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[ 120 ] October 30, 2012 |

Why has television surpassed film as the most important form of motion picture media? Maybe because shows like Mad Men tell interesting stories while the 14th sequel to a superhero movie might sell tickets in China but is culturally irrelevant over the long-term. And while I don’t doubt that TV being free after subscription and pirating are issues, the real problem for Hollywood is that they don’t tell interesting stories anymore, preferring to rely on CGI and tricks to get 15 year old boys to spend money, while adults can watch Mad Men or Girls or The Wire or whatever.

But hey, I’m sure having Seth MacFarlane host the Oscars will make a huge difference and put film back on top. Clearly Hollywood studio executives have identified the problem correctly…..

Comments (120)

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  1. GeoX says:

    Maybe because shows like Mad Men tell interesting stories while the 14th sequel to a superhero movie might sell tickets in China but is culturally irrelevant over the long-term.

    Yes, amazingly enough, if we compare the best TV shows to the worst movies, one medium looks a lot better than the other. Or, we could compare the best movies to the worst TV shows, and come to the opposite conclusion. I’m not sure how one would go about judging which medium, on the whole, is “better,” but this post sure doesn’t demonstrate anything.

    • rcobeen says:

      Beat me to it. This is obviously such a flawed argument, a form of straw man. There is a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie out there and you decide to compare Mad Man to The Transformers. They are not equivalents. Two different mediums (movies can never match the storytelling ability of the best of TV, while TV has never reached the immersive quality that going to the movies can provide), but if you must, then compare Transformers to Two and a Half Men and Mad Man to There Will Be Blood.

    • Jonah Goldberg says:

      Done in one. Two and a Half Men, aka Charlie Sheen Getting Paid Top Dollar To Reproduce His Personal Pathologies On Camera, was the top TV show almost every year that Sheen was on, and his recent display of bizarre rantings and general inability to function as an adult for extended periods of time was rewarded by his new network ordering ninety episodes of his new series. It’s not all Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, or even Community; quite a bit of it seems to be the networks struggling to find the new Friends.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        Weird–I changed my posting name for a comment I made days ago, and it stayed that way, but only on this computer.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Cf. also “novels today are vastly worse, because the only authors today are Patterson and Grisham, while Dickens and Joyce were typical of most of the fiction being published in the old days.”

  2. daveNYC says:

    Girls and The Wire in the same sentence?

    TV does have an advantage in that the writers can craft a stor that runs for an entire season.

  3. Murc says:

    Maybe because shows like Mad Men tell interesting stories while the 14th sequel to a superhero movie might sell tickets in China but is culturally irrelevant over the long-term.

    No offense, Loomis, but screw you.

    Genre films spent a long time in film ghetto despite the relative success of the original Superman and Batman franchises, and only really emerged from it when Iron Man came out. They’re a legitimate form of artistic expression and it used to be really fucking hard to convince studios to fund them, and now that they’ve arrived I plan to enjoy them.

    I will put up with the occasional Green Lantern or Catwoman if it means Iron Man and Captain America, and dare I say that I hope the superhero genre is successful enough that quirky and original ones get greenlit. They’ve already got Edgar Wright working on Ant-Man, which is a good sign.

    • Seconding the defense of the superhero genres. Yes, there are quite a few duds, but I think that’s fair to say of any genre of film, and I’d argue that the genre has a pretty spectacular record when you consider how young it is.

      • SEK says:

        I’m going to third this, Erik, except for the screwing part. I’m just going to think you’re wrong. I’ve an article about this, which is forthcoming, probably forever (sigh) but the short and short of it is that television is superior to film because in an era in which so few filmmakers are afforded total creative control — i.e. it’s not 1974 anymore — showrunners are capable of crafting long-form stories of depth and complexity that just can’t be squeezed into two hours.

        • SEK says:

          Also, superhero films aren’t culturally irrelevant. Not ever. If anything, they speak to fears so deep we’re ashamed to admit feeling them, lest we seem like adolescents. Seriously, superheros are God-with-a-capital-G-proxies, so their cultural significance is pretty important. Unless you think it’s a coincidence that certain cultural icons become beloved at particular cultural moments …

        • bob mcmanus says:

          There are the days and days and days of our lives. Long form television has been around like forever, and I think the showrunners had a lot of creative control, if not the pretension.

