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Reviews Gilding the Small Screen

Is television the new cinema? Just asking the question that way misses the point of both media.

Published on June 15, 2014

In January 2012, David Remnick moderated a panel sponsored by the New Yorker titled “Is Television the New Cinema?” Variations on that question have also been posed by the Los Angeles Times and seemingly every blogger and think-piece essayist in the past several years. The New York Times took it further in April, asking a roundtable of critics and academics, “Is going to the movies passé? How can filmmakers compete better with television or showcase what makes them unique?” 

All of these articles, written with varying levels of curiosity and objectivity, set up the relationship between the two media as a competition. The query itself has grown so prevalent that the answer is a fait accompli: The proposition that television has replaced cinema is now received wisdom. Yes, television has doubtlessly been buoyed by the post–Sopranos serial-drama renaissance. And there’s anecdotal evidence that it has usurped film in the American consciousness as the go-to place for so-called adult drama: character-driven, serious entertainment that doesn’t talk down to its audience or seem engineered to appeal to a teenage demographic. Yet is it really true? Are the “film is dead” warriors, who seem to reappear every few years stocked with new ammunition, finally right? The best way to get at an answer is to refresh the definition of what television actually is, or has become.

“Television” is a malleable word in this still shape-shifting, digital-streaming, cord-cutting age. It used to be obvious how television differed from cinema, and in ways that went far beyond the fact that you sat at home to view the former but went out to see the new fare of the latter. How is television distinct from cinema today when—just to take one aspect of recent changes abetted by technology and the altered business models that have issued from it—the skein of a storyline can be sustained on television much longer than it can be in a single feature film? How is it different when the subject matter and language borders that used to distinguish film from television have all but disappeared?

The omnipresence of the discussion probably says more about our fickleness as consumers of culture, and our eagerness to bury what we perceive to be outmoded, than it reflects a paradigm shift. The rush to pit the two forms against each other deters serious engagement with the aesthetic, narrative, or ideological dimensions of either medium. Meanwhile, the dig that contemporary movies are mere territory for “comic-book”, “geek”, or “genre” culture conveniently ignores the cocoon of fandom that keeps the supposed golden age of television alive. After all, the buzz around a television show and its self-perpetuating stream of content resembles the chatter of comic book aficionados, and is often more important to the perception of a series than the artistic quality of the series itself.

This critical approach makes it easy to forget that we can enjoy and appreciate both media for what they are, even as we acknowledge the differences in their aims. As things stand, however, cinema is getting pushed to the sidelines. A generation that once might have been at least curious or adventurous about discovering alternative forms of filmmaking is increasingly indulging only in the television series the culture has tagged as sophisticated. Demographically similar sets of audiences that once lined around the block for Persona, Five Easy Pieces, or Last Tango in Paris at the local art-house are now staying in with True Detective and Orange Is the New Black. Rather than have post-screening café or sidewalk conversations, they are devouring online recaps and discussing episodes on social media.

Perhaps that’s all well and good; times change. Yet vibrant cinema is out there. Sure, Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Girls seem appealing compared to sequels of reboots like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, bird-brained CGI ’toons with “all-star” casts like Rio 2, and misogynist comedies in the guise of female-empowerment farces à la The Other Woman. But if held up against the thrilling, envelope-pushing work hailing regularly from Argentina, Chile, Iran, Mexico, Romania, and South Korea, television can seem downright mollifying. And yes, while most American movies—from blockbusters geared toward an ever more infantilized culture to Sundance fare that feels equally machine-tooled—get us down, such invigorating recent items such as Before Midnight, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Museum Hours, to name just a few, can make even our most acclaimed television standard-bearers feel unadventurous.

The current roster of episodic television series does occasionally offer provocative, gripping works of popular art; they’re just a different form and deserve recognition as such. As co-editors of Reverse Shot, a long-running online film journal geared toward a cinephile crowd, we identify as cinema snobs. Yet most contemporary cinephiles are also avid, even obsessive, watchers of at least one television series. Some adore Breaking Bad and Mad Men, perhaps because of their alleged cinematic qualities, or maybe because of their distinct retreats from the filmic form; Downton Abbey continually turns up on our DVRs, whether we like it or not; Louie and 30 Rock delight and challenge us in ways most film comedies don’t. Even long-gone shows like The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos still claim passionate proselytizers among cinephiles, whereas movies seem to increasingly have sell-by dates of interest. Who still talks about Juno, which premiered to much applause the same year as Mad Men? Who will care a whit about American Hustle a year from now?

Even some important auteurs, such as Jane Campion, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh, have turned to the small screen and spearheaded series. At the same time, we must acknowledge that in terms of narrative structure, visual landscape, and delivery method, TV shows are not movies, so television cannot replace cinema. The two are different media, with different artistic aims, temporalities, and commercial motivations. Perhaps the problem with the debate, such as it is, is that the terms being pitted against each other refer to tools for viewing or modes of storytelling as opposed to the content fitted to them.

