Is TV Now Better Than Movies?
ILLUSTRATOR Warren Espejo
Despite looking and feeling similar, television and film are completely different mediums, with different goals as well as different effects on us, the consumer.
Films are sacred experiences.
For the most part, the goal of film is to tell a story that ends, an open and close satisfaction. This has something to do with the circumstances from which it was invented. The first films by the Lumiere brothers, documentary footage of bustling cities and trains and people, were presented in theaters and, to a certain extent, as artifacts. Much has been written about the filmgoing experience: Directors like Martin Scorsese likened it to church, dark, quiet rooms where stories on how to live exist, while others like Federico Fellini saw it closer to dreaming while awake, comparing the dark theater to the womb of the mother. Either way, there was a sacredness, since a pilgrimage had to be made to view them.
The very early days of film (1910s and earlier) saw films as cheap entertainment, similar to vaudeville theater. The rich preferred opera, theater, and classical music. But as the medium matured between the 1920s and 1940s into the form we know today—lavish, immersively designed with full-bodied narratives and complex characters—there became a demand for an equally upscale filmgoing experience. Theaters were not the plastic-y corporate cinemas of today’s malls, but large majestic movie palaces, landmarks in major cities, such as Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles and Loew’s Paradise Theater in New York.
As films got bigger, so did the demands of the audience. It was no longer enough to simply distract, films were now supposed to leave one walking out of the theater in awe, in tears, in fear. There is a sort of sorcery to manipulating the heartbeat of the audience, one that is more than cause and effect. However, while no film is the same, much of popular filmmaking has a sort of universal skeleton: something like introduce a setting and a character, introduce a problem, and see the effects.
From this, however, it has become a powerful semiotic tool, attaching emotions and images to an idea. The effect films have on people cannot be understated. While Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator restored Howard Hughes' historical reputation as a pioneer of flight, a misinterpreted reading of Taxi Driver inspired John Hinckley Jr. to try and assassinate Ronald Regan and harass its then teenage star, Jodie Foster.
Television is more liberal.
In contrast, the television experience was not as sacred, but more liberal. The United States saw its television boom in the 1950s, just as movies began to settle into its role as the modern art form. Thanks to the television, a one-time payment, would allow those unable to leave the house were able to get their dose of information and entertainment beamed directly to them. TV schedules ensured that you and everyone else were watching the same thing at the same time.
However, as liberal channels often are, when advertisers discovered its marketing potential, it was exploited to no end. Instead of fighting for your attention in a busy newspaper, it became more economic to ensure that your ad was being fed to millions of eyeballs at the same time. Programs like The Dick Van Dyke show became structured to feature as many ads as possible.
The goal of television is to keep viewers glued to their sets as long as possible. The narrative form of television, which it eventually grew into, supports this as well, with series-long arcs and relatable characters. High-end hang-out sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory go on for decades, while cheaper soap operas like The Bold and The Beautiful can go on for over 8,000 episodes. So while film’s aim is to get you in and out of your seat satisfied, the goal of television is to get you addicted, always asking for more.
Television has grown into its strenghts.
However, as time has gone on, naturally the television series has evolved and grown into its strengths. The amount of time afforded to a series of television has allowed creators to truly immerse into a full world and deeply explore complex characters.
Says Issa Rae, whose show, Insecure, ran on HBO and movie, The Lovebirds, now streams on Netflix, “I think the comfort of movies is that you, in many ways, know where you're going…. there's a ride that you're taking that you're comfortable taking… But you also find that comfort with television, there's just more characters to follow and more ways to go, you can take a longer journey.”
As the medium matures, so will the depth of stories told. One of the first examples of television as art is The Twilight Zone, which premiered in the ’60s and tackled head on political issues like race, gender, and war through the lens of horror and science fiction.
The 2010s saw what many called a golden age of television, with shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad bringing an expensive, dramatic, and, most notably, cinematic feeling to the small screen. Mad Men was shot on film and cites Alfred Hitchcock as one of its main influences while referencing cult films like Two-Lane Blacktop and Lost Horizon. Breaking Bad takes cues from the great epic American genres, Westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West all the way to classic crime films like The Godfather.
While this may show television winning the war over film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is essentially a television show screened in theaters over a decade. With its hangout vibe, comic relief, and recurring characters, the serialization of theatrical films is a massive development. “One story may be longer than the other… Television is an elongating story and film is a bit more contained,” says Kumail Nanjiani, who also stars in The Lovebirds and has spent six seasons on the series Silicon Valley.
In this era of high media consumption, it is more important than ever to understand and acknowledge the effect different media has. While it has evolved into a powerful tool of messaging, TV has discovered the ability to do truly deep character and institution studies. As they both continue to advance, they will continue to take from each other.