Thursday, September 09, 2010

TV vs. Movies

Did you read the recent NYT editorial "Are films bad, or is TV just better?". The article cites the obsessive fandom and acclaim for several great TV series and wonders why movies can't excite the public in the same way? There are a few interesting online responses to this perennial question. I love this history heavy emotional commitment focused piece at Observations on Film Art. And Movie|Line responded with some smart points beating me to the punch.

There’s something inherently flawed with that initial premise because Scott seems to be forgetting about plenty of recent, comparable movies; didn’t The Kids Are All Right address “modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of Modern Family,” only moreso? Isn’t there an apt comparison to be made between Inception and Lost, two twisty sci-fi genre amalgams that sparked fervent discussion and debate?
I actually wrote up a piece on this very editorial before it was published and saved the draft. I can't find it right now. Argh. "How could you respond to something before it's published" you ask? Well, because this faulty argument is very familiar. In this years-old argument people cite absolutely brilliant TV series like Mad Men (or The Wire or The Sopranos in previous years) and other well loved series like Lost or Breaking Bad or Modern Family or outrageously popular ones like True Blood or Glee and then they begin gnashing their teeth and uttering things like "what's wrong with the movies?" after which they cite numerous lame studio releases as evidence that they've asked a good question.

Well, it is a question. I don't know about good.

Comparing the best of one medium to the average to worst of another is always going to get you into trouble. It's a) unfair and b) dumb. The best of one artform will be better than the worst of another 100 times out of 100. But, what's more, the two mediums have a different set of artistic rules and should be judged separately. Yes, it's very exciting what's happening in the best of television these days. I wholeheartedly agree. I'm watching more television this year than I have in probably a decade. But what's happening in the best series is not happening to all of television anymore than the glorious build up and maintaining of tension in last year's Best Picture The Hurt Locker is true of all action movies and thrillers or that the quality of the 3D in Avatar extends to all movies released in 3D.

my 10 favorite current TV shows (alpha order): 30 Rock, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Glee (guilty pleasure division), Mad Men, Modern Family, Nurse Jackie, RuPaul's Drag Race, True Blood and United States of Tara

My theory as to why this question keeps cropping up and why television is having a very good run boils down to the HBO model and a matter of accessibility, two things that the movies can't have and choose not to have, respectively. The HBO model of short seasons without reruns interrupting the initial run has finally begun to trickle down into the networks. Seasons are shorter insuring easier quality control, less creative burnout and a more cohesive longform narrative; the latter is what TV was always built to do brilliantly but which few shows used to capitalized on preferring half hour or one hour complete within themselves mini-movies (with notable exceptions like Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The accessibility issue is more complicated. TV is always going to be more popular than movies because it's easier to see and it's free (or charges on a subscription basis, which is easier to pretend you're not paying for ...and even then it's still way cheaper than going to the movies.)

So I'm confused as to why people suddenly think TV is more popular? Hasn't it always been? It's rarely been as respected but it's popularity has never been in question.

The question that people should be asking is so complicated that I don't even know where to begin. Plus, I can't pretend to have an answer. The right question to ask is not "why is TV better than the movies?" but maybe "Why do audiences get excited and obsess over critically acclaimed television but avoid so many critically acclaimed movies?"

I think that that's the question to be asking. Theoretically wouldn't the audiences for smart, creative and/or emotionally complex television shows also enjoy movies like The Hurt Locker and Winter's Bone and Julia and Bright Star and Inception and any number of foreign imports and even experimental or foreign festival sensations instead of going to see The Expendables or lining up for the latest superhero flick with everyone else? Why do people obsessively love Mad Men but complain if they see a movie where the characters are unlikeable? (Watch Mad Men for more than two episodes and you realize that there's not one character that's warm and fuzzy. No, not even Peggy.)

tiny box office / obsessive fan love
Why are they never cited in 'movies > tv' arguments whereas critical darling tv shows are cited, despite being midgets compared to almighty ratings champs like "Two and a Half Men"?

