer purchases their tickets, the film has completed its goal. As a result, a film can push boundaries so far that it risks alienating its audience. The worse-case scenario is that the viewer won’t recommend the film or see the director’s next effort, but in any event, the message has been sent and received. However, if a television show irks its audience too much ratings decline and cancellation follows shortly thereafter. For television writers, it’s a constant balancing act between raising the artistic stakes and ensuring their own survival.
True Detective, like Breaking Bad and The Wire before it, exemplifies just where television outclasses film: character development. Over the course of eight, sixty, and sixty-two hours, respectively, these shows presented characters that the audience came to understand at every turn. Their actions rang true because we had seen what motivations informed those decisions. When Walter White ran over those gang-bangers to save Jesse, we had two seasons worth of tortured relationships to filter that decision through. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is brilliant in its portrayal of two passionate individuals’ existence across fourteen years, but even with five hours of film behind her, Julie Delpy’s actions felt unsatisfyingly unpredictable compared to Walter and Jesse’s will- they-won’t-they. Television writers know they can’t deliver deeply metaphysical questions to the audience, but they can offer characters that the audience will grow with over the years, so much so that when a character betrays their own past the audience at once knows something is out of whack and questions just what the writers were thinking.
Films, especially those renowned for their artistry, are often financed by the prestige banners of major studios or deep-pocketed individuals who have entered the producing game to be taken seriously. In either case, the end game is not monetary reward but awards recognition and critical acclaim. Universal can spend $200 million on the next Transformers and bank a cool billion back, but a Michael Bay tentpole is unlikely to score them an Oscar. Instead they turn to relatively cheap films from the auteurs. The budgets may be $5 million or $25 million, and often may never reap a profit, but so long as they pull in acclaim, these films are a success. They have one job—telling talent (writers, directors, actors) that the studio is willing to be more than a franchise factory . . . so come be a part of our franchise and maybe we’ll also put you in a Paul Thomas Anderson flick!
Even though these art films suffer no real pressure of commercial success, their budgets usually dwarf that of television, $5-10 million compared to $2-3 million per episode. Even after accounting for differences in length, television still about receives half the budgetary outlay of a prestige film and this is reflected in the final product. Films spend hours, days even, setting up a single shot that may result in five seconds of screen time, while a television show must shoot seven or eight pages of material a day. As a result, lighting and coverage (shooting multiple angles of a single scene) suffer and television seems less artistic. This rush is reflected in every aspect of production: acting, makeup, effects, editing, etc., not to mention the actual writing of the scripts. It is not unheard of for film producers to develop a project for five-plus years, while television writers may only have a few months from initial conception to day one of shooting.
The final piece of the puzzle, acting talent, is also stacked against television. Even with the recent trend of major stars headlining television series, it is infinitely easier to convince a star to work for pennies on a prestige film than on a series. Actors rarely sign on for prestige films with dreams of a payday; they do it to work with a famed auteur, often in hopes of winning coveted awards, and an Emmy doesn’t have the same weight as an Oscar.
It’s never this simple, but unless the financial realities of television approach the critical motivations of artistic cinema, the artistic quality of television will forever remain distinctly out of line with the artistic quality often seen in film.
The Way We Watch Our Lives
All art is reflective of its era. Writing for television and feature film has been considered more than just cheap entertainment for decades, but television was considered lowbrow and “film” a higher art. This no longer seems to be the case. Television writing has embraced the way we live our lives: mobility, diversity, complexity, and choice. Streaming video, serialized shows, binge watching, and social storytelling reflect our new American lives.
For nearly a hundred years, feature films have been viewed the same way. A large studio made a film, released it to theaters throughout the country, and the venue sold tickets while making their profit at the concession stand; several weeks later, the movie’s run was over. In the 1970s, with the invention and mass distribution of the VCR, viewers were able to watch movies at home. Next came minidisc, Laserdisc, DVD. The basic model of a feature film is unchanged: ninety to one hundred fifty uninterrupted minutes. Sometimes, there is a sequel or trilogy, all of which, the studios make clear, you can watch and enjoy individually.
The 1970s is often considered a golden era of Hollywood film because of the gritty realism of films like The Conversation, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. But the 1970s also gave us the blockbuster, such as Jaws and Star Wars. Over the next forty years, film studios have embraced superhero movies, sequels, and juvenile comedies. These films appeal to a global mass market: Iron Man blowing stuff up translates in multiple languages. Films are expensive to make and expensive to distribute. Hollywood is a slow-moving beast, but through vertical integration, the film conglomerate controls all the ways the public have of consuming movies, and there has been no indication this will soon change.