          Will Carrie sleep with Nicholas once again? Poor Jessica. Will Dana keep the terrible secret?

          It’s all really pretty bad, and made worse by the audience that thinks it’s art.

          • SEK says:

            bob, if you’re going to compare The Wire to Days of Our Lives, we’re going to be justified in ignoring you. I know you know that, but it bears repeating.

            And if you’re going to discount the cultural significance of superhero films, well then, you’re not interested in intellectual history. I’m not going to claim they’re art, but I do think their popularity is worth investigation in this particular cultural moment.

            In other words, pretend you’ve read as much of what I’ve written as you’ve commented on, and treat me, at least, like an adult.

            • bob mcmanus says:

              Oh, I have been accustomed to being ignored. In this culture, it is an honor.

              Watched a Korean movie last night.

              Kid was like the best hand-to-hand fighter ever, taking out guys twice his size, crowds.

              He got corrupted, ended killing innocent people, lost his friends and his girl, finally died uselessly and miserably and very unheroically. Thrown under an overpass.

              Loomis is wrong. The power fantasies are not bad art. They are evil art.

              • SeanH says:

                Is the last paragraph meant to be connected to the rest of your comment? It’s phrased like a conclusion, but it’s a non sequitur.

                • bob mcmanus says:

                  Well, most of the comment is an example of what might a constructive examination of unusual individual power.
                  It corrupts and destroys.

                  I am so opposed to romantic power fantasies I am suspicious of Norma Rae

                  Tony Montana was obviously too attractive.

                  And Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist suffering from PTSD from delivering the A-bomb through the wormhole? This stuff is indefensible.

            • Ed says:

              The multi-threaded dramas of today’s TV do owe something structurally to the soaps. In their time soap operas also introduced serious topics that didn’t get addressed in the TV drama of the time.

              Soaps also offered, and those few that remain still offer, strong roles for middle-aged actresses.

              • vacuumslayer says:

                Soaps, when the writers are on their game and show has a good cast and everything’s clicking along nicely, can be REMARKABLY entertaining. I still watch a couple most days.

    • Amanda in the South Bay says:

      superhero films are fucking cliched-it shows me Hollywood can’t think of anything original to make a movie about, except silly comic books.

      • JL says:

        I would like Hollywood to do more original movies too, but I disagree with you that superhero movies are inherently more cliched than anything else out there (as though, say, highbrow literature, doesn’t invoke tropes or have recurring patterns). Or that comics are inherently silly.

        Well-done superhero stories explore power, politics, alienation, marginalization…there are certainly some things that I’d like to see done with them that I haven’t really seen, but that’s not the same as invalidating the genre. Contrary to the views of various middlebrow snobs, there’s nothing inherently inferior about genre.

    • Joshua says:

      I really don’t like superhero movies. I hated Iron Man and Iron Man 2 as well. My friend raved about X-Men First Class and I finally got around to it last night. I thought it was terrible. I find all these movies ridiculously cheesy. Maybe it’s just the way they need to plot, stage, and write these things to satiate comic book fans. I can’t take them seriously.

      I’m not some pretentious asshole that only watches Criterion Collection. I really liked Prometheus for example, for all of its flaws.

    • timb says:

      Captain america sucked.

      All Comic book movies do, because what is placed on the screen is the “cool” “awesome” part and none of the real angst.

      Brooding is not indicative of a moral dilemma

  4. Olsen Johnson is right! You are making comparisons that do not put what is good in film up against what is good on TV. Also too, there is a big difference between the shows on oldtime TV and the shows on cable.

    That said, there is something going on and it’s the improvement in TV shows. There is an audience for good stories over spectacles. Maybe it isn’t large enough to make money at theaters. Maybe that audience prefers to stay home. And with respect to the various cable series that we all love, it’s the hours available in a series when compared with a film.

  5. cpinva says:

    tell ya what, i have access to every pay channel, except playboy (and who cares about that?), on tv, and a nice, large, flat-panel LCD screen to watch everything on. even with all those pay channels, and the 200 odd other channels, it’s rare i find a movie worth watching. the superhero movies? puhleeze! with one or two exceptions (the first batman movie, the first spiderman movie), they are extended, live-action cartoons, and cartoonish. maybe 15 year-old boys are attracted to them, but few adults. so spare me.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      Hey! I love cartoons and animation! They are legitimate forms of artistic expression!

