Movies Vs. TV: Who Ya’ Got?

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This fight just got ugly.

This fight just got ugly.

There’s a civil war brewing here at the O’Connor household. At some point, I suppose it’s inevitable. Marital bliss must inevitably deteriorate under some strain. Those halcyon days of love, compromise, and mutual respect must finally reach their nightfall when a conflict arises for which there is no easy solution. I thought we could avoid it, that we could succeed where so many others have failed, but I should have seen the signs early on, I should have known that it was only a matter of time before this issue threatened to rear its ugly head, ravenously attacking the foundation of our love, poisoning it from within.

I’m speaking, of course, about that age-old conflict: my wife wants to watch television, but everybody knows that movies are superior, right?

Wait a second, are you agreeing with her? Just whose side are you on anyway?

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I won’t deny that television is a worthy challenger; youthful and plucky, it’s got the energy, the speed, the attitude. Film is the old pro, seasoned, experienced, but let’s face it, getting a little long in the tooth; those peak years are starting to fade; some would say they already have.

For what it’s worth, I’ll admit to feeling a little bit in the minority here when the fashionable opinion is that television is superior. There are a couple of us old school guys out there, still saying that the champ is just playing a little rope-a-dope, letting the contender get cocky so that he can flatten him with a haymaker when he’s not looking. But the fact of the matter is that it’s an argument that’s getting increasingly more difficult to defend.

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As I pointed out in a previous post, movie theater audiences are declining, and at a fairly alarming rate, too. While the gross earnings of these films are impressive on paper, when you really examine them and factor in the skyrocketing budgets, the shortened theater runs, the heightened cost of movie tickets and surcharges for things like 3D presentations and Dolby Atmos surround sound, and the extent to which the foreign markets are propping up the final grosses, it paints a pretty ugly picture for the future of Hollywood.

Of course, film has been in this corner before, fending off blows from the Idiot Box since the 1950s. And it has always managed to cling on for survival and at times reach new peaks of relevance and popularity. The filmgoing experience has always been about doing something that television couldn’t do, and that boiled down to its three distinct advantages: resources, budget, and time.

Film had the backing of major studios with deep pocketbooks and access to high-end equipment. By contrast, television has often resorted to rubbing nickels together and hoping for a spark.

Film has always had access to high end talent, from the best directors to the greatest technical craftsmen, composers, and actors. Television has been where people who couldn’t make it in Hollywood ended up.

Film has always had the luxury of time, spending years to craft a perfect two hour piece of art. Television has always been in a mad rush to fill air time, resulting in grueling, frenetic schedules for the cast and crew.

TV directors don't have time for silly framing gestures.

TV directors don’t have time for silly framing gestures.

But as television has continued to evolve and innovate, it has not only closed the gap between itself and film, but actually started to strip film of many of its advantages. Whereas television shows were once shot with film cameras, modern digital cameras allow high definition detail and quality, and the amount of time and money saved not having to develop film offers increased flexibility.

Computer special effects, while still costly, time consuming, and nowhere near as impressive as those in the movie theater, are nevertheless possible and available to a modern day television show.

And special pay networks like HBO and Netflix have forced competing traditional networks to deliver on higher quality programming in order to keep up. They’ve also restructured the length of seasons and proven that people will wait for good television. Meanwhile, film actors like Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey have reignited their stardom on TV while television actors like Bryan Cranston look like they’re slumming it at the movie theater, playing bit parts in blockbuster films.

F.U. indeed.

F.U. indeed.

The long history of competition between these two media has been a constant game of catch up and escalation. When black and white television first came on the scene, film responded with color. When television got color, film started 3D, Vista-Vision, and ostentatious, high budget epic films like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments.

When TV began airing westerns, mysteries, and dramas in addition to its stable of sitcoms, diversifying its catalogue of genres, film responded with material that was either too violent for television or too technically complex to replicate on a television budget: Jaws, The Godfather, Star Wars, Taxi Driver. It may have taken awhile for television to catch up, but when it did, it fired back with material that would have been right at home in theaters of the 70s and 80s: The Sopranos, The X-Files, Lost, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, True Detective, and Orange is the New Black.