Television became ubiquitous in the 1950s, when there were only three networks. In the 1970s, cable created syndication and the ability to watch your favorite childhood shows over and over again. Fox became the fourth major network in the 1980s, fiber optic cables made cable faster, satellite, the Internet, streaming, and here we are.
The success of television writing developed, in part, because there is so much television. TV shows are significantly cheaper to make than feature films. Not only does this allow television producers to take more risks, it means there can be more television shows. Anyone praising television shows and television writing has to see the other end of the spectrum: endless dreck from reality shows, recycled formulaic sitcoms, cop/ forensic science dramas, unfunny vulgar shows about twentysomethings, etc. There is a tremendous amount of really terrible television.
But because it is now incredibly easy to find shows we love watching—thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and all the other various streaming options—we can ignore all the bad shows. We can watch only the best shows, or what we think are the best, and then the various streaming algorithms suggest other shows “similar” to what we just loved.
Compare this to watching films. Go to the theater. Pay ten dollars (or the price of streaming Netflix, and an endless amount of shows and movies, for an entire month). Avoid concession stand food, which is exactly the same as what was offered forty years ago. Sit through ten minutes of previews that, unlike at home, you can’t skip or avoid. Be surrounded by people who no longer know how to act in public: cell phones, talking too loud, spilled food, kids vomiting. Commit to a film that, if it is no good, cannot be turned off. Also, you do not get your ten dollars back. Even if television and film writing are “equal,” why would you risk your time on movies?
In the twenty-first century, we can watch television in bed. In our kitchens. On our couches. We can watch it all in three areas on a device that weighs less than five pounds that can be carried from room to room as we’re cleaning our house. We can pause at any time. We can rewatch any episode from a previous season with a few taps on a screen. What does a DVD provide? Extras such as deleted scenes (see what the movie didn’t need!) and commentary (listen to a celebrity sound dumb!) and links to buy products online that are not wanted or needed.
Many “literary” novelists have written for television; in the past, Faulkners and Fitzgeralds wrote for the movies. Now, writers such as Richard Price, Chris Offutt, Dennis Lehane, and Leonard Chang write for television. Like the workshop, television is a collaborative process, working with a group of writers rather than alone. In a world where everything, even the act of reading, has become a social event to share on various platforms, it makes sense that the program era has fostered great collaborative writing.
It’s unfair to film to write about superhero movies and juvenile comedies and pretend there aren’t good movies by Paul Thomas Anderson or Paul Haggis being made too. But these films are increasingly rare and difficult to find. Hollywood has embraced vertical integration and product tie-ins that have financially committed their film studios to the blockbuster mentality.
A serial television show can’t be simple; the length requires complexity, an environment where “literary” writers will flourish. Even the standard sitcom has been made fresh with shows like The Office and Arrested Development. Maybe film catches up one day. But right now, television is king. And, to quote The Wire, the king stays the king.
TV and the Excitement of the New
I’ll start with a fifteen-year-old spoiler.
It was when Tony Soprano, on a college trip with his daughter, sneaks out to garrote an FBI informant that I thought, “OK, that’s interesting.” It was exciting. It was new.
While movies and TV shows are fundamentally different, with their own individual strengths, the cable shows of this past generation have offered a different approach to storytelling. Never before have we had the experience of watching the unfolding ambition of a story like The Wire, or the opportunity to explore a character like Don Draper as he navigates the changing world over the course of years. In the past decade and a half or so, the best television shows have clearly been more artistically interesting than recent movies.
The surge in quality in this latest Golden Age of TV is due to a number of interconnected factors. The first is the possibility of different approaches to narrative. For example, David Chase has said that he considered each episode of The Sopranos to be its own one-hour movie, while other creators and showrunners have talked about each season as a novel. In the latter case, this need for the audience’s dedication has its cost. Almost everyone I’ve talked to almost stopped watching The Wire after the first one or two episodes; it took a patience before you could fall into the pace and rhythm, but once you did you were rewarded with the complex creation of the world of Baltimore. The novelistic approach allowed the showrunners to dig deeper, putting characters we’d learned to care about in situations that explored grander themes in ways that seemed impossible before. Granted, Simon did follow his worst, most didactic instincts in the The Wire’s fifth season and the first season of Treme, but for the most part, he walked that tightrope brilliantly. Can you imagine a similar examination of a society in movies? It would probably be Crash.