      I’ll put Spirited Away up against any film, ever. I’m not saying it’d win, but it would be respectable.

      • bob mcmanus says:

        And Miyazaki should be studied, because he and Takahata dedicated their lives to battling the tropes and visual language of action films and power fantasies.

        Adolescent power fantasies. I grew up in an era when such things were recognized for what they were, and my storytellers like Russ, Spinrad, Malzberg, Silverberg, LeGuin were explicitly resisting them. Now AFAICT, Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for “power fantasy”, but it does have the entire Marvel Pantheon.

        Training in Fascism. The Iron Dream. Superheroes (and superheroines) are a pathology, a symptom of a dangerously sick society.

        I’ll get my entertainment from the periphery of the periphery thank you.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        Yes, when is somebody going to do a post on Nu pogodi?

        • The truly discerning among us know that the Soviet adaptation of Winnie the Pooh is really where it’s at.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            My mother was horrified at what the Soviets did to Winnie the Pooh when she saw their adaptation this summer in Bishkek.

            • GeoX says:

              For my money, the Soviet shorts are a damn sight better than the Disney versions.

              • J. Otto Pohl says:

                Some of the Disney inspired stuff under Khrushchev like Peter and the Wolf are good. But, I like the Brezhnev era stuff like Nu pogodi which was influenced by Tom and Jerry. Also some of the post-Soviet Russian stuff like Masha i Medved is really good. I still want to see SEK give a visual rhetoric justification ala Hirsch as to why Chunga Changa is not racist because it treats Africans as “sociohistorical” rather than “racial biological” groups. If he can pull it off with Chunga Changa then I think he could also argue that Birth of Nation was not racist.

    • Warren Terra says:

      I have access to none of the pay channels, nor the basic ones, but I do have Netflix, and I can always find something on. The same presumably applies with Hulu or Amazon Prime. All those pay channels and the 200 other channels to look through in the hopes they’re airing something you like is just not the right approach.

      Mind you, I wish that more content was available streaming, instead of disc-only …

    • parrot says:

      couldn’t enjoy the super-heros anymore … they wouldn’t let me into the theatre with my underoos over my dining attire … and capeless … and no more headlamp gear (my sunshine project of truth) … on the smallscreen shows, i can don my gear and cuddle up with my cat Zizek! … you should see what i wear for Breaking Bad bitches …

      • parrot says:

        furthermore, i enjoy youtube … it’s the lazy susan of viewing pleasure … if only samuel beckett could have had youtube as a venue …

    • Murc says:

      they are extended, live-action cartoons

      You got a problem with animation?

      maybe 15 year-old boys are attracted to them, but few adults.

      You are empirically, provably wrong about this.

      • Ed says:

        maybe 15 year-old boys are attracted to them, but few adults.

        You are empirically, provably wrong about this.

        Which is why so many mainstream movies are now directed at fifteen-year-old boys of all ages.

  6. wengler says:

    It’s all a question of technology. TVs are shaped like movie screens now and the picture is superb. Add in a 200+ channel landscape and you can find a good 5 TV series at any time that are well produced with creative storylines.

    Most TV is still crap, even more so with all the Honey Boo Boos out there. It’s just that it’s apparent that TV has gotten better, while films have stagnated.

    Having said that, there are 10-15 films a year that are truly interesting and original, and the time investment for film is so much less than watching 100 hours of a serialized television series.

    • parrot says:

      TVs are shaped like movie screens now and the picture is superb

      … tvs, film screens, computer monitors, and their low power brethren: paintings, photographs, … all shaped like an apple patent …

  7. Jesse Ewiak says:

    Ignoring the comparison between The Wire and The Avengers, but to the larger point, the main reason why aside from maybe one or two films per year (ie. Argo), you can’t get modestly funded adult-focused films out there in a wide audience, but you can get tons of well funded adult-focused television shows is simple – return on investment and how ‘popular’ something has to be to get that return on investment

    If you put forth the idea that a $50 million dollar movie, which is the budget for most ‘adult’ dramas ala Argo that have substance but aren’t superindie or blockbusters, needs to make about 125 million dollars to be successful in Hollywood, thanks to price of marketing and such, that means at the average ticket price of eight bucks, you need about fifteen million people to see that movie.

