Over the last few years, there has surfaced a strange cultural conceit that TV has begun to replace movies as the more artful, grownup means of telling stories. TV is where the sophisticated narrative unfolds—or so they say—and movies are for sequels, franchises, and remakes.
Even if this were true, TV is inhibited by a low ceiling beyond which it can never travel. That is to say, the best TV can never hope to achieve what the best movies accomplish with ease.
I’ll tell you why.
Bigger (screen) equals better format.
Ask anyone about a life changing moment they had seeing a film for the first time, and chances are most or all of them will describe seeing a certain movie in a certain movie theater. And sure, not all movies are seen on the big screen, but almost no one goes to a theater to watch a TV show.
The environment and atmosphere in which we experience film or TV does more than color our viewing experience—it often becomes the psychological value we assign to the things we watch. In this way, the theater going experience is the greatest measurement of readiness to receive what a movie has to offer.
When one goes to the movies, they travel to some place other than their home, they pay an admission price, they take a seat amongst a group of strangers, the lights go down, and for the ensuing two hours, the movie is projected before them. It sound surrounds them.
There is no pausing the movie theater. One does not stop the movie and pick it back up in the next day or two. One does not fold laundry while they watch a movie in a theater. Sure, you could wander out the moment you’re bored, but given the amount of investment you’ve already pledged to the experience, few people do.
These are stakes TV, by its very nature, can never create nor demand. Many people experience TV on a computer or tablet or phone—a investment one level up from just accidentally walking through a room where a TV show is playing.
Of course, there are folks who so love their program of choice that they host viewing parties and make a big show of things—but even these rarities will die out as the medium of TV and the distribution of its content continues to cheapen. What has already become the year’s most celebrated TV event—Netflix’s Stranger Things—was released in its entirety in a single moment to be enjoyed at the complete and utter leisure and discretion of any given viewer, many of which did so on a freaking phone, in broad daylight, or whilst multitasking.
By its very nature, TV asks that we care less before the show even begins.
TV almost always overstays its welcome.
One of the great challenges of filmmaking is finding the space or else sacrificing it for the sake of the story. “Feature films” clock in somewhere around 90 minutes and typically less than 180 minutes or so in order to be thusly titled, which becomes a magic window of storytelling. Heck, just this year Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman’s allegedly overbearing runtime divided audiences, while many of the same movie goers later complained that Suicide Squad played like a movie shortened to the point of incomprehension. Making an effective movie that isn’t too long or too short is a tricky thing.
TV never gets a chance to treat itself as a standalone film and instead operates with the mentality of a blockbuster franchise: Hang around until everyone hates it and there’s nothing left to say.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated dynamic, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every feat of screenwriting, cinematography, directing, etc. is stretched to the breaking point when it exceeds three and a half hours, let alone dozens of hours.
Yes, even Stranger Things and Marvel’s Daredevil (the only two shows I’ve watched in the last five or so years) would have been tremendously more effective as two and a half hour movies, or movie trilogies.
Yes, even shows that maintain some degree of surprisingly high quality over a sustained period blow it in a major way along the impossibly long road. For pete’s sake, just look at this truly stupid moment from season 5 of Breaking Bad.
By pledging to drag the narrative on for as long as it takes viewers to check out, TV is doomed to inferiority before it gets off the ground.
Episodic narrative shackles creative storytelling.
Writers of television are forced to distribute their narrative in an episodic fashion—in half hour to hour chunks at a time. This isn’t the worst news ever; novels often exploit the same stop-start momentum with chapter-by-chapter storytelling. The trouble enters when writers must contain effective stories within those chapters (often with their own satisfying conflicts, arcs, and resolutions and/or cliffhangers).
Of course, in writing a novel, the chapter operates in the greater service of the meta-narrative, but with multiple writers and directors on an episode-by-episode basis, even promising narratives stumble on their way to the meta-conclusion.
It goes without saying that even great movies often have some scenes that don’t work as well as others, but rarely to the degree that an entire hour feels like “filler.” With almost perfect uniformity, even advocates of TV confess that their favorite shows dole out the occasional “throwaway” episode.
TV is heralded as better than movies only by people who hate movies.
Of all the people I know who argue for the superiority of television as a medium, none of them watch movies respectfully or with any amount of enthusiasm. My wife, for example, by her own admission, hates movies. She does, on the other hand, like having some show playing on a laptop while she sews.
Case in point.
You know who loves TV?
Millennials with horrifically decrepit attention spans. To them, being able to openly text and surf the internet while half-watching a show broken up into 45 minute chunks they can start and stop at their own leisure is vastly preferable to being forced to sit down, put their phone away, and focus on/think about what they’re watching.
Give some millennial the choice of sitting through The Shining in a theater with no phone or watching episode of American Horror Story in their room on a laptop and nine times out of ten it’ll be no contest.
The truth is, every great TV show would work better as a great film or films. No great film would improve as a TV show. Imagine Jaws or A Clockwork Orange or Fight Club as a TV series instead of a movie, and any cinephile worth their salt immediately cringes to imagine so great a work, yes, cheapened.
TV feels cheap.
For all its favorable attributes, and for every great and rare gem of the form, we will never remember or talk about Dexter or Game of Thrones the way we will remember and talk about Alien or The Godfather. And that’s okay! Let those who enjoy TV continue to do so, knowing TV is the kiddie table of narrative entertainment.
Author: Josh Porter