I'm assuming the complicated but as yet unrevealed answer involves economics. Movies cost way too much to make and market and are mysteriously not supported by advertising the way television is despite having the same amount of commercials. We've also got a broken distribution system which we've discussed to much already -- even if someone wants to see I Am Love they have to live in certain places in order to purchase it. Finally there's the very real issue of habit and conditioning. It's easier to give a television series you've heard is great a second chance even if you didn't like it the first time you watched than it is to buy a ticket to a movie you didn't "get" the first time after reading reviews proclaiming it to be a masterpiece. And that's just one example. But how would the movies get more accessible besides dropping prices which they should have done long ago?

And how would the audience get less suspicious of the unfamiliar? TV shows have an easier hurdle here in terms of original concepts getting play. They really do... though you wouldn't know this from the still ubiquitous three choice drama problem: do you want cops, doctors or lawyers? If a totally unique show has been on the air for a few seasons you get acclimated to it without even watching it (it's in the pop culture air). Eventually you might join in and catch up but movies only get one shot at your love and if you don't like the ad campaign the first time they're toast. They don't really stay "in the air" because they have such short windows of play and those windows aren't cyclical. If a TV show isn't cancelled it gets several years to convince you to watch it.

The good questions are complicated. Nobody seems to be asking them, preferring to compare apples to oranges and stating their apple preference. I'm an orange man myself though I absolutely enjoy fresh apples more than rotten oranges.

Who doesn't?


/3rtfu11 said...

The more appreciate for this blog question would be: Why is television a healthier vehicle for established actresses?

Steady work if the show’s a success and visibility are the main benefits. They also get to exercise their craft outside of the stage or some independent feature film that goes unnoticed because the distributor doesn’t have the funding – see Julia (2009) as a prime example.

CParis said...

If a totally unique show has been on the air...Eventually you might join in and catch up but movies only get one shot at your love and if you don't like the ad campaign the first time they're toast.

If you miss the first broadcast, but critical reviews and word of mouth on a new show are good, TV is offers even more "windows of opportunity" for viewers to get into a new series.
Most episodes are available OnDemand within a week, so you can catch up right away. Cablenets rebroadcast episodes several times during a week. You can subscribe to shows on iTunes, etc. And DVRs mean you can catch episodes whenever you want.

Simon said...

I agree that TV is more acclaimed just because it's higher-profile. Even movie stars are turning to TV.

I can't stand all the movies that would counter this argument getting released in, like, three theatres. Like Bran Nue Dae. Which I've been trying to see forever. Damn you, commercials, promising me something you can't deliver. Damn you to hell.

So yeah.

Murtada said...

I hear you. You made some very good points. But maybe people are saying that because this year has been such a bad year for movies. I love going to the cinema and I've been less than 10 times this year. Yes The Kids Are Alright and A Prophet were fantastic but tonight I'd rather curl up with Don Draper or Dexter or Sue Sylvester than go out even though I think I should see Animal Kingdom.

Andrew K. said...

Really, Nat, I've rarely heard this argument though I remember hearing snippets of it when Revolutionary Road came out. Apparently everything had been done better in Mad Men according to one reviewer. I respect Mad Men but have little love for it, and I really liked Revolutionary Road. Obviously, TV has the edge because it gets months and then years to build up characters, a film has 2 hours. And if I was to have it, I'd say movies. I love your article though, it is wrong to judge the usual blockbuster to those highly acclaimed HBO shows. The

(I LOVE that you love Dexter)

Michael said...

It's a great point you raise that why are people who tune into a TV show with buzz/critical acclaim so wary to do the same with movies? Movies are very expensive nowadays, but I think more of it is that in a TV series you can sink into the characters. Take a show like "Lost," where you had six years to follow the stories of these characters. Now take a film like "The Hurt Locker" where it cost you ten dollars to see and only 130 minutes to attach yourself to characters and care about their fate. Also, giving a movie a second chance means watching the same exact movie that you didn't like for a second time. Giving a television show a second chance means watching a completely new episode, same characters/premise. I fall on the film side of this debate, but it makes sense why people are less likely to attach themselves to movies/see movies again that they weren't initially crazy about.