Recently, we at Reverse Shot put this debate to a test by inviting writers to accept a challenge. We asked them to contribute essays comparing a film to a selected TV series that has emerged within the past fifteen years of the acclaimed television renaissance. The chosen film could correlate to the show by way of theme, aesthetics, characterization, shared key creative talent—anything the authors desired. (For the purposes of this exercise, we asked that they choose a single episode of that series to focus on. We encouraged authors to bring the entire narrative and visual world of the series to bear, but without a focus we feared the essays would get unwieldy.)

The results helped us arrive at a better definition of what cinema is and what television is—as opposed to what they are (or are not) in comparison to one another. Each television series and each movie constitutes its own case, but taken together they paint a revealing picture of two irreconcilable art forms unfairly drafted into battle. A show like David Chase’s The Sopranos can engage and evolve with its audience in perceptive and provocative ways both because of its fierce intelligence and the luxury of its years-spanning running time. Less a mobster epic than an expansive family melodrama, The Sopranos centered on the emotional and physical trials of a New Jersey mafia don and family man. Over time it grew increasingly disinterested in the ins and outs of organized crime and more preoccupied with responses to the characters’ behavior. The show is still the ne plus ultra of the “golden age” serials for its profound, Dickensian investigation of contemporary morality, and for the way it managed to function as both one continuous narrative and a succession of engaging and elegantly sculpted single episodes.

One standout episode, “Employee of the Month”, directly interrogated its audience’s moral response to a potential rape-revenge narrative. Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi, is raped by a stranger, but ultimately chooses not to tell Tony, who would undoubtedly have avenged her, therefore short-circuiting bloodthirsty viewers’ pleasure centers. The overall show’s impressive scope and finely honed sense of its own moral worldview enable this episode to be a more successful work of popular art than, say, the French rape-revenge film Irreversible. That film similarly sets out to investigate its audience’s response to a rape, yet is so concerned with matters of cinematic style (including lengthy, unbroken single takes, swirly-twirly camera movements, and deafening soundtrack assaults) that it falls into a self-enamored slough, and ends up indulging in the onscreen violence it purports to find repulsive.

On the other hand, a television show can fail from longevity, too. For example, the class issues that Julian Fellowes’s popular British series Downton Abbey feigns at meditating upon, and which want to serve as the narrative bedrock of the series, wither on the vine when left out in the sun season after season. What’s left are attention-grabbing soap operatics such as surprise pregnancies, shocking deaths, and, of course, rape. It’s a problem that James Ivory’s succinct, elegantly carved, and conceptually sound adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, also a fictional drama concerned with the socioeconomic forces at work in England in the early 20th century, did not have to overcome.

In the case of Downton Abbey, length is clearly a burden rather than a luxury, revealing the lack of artistic or narrative coherence that plagues many a television show, setting its characters off in increasingly unrewarding circles. The problem of arbitrary series length is not endemic to television; did Harry Potter’s plodding journey from tyke wizard to teen hero really have to go on for eight interminable installments? But it can seem especially galling when one feels obligated to watch an increasingly unimaginative show to its decided narrative endpoint simply because ad revenue hasn’t yet fully disappeared.

Sometimes, a Reverse Shot comparison of television and film resulted in a stalemate in terms of quality or concept, but a comparison that put into sharper relief the limitations or attributes of each. A probing analysis of Vince Gilligan’s series Breaking Bad and David Cronenberg’s 2005 film A History of Violence revealed the logic and limitations of each as exemplars of their respective forms. Breaking Bad is an epic thriller about a nice-guy science teacher in New Mexico who, after learning he has cancer, secretly starts cooking meth to build an estate for his middle-class family. The show is predicated upon its dubious protagonist’s gradual discovery of his own inner sociopath. A History of Violence concerns a Midwestern everyman who turns out to have been living a lie: He is revealed to his shocked white-bread American family and community to have been a fearsome Chicago gangster. While both invite viewers to question their allegiances to morally questionable main characters, both too quickly reward our bloodlust, punctuating their narratives with bravura moments that encourage us to cheer on these men in missions that always pit them against even “worse” villains. 

A deeper ideological reading of these works reveals that both foreground crises of masculinity. They seem implicitly to interrogate the place, professionally and domestically, of the heterosexual white male in today’s America. And they place these crises within recognizable genre trappings of the neo-western: Breaking Bad’s Walter White and A History of Violence’s Tom Stall are essentially go-it-alone homesteaders who “must” kill to protect their families.

Yet both film and television series ultimately only flirt with the ethical questions they raise, settling for being rollercoaster–like rides of varying length with the obligatory hairpin turns. A History of Violence was perhaps overly reliant on its name-brand auteurism to do the thematic and ideological heavy lifting. (Would anyone have considered this dime-store pulp a “masterpiece” without the Cronenberg imprimateur?) Breaking Bad, on the other hand, suffered from its need to please its die-hard, ever-expanding cadre of largely male viewers. Many of them were vocal across social media platforms in detesting Walter’s wife, Skyler, largely for voicing concerns about her husband’s affairs—in other words, meddling in the show’s expertly clockwork plot.

