Samuel Brace on whether TV is now more effective than film…
Television is fun but it could never compete with the power of cinema.
That is a statement that was once true and now isn’t. The landscape has changed and we have changed with it. Television for the longest time was a means to bring families together, to gather them around and provide them with information, information above ideas. Its role wasn’t to compete with film — that would be impossible. It was to supplement. It was a completely different medium, a completely different art form. Watching an episode of Mash was not the same as watching a film like The Godfather. They weren’t even comparable. Distinction between today’s most potent and effective TV shows and the best cinema has to offer in 2016 is a lot harder to make.
The two mediums in today’s landscape are swallowing each other. To be more specific, TV is swallowing film. Historically, cinema has always been the place to go to for the largest ideas and the biggest themes. The money was there and you could see the money on screen. You couldn’t see it on TV — which is wholly untrue today. The type of movies being made once upon a time were movies that had the time — and were afforded the time — to let you absorb the story on screen, the style and mood reaching you first and the information coming later, buried underneath. They weren’t worried about revealing their hand right away to keep your attention; sometimes they weren’t worried about revealing it at all. Big films were being made by big people with big ideas and with big money. You were swept away by the opulence of it all. TV just couldn’t compete. TV had less time, less money, less talent. TV was for the dinner table, for after school. TV was there to make you smile. Cinema was the place to change your life.
If this all sounds very foreign, a concept and a reality from some alternative timeline, that’s because today, in 2016, it may as well be. Over the past decade or more, the picture painted just now has not just become barely recognisable; it has ceased to exist at all. The movies that were being made in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s aren’t being made anymore. The scale for movies like The Godfather, Raging Bull and The Shawshank Redemption has shrunk considerably. These kinds of movies aren’t tent poles anymore; they aren’t designed to make money because they won’t make money. These films are independents now, their scale miniaturised, their stage taken away. If you want to see a movie like the ones that used to consume lives, you have to look at the indie, or wait for the end of the year for a prestige flick and hope for the best, only to be inevitably disappointed. So few people are allowed to make movies like Apocalypse Now, Goodfellas or The Player anymore. If your name isn’t Spielberg, Scorsese or Tarantino, you won’t get the money. The infamous ‘American Movie’ no longer exists. Sure, you can make whatever you want in 2016, the gatekeepers are all gone, but you have to do it yourself and all Hollywood wants is Marvel, reboots, remakes and a Christopher Nolan film once every few years.
This has all left a whole, an open space, a void for some other entity to fill. Film doesn’t want to play as much these days, so in the process it has allowed TV to take over. Television saw an opportunity and has run with it. This is now where the ideas are, TV is where you can find the American Movie of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And it all happened very quietly, there was no battle, it was a peaceful transition. Hollywood didn’t want to make this kind of film and the audience didn’t really want them like they used to. So the talent moved over. The people making TV today are not the same people that were making TV before. Today’s new talent, the directors, the writers, the ones that grew up watching the golden age of movies, have realised the only place to replicate the type of films they love so much is on the small screen. Hollywood isn’t making that type of movie, not on that scale. TV is. The rise of the prestige TV series has changed everything. The biggest and best dramas on HBO, AMC, Showtime and Netflix are more cinematic in nature than TV has ever been, and for the type of stories that once ruled cinema, these are the only places they can be found. Television is the new midsized movie, television is now where talent goes to embark on these creative endeavours and this is where audiences go too.
TV has the money now and it has the time was well. With the move away from twenty three episode marathon seasons and towards a more streamlined British style, television has essentially become an eight to twelve hour movie. The stories haven’t got less ambitious with this move; they have just trimmed the fat, moved away from pure dispensing of information and focused on style, mood and atmosphere. Character still dominates over theme in television, but nowhere near as much as it did. TV is becoming the whole package and a place for the creative minded to explore and experiment. The camera has become a character (like in the films of the past) more so in TV than it has ever been before. The onscreen talent has changed as well. With this new space available, Hollywood’s leading names have started dipping their toes, realising that if they want to stretch their acting chops a little, TV is currently the best and most exciting place to do so. Shows like True Detective and this year’s Westworld being a prime example. These kinds of shows just didn’t exist twenty years ago.
This all leads to a place where television has surpassed the movie as the most effective and interesting place for high quality drama. There are exceptions of course; great movies will always be above great TV. But great movies are so few and far between, they are more of an anomaly than anything else. Barring these few exceptions, barring what master filmmakers like Scorsese and Spielberg can achieve, and what directors like Christopher Nolan are allowed to achieve on a much larger scale, the best TV is now, on average, better than the best of film. It’s sad but it’s true and this is just the reality and one we all have to face. What is more effective, Birdman or Breaking Bad? Gravity or Mad Men? Spotlight or The Night Of? These are the comparable choices we have as viewers in today’s market. And the choice isn’t hard to make. Things have only been made easier with the arrival of binge watching, allowing us to consume, like a movie, a show’s entire season all at once. These aren’t traditional television shows anymore. They are ten hour movies and they have the ability today to affect us, to shape our culture and the world’s conversation in a way that films just cannot.
People aren’t going to the cinema for these experiences in 2016. The talent is at home. The stories are at home. The ideas are at home. With Hollywood’s refusal to push anything below the size of the biggest and most shiny blockbuster with built in pop culture appeal, those medium sized ‘American Movies’ have all but died, allowing TV to flourish in a way that it never could before, and movies — in all likelihood — never will again. It’s a sad state of affairs, but this is what’s happening, and perhaps we should just get with the programme. The movies worth watching, the films that aren’t a part of a shared universe, are mostly watched on VOD, on ipads and on laptops. The experiences of yesterday are now TV shows and that’s okay… kind of… it just means that those cathedrals for movies become less visited and we will spend more time at home, getting our kicks alone and in comfort. It’s better than nothing. Right?