Liz said...

I do understand your point, but I think it's important to remember that no matter how much critical and Internet buzz "Mad Men," "Dexter," "United States of Tara," "30 Rock, "Friday Night Lights," and many other TV shows get, they still get miniscule ratings. "Mad Men" only pulls in about two million or so a week. Its audience may obsess over it, but it's an extremely tiny audience.

I'm not much of a number cruncher, but I'm sure more than that many people saw "The Hurt Locker," "The Kids Are All Right," and a handful of other films you mentioned. And I'm willing to bet that those people who saw these films are also the kind that like smart, thought-provoking TV. The numbers don't seem to match up, but they really do if you think about it.

I think it's easy to take "buzz," especially the kind from the Internet, and give it a whole lot more meaning than it has. And it's not like there's no comparison to be made at all between the two mediums:

Mad Men = The Hurt Locker
Two and a Half Men = Transformers 2

Sure, not that many people seem to "love" "Two and a Half Men," but it's clearly got a following, whether or not it totally sucks.

Ryan T. said...

It's easier to give a television series you've heard is great a second chance even if you didn't like it the first time you watched than it is to buy a ticket to a movie you didn't "get" the first time after reading reviews proclaiming it to be a masterpiece.

I don't know what I would do without Netflix. That's pretty much all I have to contribute to this topic. I love TV. I love movies. Do not ever make me choose between the two.

cal roth said...

I'm sorry, but no matter how great a show as Mad Men is, it's far far far from be as demanding as the best movies we've seen the last decade. You can't compare it to Julia or even Oscar pets like The Hurt Locker or No Country For Old Men. It may look daring for tv, but, come on, when have you seen on tv something with the guts Paul Thomas Anderson shows in There Will Be Blood?

I may love these shows, but I'm all for movies right now. We're not seeing Fassbinder or Kieslowski on American tv. The day HBO airs something as disturbing as the Decalogue or Berlin Alexanderplatz we'll be talking.

I give you The Wire, but all these excellent shows relatively easy, with classical narrative. You may have depth in characters and situations, but it's nothing spectacularly different from what American audiences have been seeing since movies have existed - there has always been deep and brilliant movies, and a lot of them were hits!

BUt, still, movies can go a lot further. And they still do.

Univarn said...

One advantage TV has over Film, especially in terms of media, is constant bombardment. 24 episodes spread over 30+ weeks, over years. 30 minutes to an hour at a time. You'd have to watch most movies 10+ times a year to get that kind of exposure. And I'd say because people spend so much time with those characters, all the online stuff surrounding them (especially in modern media and characters having faux blogs), they grow a strong attachment to them.

Viral marketing and film is still an iffy thing (works great for something like Cloverfield).

As to why, people flock to see TF2, and not Hurt Locker... I'd say: socially preceded, media enforced, appeal. Not to mention the cost in marketing, and distributing, a film by comparison to a TV show where networks self market.

Granted I think NBC has shown quite well though, people will down swallow everything just because it's on TV.

Oh, and if we're arguing TV > Movies, I'd just like to say Jersey Shore. The world will never truly be able to forgive TV for that in years to come....

Greg Boyd said...

It depends. There are certainly a lot more great movies out there than there are great TV shows. But a great TV show (like "The Wire" or "Battlestar Galactica") can tell a much more complex, deeper story than even the best movies can.

That being said, there are way too few TV shows that actually take advantage of the media's potential. "Mad Men" and "FNL" are probably the only ones right now, though I have hope for "Lonestar" and "The Walking Dead".

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...


Castor said...

Great points. There is also a structural aspect to this apple and orange comparison: With TV shows, you can build more elaborate and involving plots simply because you 10-15-25 hours of run time while in a movie, you only have 2. By having people tune in regularly to the same TV show, they also get to know the characters/actors and premises better.

