It seems that we are living in a golden age of television. With shows ranging from Mad Men to Game of Thrones or Modern Family to Dexter, Breaking Bad, or anything else garnering epic amounts of hype, one might view Battleship or its ilk and come to the conclusion that TV is better than the movies. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair came to that conclusion, as did the folks at IndieWire (although Cole took a somewhat different stance).
Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how wrong it is. While there is certainly a lot of great television out there, the theater experience still trumps all. Television will never usurp the cinema just as crude sex robots will never usurp hookers.
When someone wants to describe a really great looking television show, they say it “feels like a movie.” No one ever describes great films as “being like television.” Television aspires to be film and in some instances, comes close. Film, safely perched on its tower, has no desire to be more like TV.
To address the question of whether television is really as good as everyone says it is right now, one must view television as a whole. There have never been more channels. A “basic” cable package comes with two hundred channels these days, 180 of which you’ll never use. Why? Because there’s a ton of crap on television. There is really, truly bad television everywhere. With that many stations, you’re bound to find a few winners. When 10% of 50 channels meant there were 5 good shows, it’s one thing, but 10% of 200 channels means there are 20 fantastic shows out there. Sounds about right.
Television done right has several benefits over film. First, it’s generally a lot cheaper, which goes a long way in the production world. Second, it’s a lot longer. A movie has between 80 and 120 minutes to give you a beginning, a middle, and an end. Within that time it must convey to you everything you need to know, think, and experience. A television program can stretch that out ten times longer, or more. The History Channel’s upcoming Hatfields & McCoys runs nearly 6 hours over three nights. Mad Men gets 546 minutes a season to work its characters in new directions. Game of Thrones has
twelve ten episodes a season to wow you. If a television show has two boring episodes, it’s not really a big deal. You hold on. But if a movie bores you for 20 minutes, well, you feel like it’s a bad movie.
People who claim television is better than movies have just grown old or pretentious. I’m generalizing, of course, and calling names. But so what? There is this idea in the ether that the cinematic offerings of the world have dwindled. I say nay. Going to the movies is still fun. Going to the movies should be fun.
They’re two different mediums. Television is the long play. If Mad Men had been created as a movie, would it have done as well? Doubtful. It’s too short a period of time to play with the characters. Episodic television is better compared to movies – something like Law & Order: SVU, but even that has the benefit of years of backstory.
Comparing television to film is a rough trade. They’re different beasts. Not meant to be compared and contrasted, but for me, if you do that, film comes up the winner. Television takes a long time to tell the story and can take more risks. With movies, there’s an all-or-nothing attitude that demands consistent quality in order to be compelling. When a movie hits, it hits. It stays with you. Movies are far more powerful that television, especially in the short term.
What comparing film and television comes down to is the experience. There’s no question in my mind that seeing a movie is better. For one, if you include the theater experience, that’s pure magic. A huge screen, bombastic sound, an electrified and excited crowd. Always better than sitting on a couch in front of your TV. Movies still have spectacle around them. They’re still events. Plus, they rarely leave you wanting. Most every episode of a television show teases you about the next one. A movie says “Here I am, here is every part of me.” And, okay, sometimes leaves the door too open for sequels.
Even ignoring the theater experience, a good movie is almost always better than a great episode of television. I love shows like Justified, but it’s rare for an episode to rise to the level of a film in terms of emotion or excitement. When a rare show comes along that does just that, like Game of Thrones, we lay upon it the best compliment you can give a television show: Man, it’s just like a movie.
So yeah, enjoy the television we have now. We’re experiencing a boom in home entertainment. But let’s not be ridiculous. Movies kick TV’s ass all over the place. The best shows strive to be like movies and in doing so, capture a little bit of that magic and win our hearts. But it was movies that opened our hearts in the first place.