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 you may one day be awarded the honor of working in film. When artists realized the opportunities of a weekly long-form narrative, something exciting happened. It started with “The Sopranos” and has evolved to the riveting TV market of today.
To me, television is so good right now that it is more satisfying and experimental than what I see at the cinema. Of course, they are different mediums, so it is difficult to declare one better than another as a blanket statement. From a fanatic of both, I can just speak for myself as to which has been the most rewarding in recent years.
Because of the opportunities in 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 set just to move the plot forward. In today’s cinema, there isn’t opportunity to let the characters breathe. The films in the late 1960s and the entirety of the 1970s 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 its 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, more recently, “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 three-dimensional.
Movies could do this. Films don’t have to be subjected to a single story, but they often 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 for there to not 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 10 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 now. Structuring a story within an episode, for a larger story arc for the season, which is in turn 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 endings 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 breakthrough 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 has now been given the reins to “The Avengers.”
Major directors even move from film to television. Rian Johnson (“Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom”) directed episodes of “Breaking Bad” and “Terriers” last year. Tim Robbins (“Dead Man Walking,” “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 get 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 each 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: Rodrick Rules,” both with low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.
With television, there is always a show on worth recommending. Months can pass without a film worth high theater prices. 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 from networks to which you may not subscribe, like HBO or Showtime.
I will always love movies and going to the theater is still a fun experience. It’s full of rich history with amazing trends of artistic expression. There will always be 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”