Monday, 5 August 2013

Thinking outside the box: Is TV really better than cinema nowadays?

I don't know if I'm alone in this, but I've grown very bored of the endlessly recycled assertion that TV is now 'better' than cinema. It seems that every other day there's an article by a media commentator championing 21st century broadcast drama as a bastion of challenging, complex, and fertile artistic material sprung up on the edges of the vast barren expanse of childish multiplex fodder. Even filmmakers themselves seem eager to rubbish their own profession, claiming that they can't remember the last exciting movie they saw, and falling over each other to praise the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

I don't mean to diminish the achievements of contemporary small-screen drama, however. Obviously, inarguably, there has been great work over the past decade or more, and it's still flowing. In the last month on British networks alone, we've had the conclusion of France's acclaimed supernatural mystery, The Returned, Jane Campion's atmospheric crime thriller Top of the Lake, and the beginning of Tony Grisoni's small-town tragedy Southcliffe. Reports that we're living in a golden age of television are quite likely to be proven true in the years ahead.

But the oft-repeated line that TV has bested its parent, the movies, has become a thoughtless and fallacious generalisation, parroted by many people who ought to know better as a self-evident truth. What this misconception actually indicates is that TV is more watched than cinema - its cultural cache and influence far greater. There are myriad reasons for this: binging on programmes is a much cheaper diversion than regular trips to the cinema, and because these shows can be consumed at home it is easier for audiences to indulge in their taste for what has been termed 'media-stacking' (but might alternatively be diagnosed as attention deficit disorder...). Whatever the explanation, TV's voice is much louder than cinema's nowadays.

But as we all know, the entity making the most noise isn't necessarily always the one with the most to say. The critical consensus that has crowned television as artistically healthier than its counterpart mostly ignores the huge amount of shows that don't fit this convenient narrative. For every Sopranos, there are roughly fifty 'structured reality' docu-dramas vying for attention with their cynically manufactured and relentlessly formulaic story arcs, and checklists of pre-approved character types (the sob story, the cheeky chappie, the suave and handsome bastard). In the grand scheme of broadcasting, shows that demand intellectual and emotional engagement like The Wire are anomalies, and the wallpaper anonymity of TOWIE and its dunderheaded ilk is the norm. Television, in its original state at least, was a medium that encouraged inattention: it was the little box chattering away in the corner like a senile relative, occasionally amusing but easy to ignore. Cinema was the form that required a more engaged viewer, placing one in the dark, silencing all distractions and engulfing all of one's senses. TV only improved its reputation when it started producing content that demanded this same commitment, whilst, at the same time, audiences began to convert their TV rooms into darkened, surround-sound theatrical auditoriums. In short, television became good when it became cinema. Television proper, in its original incarnation, is still mainly crap. 

What's more, the best television emulates and benefits from the concentration and structural constraints of cinema. Shows like The Wire were planned out as long-form, but, crucially, self-contained narratives with clear end points. On the other hand, those programmes which go wrong are the ones which succumb to the entropy of television's desire for endless serialisation. As Henry James might've said if he was alive today and working for the Observer, they become 'enormous baggy monsters', losing shape and coherence as they're passed from one team of writers to the next until, inevitably, the clarity of their early seasons is worn away. The history of television is littered with such casualties, from Twin Peaks to Lost.

Cinema's disadvantage, as I've already touched upon, is that its reach cannot match that of television. Laying aside the opportunities presented by streaming services and video-on-demand, interesting movies are still very reliant upon people seeking them out in the literal, physical sense of looking up where they are being shown and then making an excursion to see them. In an age of instantaneous consumption, this is a very real handicap and something that the industry has still not done nearly enough to address. But this does not mean that great stuff is not out there - it is, and it's still getting released one way or another all of the time. Any writer who lionizes television at the expense of the whole of cinema is merely showing their ignorance. It's equivalent to not watching any foreign-language films, and then making the claim that only movies in English are worth bothering with. No serious critic would want to be found guilty of that, but here we are, being subjected to TV propaganda that is just as counter-factual.