Movies versus Television: Is TV Winning?

We know that bears beat Battlestar Galactica and turkey can never beat cow, but in the battle of movies versus television, I used to think that it was equally obvious that movies win.  With the Oscars coming up, we are likely to be treated to the same overwrought pomp of an industry that values movies more than anything; the ‘prestige’ given to the Oscars is nowhere near comparable to what’s given the Emmys.  But do movies deserve that honor?  Now I’m not so sure anymore.

Last night I watched Thor for the first time.  Yes, I know.  It’s not like I was watching something like Hugo or The Artist or something that’s supposed to be legitimately ‘good,’ but while I was watching it, I was astounded at how little the characters were developed.  I’m not saying that I expected a summer blockbuster to have much more than two-dimensional characters; it’s that I couldn’t believe how little there was for me to believe that Natalie Portman actually felt something for Thor (and vice versa).  I couldn’t believe how little was there to show (the point of the movie) that Thor had changed from being obnoxious and conceited to being compassionate and caring.

Now in 3D, but much more 2D than I remembered.

Then I thought of a similar experience I had a few weeks ago.  My niece is on a Beauty and the Beast kick, so while I was at my sister’s house, I watched it with her.  I hadn’t seen it for a while and in my mind, it was the gem of the early nineties Disney’s renaissance.  I was shocked at how little there was there, as well.  Belle and the Beast, who were so clearly great characters to me, were not nearly developed (and probably were in my memory solely because of re-watching).  Basically, the Beast is a jerk, she runs away, he takes a beating from some wolves for her and then there are two songs that show they fell in love.  It’s the same story as Thor (big jerk has to learn to be nice guy) but they were both unable to make me believe any of it in their abbreviated running times.

I’m starting to think that the current renaissance of seriously good television series is causing film to feel like a limited medium, and I may not have noticed it because a lot of the films I watch are sequels, which depend on setup movies for useful characterization.

I have discussed the advantage that tv has in terms of character development previously, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not just that.  It used to be my general opinion that books were better than movies and movies were better than television shows, but I think what’s happened is that television shows have been able to become more like books.  For me, each season of The Sopranos and Mad Men unfolds like a novel.  The same could be said of genre shows like Buffy and Battlestar Galactica (and perhaps the adaptation of Game of Thrones and Lost, though in retrospect Lost feels like a far more convoluted novel).

I’ve argued about this with a number of people.  On occasion, I’ve heard the argument that a show like Lost or Battlestar cannot live up to the greatest gems of the cinema because those shows failed to stick their landings in the end and clearly were created by artists who were ‘making it up as they went along.’

But it is entirely incorrect to compare one television series to one movie.  Lost may have ended very badly, but I think that a 120 minute block of episodes like Through the Looking Glass, The Constant and Walkabout could stand tall against any great genre film.  The same can be said of the mutiny episodes in Battlestar’s otherwise problematic fourth season, or the Exodus episodes from the New Caprica episodes that begin the third season.  Even Heroes, which is a terrible show, has a beauty of an episode like Company Man, which while 40 minutes long, benefits from the character development in the dozen episodes before it, and allows it to stand alongside other filmed creations.  I think I’d rather marathon episodes like Surprise, Innocence, Passion, Becoming: Part 1 and 2, Hush, Once More, with Feeling, Conversations with Dead People, Lies My Parents Told Me, and Chosen from Buffy than watch most movies.

Speaking as a consumer, movies have to step up their game, because if what I can get on my HD TV with a DVR is superior to what I can spend $15 to see for two hours of entertainment and overpriced snacks then it’s not worth it.  And that has nothing to do with online piracy, that is entirely about quality.

For writers of print fiction, I’d counsel again: start giving TV your time.  Seeing how a Sopranos season builds up its themes (linguistically, visually, musically) is well worth your time, and can help you structure that novel that is giving you trouble.

What do you think?  Can television awards shows one day garner the same ‘respect’ accorded to film awards shows?  Will TV overtake movies in the critical realm? 

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  1. Joe

    What are you smoking? TV is garbage now, because of reality TV.

    Movies are the only place left where hard work pays off.

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