20 inch TV

TV: The Idiot Box?

Television has undergone a transformation. Somewhere along the way there was a shift and poof, where it was once the jolly fat friend of cinema, it is now a lithe, supermodel rival. It’s like an episode of The Swan, a reality TV show where women who are unhappy with their bodies are locked away and undergo intense plastic surgery. There are no mirrors in the house and at the end of each episode the women are allowed to see themselves for the first time. The results are deliciously unhinged as they stare at a person who looks nothing like they remember. That is what television is right now: a slightly deranged, altered person shrieking hysterically at their new image.

In a recent lukewarm review of the lukewarm film, Eat Pray Love, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott made the following comment-

“Mr. Murphy, whose television work (“Nip/Tuck” and “Glee,” most notably) can be sharp-edged even to the point of meanness, is much softer here, and “Eat Pray Love” can serve as a reminder that television is, at the moment, a braver and more radical medium than the movies.”[1]

This is not the first recent mention of the brave new world of TV. In an article published in Newsweek, Devin Gordon commented that it’s dangerous to make broad generalizations about TV versus film without sounding as though you’re comparing apples and tubas, but let’s do it anyway: television is running circles around the movies.”[2]

Alec Baldwin with '30 Rock' co-stars Tina Fey (who created the show) and Tracy Morgan

Actors are listening. Gone are the days when television was the Centrelink line for coke addicted has-beens. Troubled thespians are now turning to television to revive their careers. Look at Alec Baldwin, whose wonderful turn on 30 Rock and resulting Emmy win provided much needed positive PR after a notoriously messy divorce. Even actors without substance abuse problems are embracing the box to nab more rewarding roles- Glenn Close and Rose Byrne in Damages, Anna Paquin in True Blood, and Sharon Stone in Law and Order: SVU. Ok, scrap the last example. But if all major actors aren’t looking for regular television roles, they are at least lining up for a guest spot on Glee.

Glenn Close and Rose Byrne in 'Damages'

Pin-pointing where this newfound respect began to trickle down from the critic gods is difficult and controversial. But for the sake simplicity, let’s say it started with The Sopranos. This pioneer series of the great HBO redefined what television could do. In fact, The Sopranos did whatever the hell it wanted. On cable, the restrictions of free to air network television didn’t apply. There was no need to crowd please. There was no need to appeal to parents, to kids and to grandmas. The result: a television show about a mobster in mid-life crisis balancing family life with murder and embezzlement.

The Sopranos was just the start. Six Feet Under, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, Sex and the City, Weeds, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad, Glee, Love My Way, True Blood, Mad Men and the list goes on.

At this point I think it is important to clarify the central argument. After all, to say television is now the stronger visual storytelling art-form is surely unfair.  Television has the advantage of a longer time-frame to tell its story, to build its characters and its worlds. Weekly instalments allow the material more time to get under your skin. These are legitimate arguments, but they also fail to take into account the changing nature of how we watch television. The rise of DVD Box sets means that TV shows are often watched in one marathon sitting, similar to the way one would watch a film on DVD. One could also argue that increased length is not necessarily advantageous but increases the difficulty of sustaining quality and audience interest. As Stephen Zeitchik from the Los Angeles Times points out, perhaps the “better question to ask of both film and television is not how much time each one takes but what it does with the time it has[3].

There has always been some extraordinary cinema and perhaps television will never be able to match the spectacle and grandeur of a film like Inception. However, in terms of the quality of visual storytelling, it is fair to say that television now nears or equals cinema. Who can forget the astonishing final ten minutes of the series finale of Six Feet Under, or the underhanded, disturbed shady brilliance of Curb Your Enthusiasm (in particular the episode involving the doll. You know what I mean)?

We can only hope that television’s current renaissance will force similar risk-taking and innovation in feature film. Personally, I don’t see myself abandoning the cinema anytime soon. But I look forward to many hours, with many a box-set, with my ass planted firmly on the couch.

Images 1,2,3,4,5

[1] http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/movies/13eat.html?pagewanted=2

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/2007/02/25/why-tv-is-better-than-the-movies.html

[3] http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2010/08/mad-men-emmys-glee-avatar-television-film.html

5 thoughts on “TV: The Idiot Box?

  1. First there is cinema. The great behemoth, revered. It is art.
    Then there is television. Looked down at by people who like cinema/art because it is disposable and common.
    Then there is HBO. Television becoming more cinematic. Now people with taste are allowed to like television.

    Television has always been great – and shit – like cinema. It doesn’t just become ‘good’ when some US networks like HBO start churning out quality programming. It has always been an art form, most people simply can’t be bothered to give a shit until it’s handed to them in a DVD boxset.

  2. It is true that the nature of how we are watching tv is changing. I too am prone to digesting a series in just a few gluttonous sittings, with or without ice cream in hand. However the frontier of ‘cinematic tv’ was really pushed pre box set, by Lynch’s Twin peaks. In a bygone era, when it was still possible to create anticipation between episodes, Lynch played with his audience. It was a period when free to air tv was facing the cable monster, and with very little to lose it spawned one of the oddest creatures the medium has ever seen.

    It leapt out of tv’s content and genre constraints like a twitching psycho in a straitjacket. But it also let its action play out at a medicated pace, and the viewer had to submit to the tense atmosphere, much like a Kubrick classic. This is mirrored in Mad Men, where dialogue is at a premium. It communicates through its ominous silences and telling stares.

    One series which never left room for silence was HBOs The Wire. Every character, it seemed, packed a verbal artillery they were not afraid to unleash. The action unfolded at a fireball pace, with an average episode topping 50 scenes, many of which comprised of multi shots. It was tv for an ADD generation, and like some good things, was most absorbing in the moment.

    *And yes, the doll scene from curb is most unnerving.

  3. I somehow completely forgot Twin Peaks in the discussion. Very glad that it has been brought up. I just watched this documentary by Wim Wenders from the 1980s where he interviewed famous directors including Godard and Spielberg at the Cannes film festival and asked them what they thought was the future of cinema. The common thread between all the interviewees was the impact of television and recording devices (VHS) on film and the cinema experience. Interestingly, one of the directors commented on television being the new medium to explore “characters”. I think this is even more prevalent now. Most Hollywood films that are green-lit are big, blockbuster ‘event’ films. They are movies that are marketed to be ‘cinema experiences’ in order to counter-act piracy and DVD culture. Gone is the mid-range, 50 million dollar drama, the type of film most likely to invest in character development. I think this is where television is noticeable filling the void.

    Bar some exception like Twin Peaks, I think television is noticeable more complex, more daring and more interesting right now than it ever has been. You only have to compare sitcoms like Full House or Familly Ties to more recent network sitcoms like Will and Grace, Seinfeld, and even Friends to see this.

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