    OTOH, for a well-funded show like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or even Game of Thrones to be successful, you only need about two to five million viewers per week, depending on the channel, thanks to revenue coming from advertising, the cable companies, and secondary markets, such as Netflix, DVD, and so on.

    So, it’s a much less risky proposition to drop a few million dollars on a pilot, plus another few million for a 6 or 13 episode order than to drop 35 or 50 million dollars on a one-shot movie that might totally bomb.

    • Caravelle says:

      One should also note that the article compares the number of ticket sales for “Argo” or other films with the number of viewers of a single episode of “Mad Men” or “Glee” – but the latter number will obviously be larger, not only because you don’t need to pay each time you watch an episode of TV, but you don’t even need to leave your living room !

      I can see the absolute numbers mattering for the context of the article but a more meaningful comparison could have been with, say, DVD sales.

  8. bob mcmanus says:

    We need arguments against long-form tv, because conventional wisdom must be resisted.

    1) Your movie auteur spends what 6 months to a year creating an hour of product? Your showrunner puts out at least 6 hours a year. I remain skeptical that even the best showrunners can approach the depth and quality of the best auteurs.

    2) The old series were more like anthologies. I presume these still exist. Gunsmoke was probably 50% of the time a framing device for guest actors and guest writers to bring in a partially exogenous narrative (Khan! Tribbles!). My guess is that the current long-forms hire much fewer actors and writers and have much less diversity in narratives, tones, and themes. In this way, yes, a long form is more like a soap opera than the older series.

    3) So more like novels than short stories, and if I was an academic or didn’t have other things to do, I might use theories and histories of the novel (psychologism, historicism, “Realism”) to interrogate why certain elites are flattered long form tv in our current situation.

    4) But I cancelled cable a year ago. I have books to read, and old and foreign movies to watch. And I want to get my head out of Empire.

    • rea says:

      Khan and tribbles on Gunsmoke? I wish I’d seen those episodes . . .

    • Caravelle says:

      1) Your movie auteur spends what 6 months to a year creating an hour of product? Your showrunner puts out at least 6 hours a year. I remain skeptical that even the best showrunners can approach the depth and quality of the best auteurs.
      You’re not comparing like with like. A movie has a lot more technical overhead than a series because you aren’t re-using the same sets, staff, writers, actors and so on each time; I’ll bet that eats up a lot of your auteur’s 6 months. Moreover, while each individual hour of a TV series might take less thinking and writing time than the equivalent hour for a movie, there are a lot more hours in a TV series and that adds up to more than 6 months’ thought.
      Just like a novel author spends less time on each word than a short story author but that doesn’t make the novel inferior – it makes it different. Each sentence may be less polished but the story as a whole can be more complex and thorough.
      (of course the novel/short story is not at all a perfect metaphor for TV/movies, the creative processes are completely different and TV series are episodic in a way novels haven’t been in a long time, but in this context I think it works well enough)

      2) The old series were more like anthologies. I presume these still exist. Gunsmoke was probably 50% of the time a framing device for guest actors and guest writers to bring in a partially exogenous narrative (Khan! Tribbles!). My guess is that the current long-forms hire much fewer actors and writers and have much less diversity in narratives, tones, and themes. In this way, yes, a long form is more like a soap opera than the older series.
      … Or more like a novel.
      Your determination to assimilate all TV series to soap operas, and seeing it as a self-evidently bad thing, suggests to me you cancelled cable a lot more than a year ago.

      • bob mcmanus says:

        “Your determination to assimilate all TV series to soap operas”

        Not all. And you have something against soap operas? Or horse operas or space operas?


        A soap opera, sometimes called “soap” for short, is an ongoing, episodic work of dramatic fiction presented in serial format on radio or as television programming

        A crucial element that defines soap opera is the open-ended nature of the narrative, with stories spanning several episodes. The defining feature that makes a television program a soap opera, according to Albert Moran, is “that form of television that works with a continuous open narrative. Each episode ends with a promise that the storyline is to be continued in another episode”.[3]

        Soap opera stories run concurrently, intersect and lead into further developments. An individual episode of a soap opera will generally switch between several different concurrent story threads that may at times interconnect and affect one another or may run entirely independent of each other. Each episode may feature some of the show’s current storylines but not always all of them

        Waiting to find out what happens next to Little Nell or Peggy Olsen; or whether Flash Gordon will escape Ming the Merciless, or the Perils of Pauline;the long form serialized narrative is as old as mass communications and many of our revered 19th century novels were published first in magazines.

