I.N. After Dark #1: Why TV is No Longer Film's 'Inferior Cousin'
This is the first edition of a new series we're trying; IN After Dark, where we'll talk about some of the things we want to talk about. Or as Howie aptly puts it, "barely-informed musings". Give us your feedback!
Sean Coffey: Following the Emmy Awards, I started to reflect on just how big television has become over the past 5-10 years. It’s hard for me to tell whether this is a universal feeling or whether it’s because I’ve grown into TV. I remember as a kid movies were the big deal and television was there to pass the time; to wind down. It was common practice to go to early screenings, queue for midnight releases and have gatherings where the sole purpose was to be the first to see a new movie. I feel like today its people planning their weekly schedules around episode airing dates and rallying behind social media to perpetuate hype.
As time moves forward we are continually breaking down the traditional barriers surrounding both film and television. Yet, there are so many reasons I have a preference for television (when done correctly) over film. The short form factor is probably the biggest for me, closely followed by character and plot development. If we’re talking drama; your standard drama movie might run little over 120 minutes, while a 12 episode 50 minute show has a run time of 10 hours. This does somewhat highlight the fine artistry required for film-making; which I completely agree exists. But, what this longer season form-factor allows for is for shows to try ‘experimental’ episodes.
Case in point is the Mad Men season 5 episode “Far Away Places”. The three plots in the episode are largely removed from the over-arching season storyline. Roger takes LSD in one vignette of the episode, and the strange non-linear time line mirrors this. By the end of the episode the viewer is still fairly unsure how the events seen through Roger, Don and Peggy’s eyes fit into the same storyline. Viewers didn’t see the episode coming, and it added so much to a very plot-heavy season of Mad Men; re-affirming and refreshing the common themes of the characters and the longstanding themes in the show. It was one of those episodes that made you sit back after in silence just pondering. Moreover, it added an incredible amount of thematic context to the remainder of the season and the first part of season 6.
Now that I’ve had my fanboy moment, I’d like to just throw out my brainstorming as to just,
“Why has television become so big?”
My pondering has led me to thinking that ‘Accessibility’ is key here. With the rise… and rise of digital and internet age, the ease of which media can be accessed is ever increasing. Peer-to-peer sharing and various sites posting embedded videos of television shows hours after their airing has seemingly lead to worldwide following of so many shows.
In the 90’s if you missed last week’s episode of The X-Files, you’d have to wait for a re-screening (in Australia, almost never), or wait for the potential VHS releases (though later DVD releases obviously became increasingly common). Some people, would of course, make the effort to record the show on a blank tape. Ahhh the days.
With this content delivery system its seemingly hard to create the same hype that movies generated around their release dates.
But of course, with the accessibility of television increasing, so did that of film. However the profit models for film and television are vastly different. Ticket sales and later digital releases of films are the primary income for production companies, whereas television companies make their profit from advertising, subscription fees and the occasional product placement (See: Subway’s product placement bits in NBC’s shows Chuck and Community and others). I personally think this is another reason the shift is ever trending towards TV shows. A cable company like HBO or Showtime, can still get sufficient subscribers to keep making shows despite the amount of illegal file sharing (which is seemingly mostly from countries outside the US anyway, especially us here in Australia). Similarly, under Amazon and Netflix we’re seeing movement towards all-at-once online releases to subscriber networks. These companies too can sustain enough subscribers to make original, quality content and release it in a format that suits the modern-day consumption.
Let’s face it; we all binge-watch television. It’s one of the digital-age’s most indulgent pleasures. The fact is that there are entire networks supporting this idea, and TV is being produced accordingly (Orange Is The New Black’s second season is seemingly written with an understanding that people binge watch a show that’s all released at once; the second episode didn’t contain any scenes from series lead Taylor Schilling). Television is constantly evolving; changing to bring the highest quality, artistic and enjoyable viewing experiences. Conversely, I don’t feel that I’ve seen any revolutionary changes in film since the early 90’s. There are still definitely amazing films coming out, but the growth and change is nowhere near as rapid. It’s probably worth pointing out that we’ve had the film medium for a lot longer, and had a chance to experiment and adapt already; but I still feel like I’m living in the television golden age, and damn happy to be.
Howie, can you give me some of your thoughts? Why do you think television has blown up?
