"The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye."
– Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott makes a case for television getting to be increasingly better and more relevant in pop culture than movies. "Movies will never die," he writes, "not as long as a director like Terrence Malick can make every green blade of grass sway like the first dance of creation, but TV is where the action is, the addictions forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders."
It’s true that there’s been a drastic change in perception with regard to the so-called big and small screens. Used to be that TV was seen as fleeting entertainment that came and went; little bits of comedy or drama in between blocks of commercials, often dumbed down so that it wasn’t that big a deal if you skipped an episode. A show could be a hit, but sooner or later it left prime time to, at best, live on as audiovisual comfort food in the world of reruns.
Whereas today, cable channels like HBO air daring, critically acclaimed series, without commercials or network censorship. And thanks to DVD/Blu-ray box sets, digital video recorders and Internet streaming, it’s easy to discover or revisit shows on your own timetable. This leads to TV creators taking more chances and trusting the audience more, knowing that success doesn’t begin and end with being able to keep viewers from changing channels to see what else is on.
I remember a time not so long ago when TV was often considered to be merely a stepping stone before graduating to Hollywood, a place for actors to pay their dues before becoming movie stars. For instance, Bruce Willis, Will Smith and George Clooney got their breaks on Moonlighting, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and E.R. respectively, then they quickly moved on to the big screen and never looked back. Some weren’t so lucky and suffered instead from some kind of TV curse, scoring some film roles but never managing to stop being associated with their most famous TV roles first and foremost – e.g., Jason Alexander would always be best known as George Costanza from Seinfeld.
These days, there doesn’t seem to be any stigma surrounding TV. In fact, I’m sure many movie stars would gladly trade places with, say, Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm, 30 Rock‘s Tina Fey or Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall. And it’s more and more common for actors to swing back and forth between the big and small screens. My beloved Jason Segel, for one, alternates between shooting seasons of How I Met Your Mother (my favourite current sitcom) and making flicks like The Muppets, Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the upcoming The Five-Year Engagement. Even Oscar winners go for TV stints, like Kate Winslet in the Mildred Pierce miniseries or Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey (both recently won Emmy Awards for their trouble).
That being said, does that make TV better than movies? I’m still not sure… To me, each form has its pros and cons. Long-form television allows writers to tell a complex story over dozens of hours, all the while developing an ensemble of multidimensional characters. But this can also lead to a certain amount of filler here and there. For example, while Six Feet Under was an amazing series overall, most agree that there were some inferior episodes (some inferior seasons, even).
Also, movies generally tell a whole story, with a beginning, middle and end, which tends to be more satisfying than an almost-unending succession of open endings and cliff-hangers, not to mention unresolved intrigues, plot holes and continuity errors, in the worst cases. I’m told Lost was like that, but personally it’s an earlier J.J. Abrams series, Alias, that frustrated me that way, excessively piling on twists and fizzling out after a few seasons.
In any case, does one even have to choose? I’d rather just keep watching movies and TV, enjoying fine storytelling in whatever form it can be found.