The second factor is that these new TV shows allowed their creators to pursue a singular vision over the course of years. From what I’ve read, Hollywood movies are picked to death by the studio or stars, both hiring many writers that don’t communicate with each other. In the best television, the writing of the characters and situations can maintain a consistency of vision that can last the entirety of a show’s run. Breaking Bad was able to track the devolution of Walter White through all its twists and turns for five seasons. Lena Dunham can explore the awfulness of a young writer and her friends through all their missteps and messiness at a level she couldn’t in her feature Tiny Furniture. And while you might hate the ending of The Sopranos, you had to accept that the final, unsatisfying blackout was where David Chase wanted to take you. While there are movie directors who have a similar control, for example the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, they don’t have the opportunity to stick with the same characters and world enough to explore them as thoroughly.
The third factor goes back to the beginning of this wave of TV, with the rise of HBO, Oz, and The Sopranos: because there was less pressure to compete for network-sized audiences, there was more room for experiments and individual voices. Despite the attention and acclaim it received, Mad Men averaged less than a million views in its first season. In Brett Martin’s book on television, Difficult Men, the President of Entertainment at FX, Kevin Reilly, is quoted as saying that when The Shield premiered, their expectations of their new programs were so low that if it did “a 1 [rating], we’ll be thrilled.” It’s hard to imagine the angry nebbish Walter White and the very dumb Jesse of the first season of Breaking Bad thriving in any environment, surely not as leads of a network show or a major Hollywood movie. Previously, a main character couldn’t strangle a government informant and risk becoming irredeemably unlikeable, but in the episode “College,” Tony Soprano did just that. The leads could do something hateful one week and still count on a dedicated audience to tune in. In this less audience and money-driven environment, more complicated and unconventional characters and situations could be explored.
I would argue that these factors allowed for the creation of a new type of entertainment we hadn’t seen before in either TV or movies. It’s not a seismic shift like when TV first started and networks had to navigate an unknown medium. But without the bloat of the twenty-two-episode season, with its many filler episodes, these leaner shows could follow hitherto unseen, complicated story-lines with deeper and more morally ambiguous characters. It was exciting to watch new methods of storytelling as they were being figured out. And while it didn’t come from nowhere — mini-series were the precursor of long-form TV — those programs quickly became swept up in ratings, moving from the ambition of Roots to the soap operas of The Thorn Birds or Shogun or The Winds of War. In comparison, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Girls, True Detective, and the others of this generation offered something fresh.
Movies went through a similar shift in the 1970s, when there were many new voices with distinct perspectives. And of course this gave way to the excess of the Hollywood Blockbuster. The unfortunate thing is that TV might be heading in the same direction. The popularity of shows like True Blood, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead (some of which I like a lot) might lean networks towards the hunt for greater ratings, with the singular artistic vision becoming less important than gore and breasts. The Walking Dead, for instance, has already gone through three showrunners. While Boardwalk Empire is entertaining, the larger, still not Hollywood-sized budget seems to go to set designs and big-name directors and actors while the story lacks the urgency of earlier shows.
A new form for storytelling can only be new for so long. How many times can we retread the examination of the anti-hero? How many times can we be shocked by a lead character’s bad behavior? The shooting of an internal affairs officer in a show’s pilot was shocking twelve years ago, but what about today? Even the oddity of a saloonkeeper monologuing in near-Shakespearean language can become old, still genius maybe but a familiar genius. Nevertheless there are great shows being made, and even if this new era threatens to turn increasingly static, it’s still worth hanging on to the final season of Mad Men and welcoming True Detective, to see if TV can keep taking us someplace surprising.
Recent critics have deemed our time the “golden age of television.” With higher budgets and more creative control given to the artists, television has improved significantly. However because film has had the ability to develop outside a studio system for decades, it has grown into a vast art form that remains incomparable to television. Thus, when examining the best recent television and film, television may be close to equaling film in terms of artistic content but fails to surpass it.
The film critics of the 1940s, such as Jean Renoir and Andre Bazin, wished to dissent from the popular Classical Hollywood system to explore personal, societal, and philosophical issues that dug deeper into the human psyche. They broke free from studio control, sparking movements such as The French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, and the beginnings of Auteur Theory, which gave artists the control to create personal films. Throughout the world, new types of film evolved, ranging from surrealism, with no plot or characters, to neorealism, which focused heavily on character and societal issues. Current television parallels this change as studios are finally loosening the reigns and allowing artists to experiment with new forms of cinema.
For example, Louie C.K. accepted significant pay cuts in order to direct, write, edit, and star in his show, Louie, making him one of the first true auteurs of television, similar to the film artists of the 1940s. His dramatic comedy is the first of its kind with lengthy one- shot scenes, controversial and philosophical plotlines, and surrealist sequences. Similarly the young artist, Lena Dunham, has been given a show in which she has significant creative control. Her characters do not have clearly defined goals as many typical television characters have. The characters seem to meander through life, commenting on the so-called nature of the twenty-year-old generation in current society. Thus the show uses characters to comment on society similar to the films that emerged in the 1940s.