As someone who has voluntarily stopped trying to catch on the popular TV fad of the week, I can say these can be extremely addictive, making you highly anticipate the next episode on and on.

Michael Parsons said...

Wow - we totally like the same shows. What I find frustrating is that when a shows finds its ground and becomes brilliant (usually in its second season) they cancel it. 'Better Off Ted' and 'Party Down' were two examples of wonderful shows gone too soon.
Yet 'Two and a Half Men' is still going strong.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Such a well-written, well-argued piece, N.

vg21 said...

The reason why TV shows seem to be of a better quality may be that there is a bigger overlap between popular and critically acclaimed TV shows than such movies. Is it possible that the critical machination evaluating films is a bit too conservative and unadventurous? If I think of the Oscars I can see a system with a huge inertia, not to mention a lot of "critically acclaimed" but insufferable and unwatchable films (sorry). To me, the Emmys seem to be more responsive to changes.

However, I agree with Liz that TV shows which really deserve the critical appreciation struggle in therms of ratings. 30 Rock and Damages (and as I justlearned, even Mad Men) have been airing IN SPITE OF their relatively low ratings because they are undeniably good and maybe, their immense popularity among their fans makes it more difficult to dismiss them. There is a power of being in front of the public eye, even if it means "only" 2 million people.

vg21 said...

Accessibility is a huge thing. Even here in Hungary you can find all the latest and most popular shows in Hungarian, and the release dates of new seasons are getting closer and closer to their original US airing. This cannot at all be said about movies, a lot of even relatively successful (and "critically acclaimed") ones are unreleased here, many times not even on DVDs.

Just an example that popped into my head: Fantastic Mr. Fox had never come before it was finally introduced within the Titanic Festival's programme in June for a full house, it won the Audience Award, was screened again and then only the DVD was promised by September, eventually released only at the end of October. I have been looking forward to it for about 1,5 years now and it's really disappointing and discouraging to have to wait so long for a film while everyone else has already seen it. The magic is half gone as you cannot avoid reading the reviews for years.

So I rather watch TV shows like 30 Rock, Damages, Modern Family or The Big C (though in English, I can't stand dubbing)and let myself be impressed by their quality.

Burning Reels said...

I think the one big advantage film has over TV is it's legacy. Granted, this is only bestowed to the great films but whilst the excellent TV shows fade in the memory, the great films can obtain and maintain a timelessness, which TV will always struggle to.

Colin Low said...

Amazing piece. The "which is better" question is always uninteresting compared to how TV and the movies are different, and why, and you've elucidated those brilliantly.

DeeD said...

The author of the original NYT article seems to forget that if Mad Men, Breaking Bad or hell even Glee were movies they would all be flops. MM & BB average 2 mil viewers an episode, that would not translate to box office success. Both MM & BB would be indie films that come out in October hoping for Oscar success that he complains no one sees, well if he thinks about it that way no one is watching those shows on tv either.
A show like Boardwalk Empire which I think will be successful *by tv terms*
will avg. 2-5 mil viewers and if the NYT's author were to think a little deeper he could compare its success to The Aviator.
In Glee's case (which avgs 10-15 mil viewers an episode) it's chances of successful would be dismal, because how many people are willing to pay $15 bucks to see singing high school students. It's success could not be the #1 box office type but the little pop culture gem that could, which is exactly where it sits now.
The only tv show that could be very successful as a movie would be Lost (if it were marketed and edited well) and I think that is because it was very different from most movies and tv shows much like Inception.
The funny thing is if MM were a film (which I watch regularly) I probably would wait until it came out on Netfilx to see it, and if 2 and a Half Men (which avgs 20 mil viewers an episode) were a movie it would be #1 at the box office and the NYT author would be complaining about it.

DeeD said...