Howie Ng: I think another contributing factor is that, over the past decade or so, there has been a significant cultural shift towards a preference for serialised storytelling. We want stories we can invest in; characters and storylines we can see grow and change over time. We want to come home every week to hangout with our F.R.I.E.N.D.S (see what I did there) or see what kind of shenanigans Kramer is up to. We tune in to find out what the hell is under that hatch, but we stay for the flashbacks/forwards. These elements of long-form storytelling are an edge that television has over film that has been a growing demand in recent years.
Back in the old days, television was regarded as the “inferior cousin” to cinema, but that is not the case anymore. This year’s Emmys is a good example to illustrate how much that tide has turned, and television’s ascension to being the home for quality visual storytelling and characterisation. Breaking Bad won the award for outstanding drama series for its final season this year, marking what Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club suggests as the beginning-of-the-end of the loosely declared second-wave “Golden age of television”: A creative peak in an era of serialised dramas that generally feature male anti-heroes at it’s centre (see: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire), kick-started by HBO classic The Sopranos.
What’s interesting about Breaking Bad’s sweeping wins in its major nominated categories (series lead Bryan Cranston won Best Actor, where as both Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn won for their supporting parts) is them beating their (arguably) main competitor, HBO’s True Detective. The Emmys has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to the changing landscape of television, and perhaps still subscribing to the outdated view of television, has a history of fawning over “movie stars” who dare sink down to the lower depths of doing a TV show, and awarding them with nominations/awards for just showing up. Examples: Don Cheadle’s repeat nominations for his highly mediocre work on Showtime’s House of Lies, and Jeff Daniel’s upset win (over Cranston and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm!) for his lead role on the critically panned The Newsroom last year. This was the year that the “McConaissance” was in full-swing, and with it’s masterful performances and expert direction, many have pegged True Detective to take home the prize for outstanding drama and Matthew McConaughey was predicted to be the sure-fire winner for outstanding lead actor. All of which made Breaking Bad and Cranston’s (equally well-deserved) wins a pleasant surprise, perhaps an indication of the levelling of playing field between film and TV.
A strong indicator for the growing shift towards serialised television is filmmakers and film actors making their foray into television. David Fincher, director of acclaimed films such as Fight Club, The Social Network and Zodiac, made his television debut last year with House of Cards on binge-watch central Netflix, starring veteran film actors Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, LA Confidential) and Robin Wright (Forrest Gump, The Princess Bride). Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Magic Mike, The Ocean’s trilogy, The Informant) bitterly declared his retirement from filmmaking, only to pop up on Cinemax (of all places!) with period-medical-drama The Knick, starring Clive Owen (of all people!) this year. Even Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Hellboy) has adapted his vampire horror novel series, The Strain, into – not films, but a tv show on FX.
If you’re looking to compare the long-form format of a television program to the shorter, self-contained storytelling of film, Fargo is the perfect example. Justly winning the Emmy for outstanding miniseries this year (and unjustly robbed in all the acting categories it was nominated for), Fargo is a dark comedy-crime drama based on the 1996 Coen brothers’ film of the same name. Now, you have to understand, Fargo is one my favourite films of all time, so the news that someone was ballsy enough to even attempt a TV adaption of such a perfect film was not welcomed by me. I watched the show with cynical curiosity, but over the course of ten episodes, it had completely won me over. Written by creator Noah Hawley, the series takes place within the same universe as the 1996 film, but at different time periods (season 1 takes place in 2006, 19 years after the events in the film), with completely different characters. The show manages to not only perfectly encapsulate the narrative tone and thematic essence of the 1996 film, but also tell a compellingly original story of its own while remaining loosely tethered to its original source.
The one significant advantage that the show has over the film in its long form is character development. With the time frame of 10 one-hour episodes, the show is allowed to provide more insight and depth to not only the main characters, but the supporting characters as well. The show is able to create a much wider world by populating it with side characters that we care about at a much deeper level than a the short time-span for the film allowed, so when they face mortal danger, it impacts us more than their film counterparts. (if you’ve seen both the show and the movie, read this article for a well-written/fun comparison between the two.)
Now this is not to say that "TV is better than Film!", not at all. It's very much apples and oranges when you really compare them, and both can exist mutually inclusive of each other. The cinematic experience has ample advantages that television can't provide (perhaps enough for a whole other article of its own). But by comparing both visual mediums, it allows us to illuminate (or at least try to) understand why TV has become so increasingly popular in our culture today, and that it's no longer the inferior cousin to film when it comes to providing quality content.
What do you think? Has television finally squared the ledger with film? Let us know in the comments/forum section below!