Thursday, 3 June 2010

TV... the new film?

OK, so "no". TV is not the new film and worries about that little box replacing the cinema have proved largely unfounded since they started in the 1950s. Although the availability of moving pictures in living rooms has had a massive impact on attendances and on the target demographic of the movies (with films becoming increasingly aimed at teenagers over the last half decade): the movies remain relevant as an art form and as part of the popular culture.

So why the title of this post? Just because television used to be rubbish. Even the good stuff was of obvious poor quality compared to a movie. But now there are (American) shows which have the production values of a big budget movie for an hour every week. It used to be the case that actors would have trouble breaking into movies from televsion, but now many movie actors readily and regularly accept roles on television (Kiefer Sutherland in '24' (video below), Tim Roth in 'Lie to Me', Glenn Close in 'Damages' and the late Patrick Swayze in 'The Beast', as examples of a growing trend).

What is especially great about these shows is that they are not trying to be movies at all, but that they use the form of television to do something films can not do. A show like 'The Wire' (which follows a Baltimore police teams attempts to bring down a drug king pin in the face of local politics and staggering bureaucracy - although that description doesn't come close to doing it justice) tells a richly detailed story over many hours, all of them essential. You couldn't do that with a film. Not to the same level of journalistic rigour that David Simon and Ed Burns do with that show. They were equally brilliant with the Iraq invasion series 'Generation Kill', really putting you in that place and making you feel (as they did with Baltimore) that you know every inch of that place and every nuance of that scenario.

David Simon and Ed Burns are an example of another encouraging trend in US TV: that of the auteur driven drama series. Aaron Sorkin ('The West Wing', 'Studio 60'), David Chase ('The Sopranos') and Matthew Weiner ('Mad Men') are all writers of intense, detailed and dialogue driven TV shows which are far above the vast majority of what the cinema has to offer in terms of their intelligence. The acting in these shows is often dazzling with 'The West Wing' a good example of the new cross-polination between film and TV in terms of actors, as it stars Hollywood names (Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe) and also created new ones (Allison Janney and Richard Schiff).

Complicating things further is the changing nature of how people view media. In a few years, when both the latest episode of a big budget TV thriller and the latest "blockbuster" Hollywood thriller are available to stream instantly on your laptop or phone whilst you ride the train to work: what will be the difference between the two? Is there a distinction anymore, other than the fact that the "TV" show will likely have between 10-25 sequels ready to download should you want to continue the story?

Anyway, film is not dead and TV will not kill it. But now, more than ever before, television is more than a substitute for the movies: when done properly it is better than film. Yet television is still not really taken seriously in the world of media criticism. It is analysed in terms of news reporting or in terms of its affect on society, but television shows are not afforded the same respect by academics and critics. Is this all about to change? Another decade of TV like the above and it just might.

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