Film, now backed into a corner, is relying on $200 Million special-effect extravaganzas that transport viewers to a fully immersive, lifelike fantasy world where cities crumble, monsters roar, and explosions shake you in your seat. But television isn’t that far behind, when something like Game of Thrones exists, which costs $6 Million per hour-long episode. That may sound comparatively cheap, but it’s at least double what other high-end dramas cost.

That dragon is money well spent. And the actress ain't bad looking either.

That dragon is money well spent. And the actress ain’t bad looking either.

Nowadays, TV is the one with the advantage; for an insatiable media-hungry audience, it costs less than going to the theaters, it’s more convenient, the programming is far more varied and abundant, the plots are complex and riveting, and the characters have depth and pathos.

Of course, TV has always had the advantage of drawing in audiences with memorable characters who become our surrogate fantasy family, whether it’s Lieutenant Columbo or Rust Cohle, Maxwell Smart or Fox Mulder, Piper Chapman or Lucy Ricardo, Tony Soprano or Walter White, but now these characters aren’t just familiar friends; they’re involved in plots where a tidy resolution and a return to status quo isn’t likely to happen within the confines of a single episode. Each individual story is only a chapter in the larger whole, teasing us with cliffhangers of what happens next. 

A film, on the other hand, is two to three hours and that’s it. End of story, end of character. Maybe if it’s a franchise film, you’ll pick up with these guys and that plot again in a couple years. But a television show is an ongoing narrative, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year. Whereas soap operas, comic books, and movie serials were once looked down upon within the media industry for their low brow serialized antics, in the modern age, it’s difficult to find a show that doesn’t at least have an escalating B plot.

Now that's an ending.

Now that’s an ending.

It may sound as if in the midst of this argument, I’ve actually switched sides, but the truth is that even after admitting all this, I still prefer film to television. The reason why, however, is really more about my own personal preferences than it is about objective superiority. Why I prefer film may be the exact same reason you prefer television.

As I’ve argued before, a film really isn’t about its plot or its characters. It may look like it is, it may wrap itself in those narrative trappings, but ultimately, a film is about an emotion, a feeling, a mood. TV, on the other hand, is about servicing the script as economically and pragmatically as possible. While many of the higher-end shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad may approach a level of technical complexity that mimics filmmaking, generally even very good shows are not particularly cinematic in either their visual or auditory components.

This is an important distinction. While television relies on narrative to evoke emotion and immersion in its audience, films rely on technical artistry: editing, music, sound effects, lighting, shot composition, and camera movement. A great film is hypnotic in its effect, drawing a viewer in and immersing him or her into whatever emotional state the filmmaker wishes to instill.

By contrast, television shows are either too short in a single helping of an episode, especially as they are often interrupted by commercial breaks, or too long in a binge session of multiple episodes to effectively achieve that kind of meditative effect. A television audience may be captivated, on the edge of their seat to know what happens next, but due to the start-and-stop nature of episodic television, a mood’s hold on an audience member is slippery and often intermittent.

Movies also offer something that television, by its very nature, cannot: closure. In the entire history of television, there are only a handful of shows that I would argue have great endings and even fewer shows that I would say organically and seamlessly arrived at that ending over the course of however many seasons.

The majority of television programs end suddenly and sloppily, because the television industry is one in which shows are aired as long as they are successful, even after they’ve stretched the central concept beyond its breaking point. Unfortunately, once a show starts to lose its audience, usually because the quality has declined enough for audiences to finally notice, it is cancelled immediately, often before the minds behind it can craft a suitable conclusion. Shows are rarely conceived with an ending already in mind; they begin in one place without a real destination so that when the time comes to reach the end of the road, us viewers are usually left in the ditch.

Now that's NOT an ending.

Now that’s NOT an ending.

