Mad Men

No Longer Cinema’s Ugly Little Brother: The Golden Age of TV

Now, you guys all know that I love the movies (I mean I have a blog about it, for god’s sake). But, I have to admit that I do “cheat” sometimes with my television shows. I can go months and months without watching any movies in theaters, but if I miss a single episode of Mad Men on Sunday night, and some loser spoils it for me, I completely flip. Within the past few years there has been talk of how that TV has gotten better than the movies. Television shows develop characters better, their plot lines are more nuanced, and they take more chances and risks. It seems that TV is in the midst of a creative Golden Era, and the movies stand no chance. Is this true? Part of me feels like it might certainly be the case.

When looking at different posts about this topic, I have run into a variety of opinions (like one always finds on the internet). Some lean more to the “movies are still way more awesome” side of the spectrum while others say that “TV runs circles around your dumb movies.” Out of all these posts, though, no one lies entirely on one end or the other. Everyone is hovering around the midpoint , tilting slightly to their respective sides.

Let’s have a look at what some of these befuddled bloggers and jaded journalists have to say:

Oliver Lyttelton’s post starts off with a quote that says it all: “Super-producer Scott Rudin (“The Social Network”) perhaps summed up the feelings of many when he told GQ that ‘For all those people who spent years trying to get movies made at all the companies that are now gone, there’s now one place to work where you can get respectfully treated and fairly judged. It’s HBO.'”

Many of the greats, whether they be directors, writers or actors, are now finding homes in television (particularly the aforementioned HBO, AMC, and Showtime). Here these artists/creators can really tell the stories they want. They have arguably more freedom at HBO than they would at a Hollywood movie studio. If you’re on paid-cable you don’t have to worry about appease in MPAA. Also, because TV shows have so much airtime, they can compose intricate, detailed plots with realistic, multidimensional characters and play these stories out in a patient, detailed way. No movie has the 50+ hours The Wire has to tell its story.

Lyttelon and Steven Axelrod, both speak extensively on how TV is the writer’s world. Directors are there, but they are exponentially more revered in cinema. The director may change from episode to episode and the audience can’t even tell. Lately, it is very “in” to have a famous movie director make the pilot, but after that they never appear again. Like the Boardwalk Empire premiere was filmed by Scorsese, which was amazing, but he hasn’t done one since.   The writers room is what stays consistent.

Television is a narrative based medium. The plot is what gets people talking, debating and passionate about the show. Cinematography and other visual elements aren’t as important as they are in the movies. Shows are made so quickly. Creators generally rely on set group of shots and setups in order to get it done in time. You usually don’t talk to your friends about how lovely that tracking shot in the restaurant was, but rather how the drunk character failed to realize that he cost himself a new job and how “mad” you are about it. These moments can fuel debates and discussions for months or weeks, it is hard to find a film that does the same.

We have all either witnessed or been a part of a TV show’s fanatical base. I know that I am all the time! A.O. Scott in the New York Times asks is it is possible for a movie to create the level of devotion, which comes easily to a great tv show, such as Lost or Firefly. Lost was a phenomenon in and of itself. Everyone was talking about it. They were all wondering what will happen/what the hell was going on. Whether it be at work, school, or the internet, you could not escape it. When Firefly was unjustly, cruelly cancelled (I’m not very being impartial here, am I?) its fans were so devoted that they managed to get a movie released to conclude the series. When was the last time a film inspired such action or passion in their audience?

Now, all three of these articles stated that they feel that cinema still holds a very important place in our culture. There is just something about the movies that still puts them a step above the rest. However, sometimes it feels that it is much easier to get access to good TV (legally). Good movies are selectively released in big cities or just play in festivals. What we see in most cities, is a bunch of 3D re-releases and remakes of movies that were awful to begin with. In comparison, we’re starting to look at TV as a serious medium of artistic expression. It is fresh and new. Perhaps TV is going through a Golden Era, while they movies are going through a rough patch.

Cinema is trying to define its place in the 21st century. This isn’t new. It went through a similar problem in the mid 20th century. TVs were popping up in houses all over America. Movie theater attendance went way down. Studios and producers started to use things like 3D and other gimmicks to get people to come out (sound familiar?). After some time cinema managed to bounce back.

Ultimately, I have faith that the movies will figure something out again, but the high quality programming on TV is here to stay. Films may never have that kind of dominance again,  but competition doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Hopefully this situation will frighten movie makers out of complacency and inspire some really brilliant films.