Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Film is Still Better than Television

Is television better than film?  Historically, it's been pretty obvious that this is not the case, but critics are coming around due to a number of good shows, especially on cable television.  Film has a timeless quality that television doesn't.  Comparing the two media presents a number of challenges that potentially makes this an unanswerable question.  Both media have different creative versus commercial challenges.  Television allows for more material which may or may not be put to good use.

Film has traditionally been better than television.  Compare any old television show to Casablanca or some other movie of similar caliber.  In my opinion, literally none of them stack up.  Every generation thinks its pop culture is the greatest thing ever, but then they grow up and their enthusiasm wanes.  This is perhaps more true about television than any other medium.  Within ten years of a show's end, we see how corny it is and wonder why we ever watched it.  Television is timely whereas film is timeless.  This is why television shows can spark up so much nostalgia.  They are the markers of a generation.  Television was with us in our living rooms and during our family time.  While this gives it a special place, it does not necessarily make it better.  Movies are more looked at in a broad, timeless space, that is if people will even watch old movies.  How many transcendent "Casablancas" has television made.  I would guess that American television has produced absolutely no more than thirty truly transcendent shows.

Even the networks that show old programming admit it's just a guilty pleasure.

The discussion of film versus television is nearly an impossible one to have.  There are so many fundamental, challenging questions.  How many great movies equals a great television show?  One, ten, one hundred?  It's hard to tell.  Also, when nearly all Americans say television, they mostly mean American television and maybe a handful of other English-language shows, mostly from Britain.  I'm even blocked in by this framework.  Television connoisseurs are not cosmopolitan in the way that film lovers are.  How many Sopranos fans also like any foreign-language television?  Even mainstream moviegoers have seen more foreign cinema than television lovers have seen foreign television.  Thus, the examination is always incomplete.

Mexican television actress Thalia.  You don't recognize her either.
Which medium is allowed more creativity?  I guess this is the central question.  Today's Hollywood studios seem to be looking towards the big-money blockbusters.  Go big or go home.  This is certainly not absolutely true in every case.  Every year, a number of great movies get made in spite of this and some of those movies even fall under the mainstream blockbuster category.  Television can simultaneously post smaller numbers, but must post good numbers consistently over time.  One of the biggest differences that I see is when a creative, outside-the-box, cult movie gets made, even if it fails at the box office, it is still a full, completed work of art that we can go back and watch whenever.  Its low box office can't take away its greatness.  When a creative, outside-the-box, cult television show gets made and usually fails, you end up with an unfinished, abruptly cancelled show.  A movie only has to get made and released, which is no insignificant gauntlet, but a show has to consistently perform with audiences for years.  No regular viewer ever watched the first fifteen minutes of a movie only to be told the rest of the movie was cancelled.  Today's technology, though, is arguably bringing life to smaller markets.

People talk about how the long-term approach of television leaves more room for character development.  This is sometimes true and sometimes not.  Ideally, this would allow characters to change over time in a way that is more natural and genuine, like real-life, as compared to the often phony two-hour character arcs of a movie.  Often, though, this method just artificially drags on and draws out arcs in examples such as "will they or won't they" as well as has characters always return to some equilibrium by the end of every episode.  The need for equilibrium and not reaching any real show climax in a given episode often means television characters are no deeper than their cinematic counterparts.

Why the big deal about contemporary television?  As I've already mentioned, every generation thinks its television shows are fantastic.  Will some of today's shows have a lasting reputation?  Probably.  Will all the contemporary critical darlings have a lasting reputation?  Probably not.  The comparisons are also usually also very blatantly rotten cinematic apples to fresh television oranges.  A lot of mainstream film and television criticism is just another layer of advertising.  Lastly, I feel that proclaiming television to be better than film is just a hip, pseudo-clever observation that people have been wanting to make for some time regardless of its truth-value.  Apparently Entertainment Weekly was making this observation as far back as 1995, well before most folks would agree it was true.  A few good shows does not compare to hundreds of great movies that are constantly put out worldwide.


  1. "Lastly, I feel that proclaiming film to be better than television is just a hip, pseudo-clever observation that people have been wanting to make for some time regardless of its truth-value."
    I think you made a mistake here.

    1. Very good piece though, I agree. You wrote down my argument almost verbatim a few times.