Throughout the past decade, there has been a very interesting shift. Television was always seen as a lesser medium, the place to get your start so one day you may be awarded to honor to work in film. Then artists realized the opportunities with a weekly long form narrative and something exciting happened. It started with The Sopranos and has evolved to the riveting market of today.
Television is so good right now it is more satisfying and experimental than what is seen at the cinema. Of course there are different mediums so it is difficult to declare one better than another. From a fanatic of both, I can just speak for myself which ones has been the most rewarding in recent years.
Due to the opportunity of the long-term storytelling, there is a greater chance to be emotionally connected to the characters. In two hours, I rarely have time to be that invested with the people on screen. It’s such a short time that every scene seems just to move the plot forward. In today’s cinema there isn’t opportunity to let the character’s breathe. The films in the 70s were looser and there were plenty of moments where the characters are seen doing mundane things or having a more personal moment. This is why films like Easy Rider or Looking For Mr. Goodbar felt so different than the studio films during the Production Code.
With a TV show, there is plenty of time to see these characters in a variety of challenging environments that test and reveal who they really are. One of the best shows on the air right now is really using this to their advantage. NBC’s Community has a typical sitcom plot where a group of strangers in community college form a study group and become friends. For the past two years, it’s not just been about the gags but recognizing that these people have all come to this place because their lives were broken. Together they can become the best versions of themselves. The show gets a lot of recognition for its gimmicky episodes like its homages to movies like Goodfellas, Apollo 13 and lately My Dinner With Andre. Instead of just focusing on the jokes, all of these episodes remain completely character based. In some of the best episodes of the season, they even downplayed the humor and focused on the tragedy. When they had their Dungeons and Dragons episode, the main focus was to help out a character who is on the verge of committing suicide. With episodes like this, the gang of characters becomes more relatable and more three-dimensional.
Movies could do this. Films don’t have to be subjected to one story, but they mess up any idea of another story. There is a reason sequels and prequels have the connotations of sucking. Studios are too afraid to change what works so they just copy and paste the first film but expand the budget. Whenever a movie is good, everybody begs there not to be a sequel so it’s not spoiled. When there is a great season of a TV show, the audience can’t wait for it to return.
There are plenty of examples of television experiencing a sophomore slump, but a lot of them now have a greater understanding of their world. Recent examples of this are FX’s Justified, AMC’s Breaking Bad and the aforementioned Community. The only characters that have had proper sequels in movies have been the Toy Story crew. That has been over ten years of exposure and three stories that have moved the characters forward while still experimenting with the stories.
It’s important not to tell the same story again. Audiences are becoming accustomed to knowing the tropes and formulas of films. Without knowing the terminology, the average filmgoer can explain the basic three-act structure. There is still room to play with that as Aaron Sorkin proved with The Social Network, so I should never be too dismissive. (Hey what medium is Sorkin best known for?) The serial nature of television is what I prefer and is what is outstanding right. Structuring a story within an episode for a larger story arc for the season, which is a longer story arc for the series, is exciting. When done well, it’s something that can be watched and rewatched like a great novel.
The concept of a series finale is something that is still relatively new to the medium. Typically shows are just canceled or something is just pulled together when they know their time is up. Shows like LOST, The Wire, and The Shield spent years building up to the ending they wanted. It’s a challenging task because there are so many variables at play, but it can be something really special.
A weekly source of quality is definitely noticed. I can’t wait for Breaking Bad to return this summer and for the season finale of Community. As for this summer, there is nothing that matches that anticipation. Sure The Tree of Life and Super 8 look amazing but I can wait until June or even December for those. (Speaking of, where did J.J. Abrams get his break through again?) Yet, the wait for Doctor Who’s premiere on April 23rd feels unbearable.
The talent isn’t only in cinema anymore. TV directors like Jack Bender and Clark Johnson easily rank among the main guys in Hollywood. In fact they’re starting to be noticed; Bender has been tasked to direct the new Jack Ryan movie. Abrams was hired for Mission Impossible III from his impressive TV direction, including the pilot to LOST which still feels like one of the best summer movies of the decade. Joss Whedon directed plenty of phenomenal episodes of his shows and is now given the reins to The Avengers.
Major directors even move from film to television. Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) directed episodes of Breaking Bad and Terriers last year. Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking, The Cradle Will Rock) will direct an episode of Treme this season. David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express) has directed plenty of episodes of Eastbound and Down. Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind) even did an episode of Flight of the Conchords. A lot of directors like to direct pilots of TV shows because they then get a cut of the rest of the season. Spike Lee, Thomas McCarthy, Martin Scorsese, Bryan Singer and Kevin Smith are among them.
It’s not just directors. Some of the best actors working today are now making long term commitments to television. I can make another paragraph of examples, but let’s just look at one show. These are the actors who have appeared in the great show Damages on FX: Dylan Baker, Craig Bierko, Rose Byrne, Keith Carradine, Kevin Corrigan, David Costabile Ted Danson, Tate Donovan, Glenn Close, John Goodman, Darrell Hammond, Marcia Gay Harden, Judd Hirsch, William Hurt, Zeljko Ivanek, Tom Noonan, Timothy Olyphant, Clarke Peters, Campbell Scott, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, and Mario Van Peebles. So why do these talented actors go to the trenches of television? They actually get to act on this show. Television is a medium where supporting characters actually gets good material. It’s no longer a surprise to see Oscar winning actors/actresses stick with television because this is the opportunity for nuanced performances.
Since television is such a large market with so many channels, there are a lot of options. There are a ton of channels, most of which make original programs. It’s a larger field than movies, since there are only a handful of films that are released a week. There are plenty of bad shows on the air—PLENTY of bad shows—but what’s in the multiplex right now? Last week the major two options for new releases were Sucker Punch and Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Roddick Rules, both with low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.
With television, there is always a show on worth recommending. There can be months without a film that can be recommended to pay theatre prices for. Even during the summer, there are shows like True Blood and White Collar that are lighter material, but still worthwhile. TV on DVD is making it possible to watch excellent programming on networks you may not own, like HBO or Showtime.
I will always love movies and going to the theatre is still a fun experience. It’s full of rich history with amazing trends of artistic expression. There will always been auteurs who are able to do amazing things. Right now, the artists who are able to break the norm and create impressive hours stories are working for television. This is an exciting time.
Need some recommendations? Here are some shows I like that are on the air right now. (RIP Terriers)
Eastbound and Down
How I Met Your Mother
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Parks and Recreation
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
The Chicago Code