Sunday, January 4, 2015

Is TV Better Than Film?

In my spare time, when I'm not working, sleeping, or seeing every movie of consequence released, I love getting caught up on the best that TV has to offer.  Frankly I've been a TV binge watcher since way before that term even existed, back before it was cool, when it was just called reclusive, antisocial, and obsessive/compulsive behavior.  Ah, the good ol' days!  But I've taken binge-watching to a new level as of late.  (This year my binging has included the complete series of The West Wing, Oz, and, best of all, over the last five days, Justified!)  I've long considered (and I'm hardly the first person to say this), TV is arguably better, or at least as good as anything you'll see on the big screen.  So I've composed a mini-essay on the subject.  Until now I've stayed away from reviewing or even commenting much about TV on this blog, not because I don't love it, but because I don't want to turn my play into work.  Plus, I don't really have much to offer in this category that hasn't been written about ad nauseam.  The fact is, unlike with film, I believe the critics, the fans, and the well informed public in general are already in the loop of the best TV has to offer.  Personally, like you, I don't have time to watch it all, so for TV I take my cues just like you do, from TV critics and those whose taste I share.  So I'm still discovering the treasures that many before me have found long ago.

As many TV critics have noted, we are without doubt in a golden age of TV dramas (often cited to begin in 1999 with The Sopranos, but also including some of my personal favorites, The Wire, Firefly, The Shield, and Battlestar Galactica to name a few.)  But in my opinion TV has never been better than right now.  (Though unquestionably the best shows of today were heavily influenced by those that came before them, and unfortunately came ahead of their time.  Yes, I'm looking at you, Twin Peaks and Homicide: Life on the Street.)  But I can think of several reasons why now is the best time to stay home, put on your slankets, or onesie PJ's, or whatever the hell you wear in the privacy of your fortress of solitude, and binge like you've never binged before.
  • Dramas are increasingly serial, rather than just stand alone episodes.  Networks (and more commonly cable) are secure enough to assume that their audience is willing to invest the time in seeing every episode rather than cherry picking.  Gone are the days when every show had to be a complete story and all of the Brady's problems were resolved and wrapped up in 22 to 24 minutes.  (Yes, I do remember the multi-episode story when they went to Hawaii and The Grand Canyon.)  Sure, that model still exists today and always will, and I like The Big Bang Theory just as much as the next guy or girl.  But let's face it.  It's not must see storytelling.  It's a pleasant diversion before you go to bed.  Serial dramas are of more substance.
  • Complexity isn't considered a negative anymore, and audiences are assumed to be sophisticated enough to appreciate that.  (Sometimes they're too sophisticated!  Even the smallest mistakes, inconsistencies, or less than credible storylines aren't tolerated by the fanboys and trolls on the internet.)  It's 2014 and we're smart enough to handle it when everything isn't spoon fed to us and explained in painful detail.  We don't need a narrator with a deep voice telling us what happened in the previous season or episode, or even worse, before the last commercial break.  We know.  We saw it.  Possibly more than once.  So don't waste our time.  (And I'm pretty sure even in the 70's we could have figured out that the Duke boys had gotten themselves in trouble again with Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coltrane without the narrator telling us so.)
  • Length is variable.  Finally stories are now told in the length that best suits them.  I love this.  It used to be that a story was either told in under two hours (as a movie), 22 to 24 episodes (as a TV series), or as a mini-series (generally consisting of 2 or 3 two hour segments).  Cable shows are now customarily 12 to 13 episodes, thus allowing for better quality than forcing a quantity of 22 to 24.  But a show like True Detective was only 8.  How did they come to that unprecedented number?  Well I can only imagine that was, creatively, the optimal number of hours to tell the story they wanted to tell.  Imagine that.  This is very different than the current business model in Hollywood, stretching out every franchise into as many movies as possible, clearly just to maximize revenue.  (The Hobbit in three parts?!?)
  • Season and series storylines are arced out long in advance.  How can you tell a great story if you don't know where you're going way ahead of time?!  It almost always shows when a show is just winging it and meandering along until cancellation, and I just don't think you can get away with that anymore.
  • End dates are planned.  Lost was the first show I can ever remember that planned and even negotiated an end date.  This was groundbreaking, and although they had to go a little longer than they wanted (which was evident with all the filler) it opened the door to proper storytelling for TV.  Because to tell a proper story, you need to have a proper ending, and that usually has to be decided creatively and not driven by when the ratings decline.
  • A lot of the best talent increasingly wants to work in TV.  For one thing, assuming the show finds an audience, it's job security for the writers, cast and crew.  It also often allows them to work from their home city and go home every night.  But more importantly to us, the creative freedom, particularly in cable shows ... ummm ... shows.  You can't take creative chances on a movie with a budget of $250M.  With that size investment, studios can't afford to lose.  But a cable TV show targeted to only a few million people can be pretty damn edgy.  So why wouldn't the best writers or actors prefer to work in TV?  Well, salaries are still generally higher and the prestige is still greater in film.  For now.
  • The theme songs are often as good as the shows themselves.  Thank god we don't have cheesy, dreadful theme songs written by Alan Thicke anymore!  (Believe it or not - no pun intended, Thicke wrote the painful mind-numbing themes to Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life.)  Nowadays, if the theme is as good as it is in Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or True Detective, I will listen to it repeatedly at the beginning of each episode as I binge.  A great theme really sets the tone for the show you're about to see rather than simply sticking in your head like an annoying radio jingle.  Though many of them are short, or in some cases almost non-existent (as is the case with the whirling sound effect used rather than any opening song for Lost.)
  • Binge away!  It's 2015 and we can pretty much watch what we want, when we want, and how we want.  You can stay in all weekend and watch entire seasons of an amazing show without notice on Netflix, Amazon Prime, DVR, VOD, DVD's from Redbox, etc... It's amazing! There's almost no reason to ever leave your home anymore!  And frankly, for the best shows, binging is the best way to appreciate them.  If too much time passes between episodes you forget the subtle but important details. 
But again, I'm really just stating the obvious.  You know all this already!  But for my money, here are 10 great reasons why TV over the last year + has (arguably) been better than film:
  1. True Detective
  2. Breaking Bad
  3. Justified
  4. Homeland
  5. The Newsroom
  6. The Walking Dead
  7. Boardwalk Empire
  8. House of Cards
  9. Fargo
  10. Dexter
Notable mentions go to:  The Blacklist, Game of Thrones, The Following, Hannibal, The Affair, Masters of Sex, The Leftovers, Low Winter Sun, and Sherlock.

And with that, I will return to my focus on this blog ... film.  I will continue to let you know which of the 700 or so movies released a year are actually worth your time and which are clearly not.  And you should do the same for me for any TV shows you happen across that are as good as or better than movies.  Just ... please ... no spoilers!  Or I'll kick your m#$%@#  f@#$%$#  @$$!


  1. TV is my go to at this point. It's like watching a 10-20 (40? 50?) hour movie and I love it. I binged the first three seasons of Lost on DVD (yours, I do believe) before watching live and long before that I binged 6 Feet Under w/ one Netflix DVD at a time. How vintage! I'm currently going crazy on comedies (Parks & Rec and 30 Rock). And I'm all caught up on The Walking Dead (and regularly dream about zombies. It's terrifying.) I don't even have cable, but TV is by far my preferred method of entertainment consumption.