Moreover, the film dissent of the 1940s marked the beginning of change for film, and gave it time to branch off in new directions, to progress and differentiate into the expansive categories of films we see today, ranging from those like Frances Ha, which hark back to styles of the Italian Neorealist directors, to modern multi-million dollar-budget blockbusters like The Wolf of Wall Street and Gravity.
Unlike film, television does not have the same extensive range. It does not have the capacity to generate a technologically advanced product like film does. For example, Gravity’s primary purpose is to wow viewers with jaw-dropping visuals. It is a spectacle, an experience more similar to an amusement park ride than watching a two-dimensional narrative. Spielberg’s expensive venture, Terra Nova, was the closest television came to comparing to film in terms of special effects, but network executives cancelled it after its first season, and it failed to find a home on another network due to its exorbitant cost and lengthy turnaround time. Although the special effects on television are getting better, they still cannot compare to film.
Despite the fact that television may not be as technologically advanced, many network and cable channels are allotting higher budgets, making television’s set design, costumes, and make-up more artistically palatable. Mad Men, Masters of Sex, and The Walking Dead are among a plethora of examples in which these areas shine. While these shows reveal improvement, one must still remember that film has held up this standard of excellence for decades. Television is merely beginning to reach film’s standard.
In terms of artistic content, television is at the height of its career. However it is entering into a period that film explored seventy years ago. Because film has been differentiating and progressing for so long, television simply cannot compete with its diversity and expansiveness. Television has taken promising steps in the past few years, and its future proves exciting.
The deluge over the last decade of insanely good cable TV mirrors the golden age of 70s cinema when writers were as much the “stars” of movies as directors or actors. Robert Towne was as central to the greatness of Chinatown as Roman Polanski or Faye Dunaway; Francis Ford Coppola to The Godfather as Marlon Brando, and so on. Are David Chase, Vince Gilligan, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Louis CK, Lena Dunham and Nick Pizzolatto comparable figures in the medium of television? Are they our new auteurs?
The beginning of an answer may be in the way we consume TV these days: streaming or downloading, watching /pausing/ resuming, rewatching episodes or scenes, skipping forward; or, in some cases, binge watching a whole season’s worth of narrative over a long weekend. Consider how utterly different this is from the golden age of movies: if you wanted to see something you stood in line, bought a ticket, and if you wanted to see it again, you did it all again. If you wanted to see something not in the current cycle of theatrical releases (let alone something made thirty years ago) you hoped a revival house would project the film. Videotape and DVDs solved at least some of these problems, but the movies weren’t themselves created and made with the medium of the DVD in mind. Or consider the difference between binge watching and an earlier age of TV when there were only three major networks. Then you had “event watching” of mini-series like Roots. Binge watching of DVDs or streaming or downloadable content allows for a studious and immersive relation to a story that may lead show creators and writers to bank on a form of attentiveness closer to reading a novel than an entertaining afternoon at the movies.
Another reason more and more people are turning to these shows for good stories is because the current output of the movie industry seems bloated and formulaic, marketed for the biggest explosions and characters who are “relatable” (a favorite word among America’s youth, and one that means anything and nothing from what I can tell). Cable TV, on the other hand, takes the time and effort to craft atypical multi-layered people; complex personalities of the sort we find in (good) novels. Tony Soprano (Sopranos), Don Draper (Mad Men), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie), Hannah Horvath (Girls,/), Rust Cohle (True Detective) are conflicted, flawed and not always lovable. Draper (Jon Hamm) is an especially memorable and mysterious character; a man with a flat affectless exterior behind which teem legions of ghosts. He is haunted, driven to work hard by the utter blank inside him and literally does not know who he is (he’s not even “Don Draper”). Or take True Detective’s Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), another stoical haunted man with a work ethic but prone, unlike Draper, to bursts of metaphysical speculation. At one point in the pilot episode, after damning the monstrous evolutionary accident of human consciousness, detective Cohle refers to Earth as a “giant gutter in outer space,” effortlessly upping the ante of noir fatalism without ever leaving the mode of the wisecrack. Shortly after this line his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) says “Please stop saying shit like that.”
True Detective is also notable for taking to vertiginous extremes Godard’s bon mot that a “story should have a beginning a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order,” and that idea seems truer than ever when considering the exciting narrative experimentation going on in so many of these shows. If high modernists like Joyce, Stein, Conrad and Forster were already messing with the legos of story, the new cable TV inherits that tendency but does it one better by deriving it from the format itself. These days we don’t just scan and flip, we click, scroll, track, crawl, post, tweet, Tivo and touch. Why not celebrate a medium that absorb these rhythms and spits them back out as art?