Similarly, the extent to which television has become so serialized diminishes the power and integrity of individual episodes. When programs used to revert to the status quo at an episode’s end, a single episode could stand out; it had a beginning, middle and end; it could tell a different kind of story. But when the focus is on continuing the same big, overarching story, an episode ceases to be its own thing; it’s merely another chapter, another addition atop the last building block. Ultimately, when a series is so dependent on what came before and what will happen next, audiences will judge its success (or failure) based not on the sum of its parts, but on its inevitable conclusion.

I would argue that a show like Lost, which started so promisingly, ultimately ended up a victim of this phenomenon. The structure of that show was so built around mysteries, teases, enigmatic histories and cliffhangers, that when it all turned out to be a series of red herrings and convolutions, many viewers felt as if they’d just finished a mystery novel in which the author admitted he didn’t know who the murderer was either.

There’s no real value in revisiting a random episode of Lost, because its structure is so intrinsically tied to everything that came before it and so sullied by the knowledge that it won’t lead anywhere. By contrast, a show like The X-Files, which had a similarly disappointing finale, produced enough exceptional done-in-one shows that it can be enjoyed in perpetuity unhinged from past contexts and unmarred by future disappointments.

No, I don't understand what's going on either.

No, I don’t understand what’s going on either.

But of course a film has a responsibility to its audience to actually end. And if the filmmaker is doing his job right, that ending is the culmination of everything that has come before, a natural and necessary part of the planning of the storytelling architecture. When you watch a film, you should have everything you need to know within the confines of that piece of media, without needing to refer to anything else to understand what is happening.

And after you finish a film, it is something that you can revisit and grapple with, it’s something that is wieldy enough to pull it apart and begin to examine it. There is symmetry there, setups and payoffs, the beauty of the whole. It’s one vision, one story, one overarching theme and mood, not the hodgepodge of random add-ons that a television show becomes over the course of many years with a rotating series of directors.

If I had to guess the difference between movie people and television people, I think it would boil down to this last point. Television people enjoy the middle of stories, the escalation without the payoff, the tease, the mystery, the promise of what’s around the next corner. Film people, on the other hand, love a complete experience with a definitive ending. They want to be engrossed first, completely seduced by the film’s power over them, and then achieve that powerful sense of closure that the best movies provide.

Of course, even as I type this, I have to admit that the line is blurring between these two media. Television is becoming more like film, and film is becoming more like television. Obviously, as mentioned before, technological advances are allowing television shows to look and sound more like films than they ever have before, but we’re also starting to see shows that are constructed with an actual plan to end.

Breaking Bad had its best ratings ever in its final season, but rather than keep airing episodes until the quality deteriorated, they ended the show when they felt they had reached the natural conclusion of the narrative. Similarly, a program like True Detective or American Horror Story is a kind of best-of-both worlds television show: an ongoing series that chooses to anthologize each season, so that viewers are treated to a complete story with beginning, middle, and end by season’s end, but can still look forward to another season, albeit in a different setting with different characters, plot, and ideas.

And films, for their part, are embracing a serialized storytelling dynamic to tease future films within a current one, and kick B-plots down the field to develop for sequels, spinoffs and prequels. As I discussed in my posts about franchise films, there are decided advantages and disadvantages to this approach. It does build momentum within a film series and broadens the kind of storytelling that can be achieved, but at the same time, it robs audiences of closure and threatens to turn individual films into advertisements for the next chapter.

I'm looking at you, Iron Man 2.

That’s right. I’m looking at you, Iron Man 2.

And so the battle rages on. Television in one corner, film in the other. These two titans of media used to at least respect each other’s boundaries. They had carved up the calendar, with film getting the summers and television getting the winters. But when Netflix original series are debuting in June and big budget films are released in December, it’s clear that the gloves have come off and the only rule anyone’s playing by is the rule of self-interest.

For my part, I’ll keep fighting the good fight, trumpeting the virtues of films even amidst all the incessant backlash against them. But in my spare time, if you catch me in the right mood, I might begrudgingly admit that the contender… he’s got a mean left hook.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the wife is calling. She says we have to watch the next episode of Orange is the New Black., and for once I’m not in the mood to argue.

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