Then there’s Mad Men, often tagged as television’s most “cinematic” show. This seems to mean little more than that it is stridently aestheticized. Spanning the 1960s, from Man in the Grey Flannel Suit chic to mod kitsch, and from Kennedy-era innocence to Vietnam and Nixon-era disillusionment, Mad Men’s clear historical arc makes it feel both disconcertingly prepackaged and intensely satisfying. Via the parallel characters of self-made, enigmatic ad whiz Don Draper and secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson, the show comments on the decade’s every major social development and mega-historical flip. For viewers of a certain age, this works as a form of personally customized nostalgia.

Still, there is an air of vacuum-packed artistry about Matthew Weiner’s series, as sensitively detailed as it is stultifying. Mad Men’s tendency to get mired in its own texture and literary aspirations makes it both exhilaratingly “adult” and irritatingly self-conscious, like a facsimile of the John Cheever or Sherwood Anderson stories to which Weiner aspires. At the same time, its highly artificial world, a simulacrum of the sixties that might as well be Epcot Center, requires such a hermetic presentation to function at all.

This becomes clearer when set against the more authentic portrait of 1960s New York the Coen brothers offer in Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens’ lovely, melancholy film about the era’s Village folk scene makes for a good comparison not because it necessarily seeks verisimilitude, but because it similarly trades in metaphor and a grim, existential surreality to represent the period. If the Coens’ protagonist, a failed singer barely scraping by, often seems more fully realized than Weiner’s, even though we spend less than two hours with him, it’s because Llewyn really seems to inhabit a tangible world. Don Draper, on the other hand, floats ghost-like through a stage set of a bygone era.

It’s a waste of time to denigrate one form of visual entertainment over the other; much better to highlight their aesthetic and narrative differences, so that we might stop comparing them at all. Certainly the excitement around television is inspiring and revealing. There’s undoubtedly a ravenous aspect to the consumption of these shows, now denoted by the coinage “binge-watching.” This suggests a long drought in narrative-based, audiovisual storytelling that has finally come to a merciful end. But it also implies that we are desperate for culture-leveling entertainment. We want to join a larger dialogue around art and revel in the virtual community the internet promises. That’s a rich vein of inquiry, to be sure, but one best left for another time.

Some of the “golden age” television shows deserve the attention they get; others (not least the preposterous and smug House of Cards) are just lucky to have been caught up in the storm. It’s certainly no coincidence that the rush to declare this a golden age has coincided with our current news cycle, a 24/7 barrage that thrives on prepackaged stories and un-analyzed suppositions. Nor is it a coincidence that a heralded paradigm shift is more useful for some than for others. It makes easy space for prefabricated essay topics and cultural temperature-taking—a lazy culturalist’s dream. Such vague declarations also allow for disengagement with the larger questions any work of art should invite—questions of character, morality, ideology, aesthetics, and auteurism.

The truth is that the pleasures of serial television have more in common with 19th-century publishing practices than anything endemic to 20th-century cinematic form. It’s neither untrue nor pejorative to say that the current fad for piecemeal narratives predicated on cliffhangers and withheld information is therefore regressive. The high quality of some of these shows would be cause for celebration in any era, but they hardly represent a new frontier.

Michael Koresky is the staff writer of the Criterion Collection and author of Terence Davies, forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press in September. Jeff Reichert has directed Gerrymandering (2010), Remote Area Medical (2013), and This Time Next Year (2014). They are the co-founders and co-editors of Reverse Shot, where a shorter version of this essay originally appeared.
  • Boritz

    To the point of House of Cards being preposterous: It was Arthur C. Clarke himself who proposed that the true story of humanity’s ascent was likely more strange than the black monolith of 2001 A Space Odyssey and the real goings on in the setting of HOC may dwarf the writers’ best efforts.

  • Fat_Man

    Cinema? Really? This is just pretentious.

  • Andrew Allison

    Preposterous and smug describe this article by a pair of self-confessed movie snobs much better than they do either the British or the American incarnations of House of Cards. The fact that serial television has evolved from “I Love Lucy”, “Columbo” and “Bay Watch” to “The Sopranos”, etc,. is a new frontier. It’s effect on the traditional movie business remains to be seen. What we do know is that cinema attendance as a percent of population has been in decline since the 1930s (http://org.elon.edu/ipe/pautz2.pdf), a trend which seems likely to accelerate as television offers more of the drama which audiences crave. The logical outcome would be for movie studios to make more TV series. They won’t do so as long as they view television as competition rather than a market opportunity, and the niche will likely be filled by HBO, Netflix, Amazon, et al.