        So the tv-ization of GoT is kind of a regression from a form that is meant to be read relatively quickly and continuously to something spread over 3 months. And the commercial purpose is the same as Dickens, to keep you coming back to a familiar and addictive product. Pay Cable at its beginning did have more anthology type shows, just as commercial tv started with more anthology shows (Playhouse 90)

        • Caravelle says:

          Yeah, if you’d bothered to quote the whole of that sentence you might have realized I’m complaining about you having something against soap operas. When you make an argument “against long-form tv” that concludes with “it’s like a soap opera”, that’s saying that being like a soap opera is a bad thing.

          And you seem to be digging that hole in your last reply – what’s wrong with serialized narratives ? For someone who is so proud of reading books instead of watching TV I’d expect you to see this parallel with the evolution of novels as a good thing. And talking about it as a “regression” is plain bizarre – in any other medium I can think of the long-form, coherent stories with a beginning and an end come *after* the short self-contained works and the episodic serials.

          • bob mcmanus says:

            Desperate Housewives and Once Upon a Time are also long form serialized suspended narratives. As is The Amazing Race

            The form is ubiquitous because the form is addictive and quality or art is not what makes it addictive.

            I dropped cable and quit Mad Men when I realized I was becoming just another otaku breathlessly waiting to see what would happen next on a show that really had little left to say.

            • Caravelle says:

              Nobody here is saying serialization is automatically good art. You’re the one saying it’s bad, like wanting to know what happens next is a bad sign for a narrative.

              Is that your contention, that art is good only if you’re completely uninterested in it ? Or are you suggesting that characterization/character development and the exploration of meaningful themes are mutually exclusive ?

    • Barry says:

      “Your movie auteur spends what 6 months to a year creating an hour of product? Your showrunner puts out at least 6 hours a year. I remain skeptical that even the best showrunners can approach the depth and quality of the best auteurs.”

      I think the idea is that the best showrunners *do* not only approach the depth and quality of the best auteurs, but exceed them.

  9. Eric says:

    Interestingly, there are superhero movies that would have worked far better as a limited series on pay TV than as a tentpole movie. Watchmen is the most obvious candidate – imagine how much better it could have been if several directors could have had 12 to 14 hours to craft the interweaving storylines.

    Instead we got Zack Snyder’s two and half hour tribute to slo-mo.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I’m so old I remember when people were telling me that Zack Snyder wasn’t horrible. Fortunately, Sucker Punch seems to have ended that.

      • witless chum says:

        He’s got something. The opening sequence of Watchmen is really, really good, distilling a bunch of stuff from the book and orienting the viewer who hasn’t read it to the world really quickly and fluidly. Lot’s of directors couldn’t make that, but overall he just makes movies that seem like the work of a dumbass.

      • wjts says:

        I liked his Dawn of the Dead remake well enough.

      • Eric says:

        Am I an idiot for actually looking forward to Man of Steel?

      • Murc says:

        Well, let’s clarify terms a little bit, Scott.

        Zack Snyder is a very good DIRECTOR, I feel. His style isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s strong, he has excellent fundamentals (especially when it comes to shot blocking and lighting choices) and while people bitch about his use of slo-mo I find it shockingly effective; filmakers have been struggling literally for decades with the issue of ‘how do we make this scene fast and incredibly frenetic without confusing the fuck out of people’ and his basic idea (we make the scene fast, but we periodically slow down for a punchy bit or high-impact moment in order to highlight the action and provide contrast) is solid.

        That said, Snyder isn’t a very good WRITER. Sucker Punch managed the interesting feat of being both over AND underwritten.

        It also shied away from its most interesting ideas. I’m about 9/10ths convinced that Snyder was TRYING to make a Verhoeven-style deconstruction-slash-indictment of the genre he was working in, he just fucked it up. In particular, in deleted footage, Jon Hamm goes from ‘cheap, gimmicky guest star who has like two lines’ to ‘well-used metaphor for the male gaze and its privilege.’

        This isn’t to say Sucker Punch was GOOD, even with the bits that were cut out added back in. It was not. But it may rise to level of ‘ambitious failure’ rather than just ‘this is a bad movie.’