I also wanted to add that I really do think it all boils down to economics and the changing landscape of media outlets. Many people are not going to spend $15 every weekend to see a film every weekend or re-see a film they like, especially if they already pay $100 a month for premium cable for a variety of options.
As for why were are not having big discussions on films like we use to, well we are not having big discussions on tv either outside of the internet. No one I know has even heard of Mad Men, if I want to talk about it I go on websites I know will be discussing it.
Also more films than tv shows are made so the comparative ratio it off. People may be discussing Lost just like they discussed TDK, but no one is discussing CSI Miami, just as they are not discussing The Expendables.

Noecitos said...

I agree with the idea that both media can be compared in terms of quality (obviously Mad Men is better than The Last Airbender) but that they shouldn't be compared as a whole. There is no point in generalizations, every story should see which media fits best its intentions.
I think that "The Dark Tower" is a great example. I believe those books should be a TV show and not films to give them the necessary details.
But that doesn't mean that TV characters are more complex or better written because they are TV characters. Charmaine (Tara) is a wonderful character but Rachel (Getting Married, both played superbly by Rosemarie DeWitt) is more or as developed.

CParis said...

DeeD said...Many people are not going to spend $15 every weekend to see a film every weekend or re-see a film they like, especially if they already pay $100 a month for premium cable for a variety of options.

This is a great observation. Many people would rather wait 2-3 months to see a critically acclaimed theatrical film when it's available OnDemand, Redbox, Netflix, etc. because the theatre-going experience is often unpleasant - you pay the same $11 to see a special-effects laden blockbuster as you do to see a small, indie film - along with the same cellphone yappers and crying toddlers.

SusanP said...

Nat great post to start a very interesting discussion. I definitely agree with Liz and others who pointed out that the popularity of shows like Mad Men is relative -- it would be a flop (audience-wise) as a film, even as it has a very dedicated audience and huge buzz.

My own relationship with television and film has changed a lot over the last few years, which is why I've had a much harder time writing about film--even on a semi-regular basis.

A little background: When I was younger I was a major TV addict. But then, in the late 90s I stopped watching TV almost entirely. This was partly to due to my main TV breaking and never bothering to have it fixed and partly due to my growing internet surfing.

Since I stopped watching regularly, I've never really returned. But in recent years I've formed a major TV series DVD habit. With the exception of "Dollhouse," "Lost" and "Mad Men" --the latter two which I caught up to on DVD -- I don't watch any other TV shows when they air. In stead, I've worked my way through older series, most of which have finished their runs. UK stuff like "Life on Mars," along with shows like "Freaks and Geaks" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," to name a few.

I think the main reason for this switch is partly practical -- time and convenience. I watch what I want to watch, when I want to watch it. And unfortunately, getting to the theater is less convenient, versus receiving a new DVD in my mailbox.

There's also the addictive quality of good television that even the best films can't compete with, simply because they are "one and done." That's not to say I won't see a loved film more than once, but the cost of movies (especially in places like NYC) has seriously put a dent in my repeat viewing habit. I used to see films I loved at LEAST 3 times in the theater (and oddly enough, this was before I ever wrote about films and had the chance to go to screenings--it was all on my personal dime). I can't recall the last time I paid to see a film more than once in a theater, probably the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I'd be willing to see again, if it was re-released).

I'll always love movies, but TV has definitely come back into my life in a big way.

Kev said...

It is probably wrong to compare the best of television to the worst in movies, but the reality is, if you don't live in NYC or LA, you're shit out of luck to see some of these "best of" movies in any timely manner, and yes, television is more accessible to more people, in many cases free, and has time to build on itself in a way that these blink-and-you'll-miss-them films will never do. I'll always be a television guy at heart, b/c it's what I grew up with and adored for so long, and with the kinds of shows on now, TV is no longer the ugly stepchild of film. Not one bit. And I'll go ahead and compare the best of television with the best movies I've seen lately and say that film's good, but right now television's better. It also helps that I'm more connected with long-term story arcs and characterizations than I'll ever be over two-hour movies. It really is an apples/oranges type deal, and there's no right or wrong answer. But I totally get where this article's coming from b/c I've thought the same thing for years now.

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Strippers said...

I haven't seen a movie on my own for awhile now. Good for you for doing so! I think it is liberating!