        • Eric says:

          while people bitch about his use of slo-mo I find it shockingly effective

          Maybe in small doses, but he overuses it. We don’t need to see the Comedian landing on the ground in slo-mo when jumping down to confront rioters. Not when we’ve seen slo-mo 42 other times in the movie already.

          • Murc says:

            That’s a fair and excellent criticism.

            The key thing is that the Comedian landing on the ground and chambering a round works perfectly well at normal speed. The slo-mo needs to be reserved for something like; dodges one guy, breaks anothers jaw with a quick jab using the stock of the shotgun, spins, chambers round discharges both barrels fight continues.

            There’s a guy named Monty Oum who has done a lot of CGI animation work and fight choreography (most notably on Red vs. Blue) who understands when to slow down the fight and when to speed it up. Snyder could take some lessons.

            • Murc says:

              And the above post looks entirely incoherent because I forgot this blog edits out brackets. Let me try again:

              “The slo-mo needs to be reserved for something like; dodges one guy, breaks anothers jaw with a quick jab using the stock of the shotgun, spins, chambers round (start slo-mo) discharges both barrels (end slo-mo) fight continues.”

        • GeoX says:

          Watchmen sucked because Snyder was fixated on how badass the whole thing was, which is kind of exactly the opposite point of the original story. That movie is really an abomination.

  10. Caravelle says:

    One notable difference between TV and movies is that TV series are a lot longer than movies. You can only pack so much into 2 or 3 hours audio/video, which is why movie adaptations of books tend to cut a lot of stuff.

    That’s not a problem, but it does mean that as TV comes into its own as a creative medium it’s becoming a bit like the short stories to TV’s novels, and while short stories are a great artistic medium I think novels are still more popular. As far as getting to know and love characters and settings go there is no real substitute for time spent with them, and you also need time if you want to explore a theme or concept really in-depth.

    • Caravelle says:

      Gah, I meant TV is becoming the novels to film’s short stories.

    • ajay says:

      One notable difference between TV and movies is that TV series are a lot longer than movies. You can only pack so much into 2 or 3 hours audio/video, which is why movie adaptations of books tend to cut a lot of stuff.

      That’s not a problem, but it does mean that as TV comes into its own as a creative medium it’s becoming a bit like the novels to cinema’s short stories

      This is a good point but it’s worth noticing that it’s quite a recent one. If you’d said to most of the people producing TV series 20 years ago “TV is great for long-form stories! You have 14 hours to tell a story!” they’d have gone “er, no, you have 22 or 45 minutes to tell a story, and then the next week you go back to square one and you have another 45 minutes to tell another story. If you want to tell long stories, go to cinema; they’ll give you two or three hours at a stretch.”

      There were adaptations of novels in mini-series form – the BBC stands out here with things like “I, Claudius” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and so on. But those were six or eight episodes. The concept of the long story arc is a relatively new one.

      • Caravelle says:

        I agree, and I’d say that’s why it’s only recently that TV has started to eclipse movies it terms of cultural relevance.

        I’m actually fascinated by the evolution from TV being mainly episodic to being serialized; I never really thought about it until I started reading reviews for 90s series like the Star Treks or Buffy that pointed out the gradual appearance of multi-part episodes and season-long arcs. I understand why there’s an incentive to be as episodic as possible – so that re-runs can be shown in any order – but I wonder what caused things to change at that time. The spread of VCRs and the advent of DVDs ? Or the evolution of viewing habits ?

        • BigHank53 says:

          Part of it is technological: before the VCR a TV episode was disposable. They were produced that way, too.

          Miami Vice showed that higher production values would pay off, so stuff on the TV started looking better. Black and white televisions finally became extinct. Those trends only started twenty-five years ago. Digital cameras and better software and HD screens all make the shows look better. There’s not much nostalgia for Barney Miller, which was shot on two sets because they needed 20,000 watts of light bouncing off the actors in order to make the images register on the vacuum tubes. Today your cell phone will shoot better video.

          • I am very nostalgic for Barney Miller. It was very good, very funny. One of the best shows ever done about the workplace. Also too, Taxi.

            • spencer says:

              Dennis Farina – who knows a thing or two about being a cop – once said that “Barney Miller” was the most realistic cop show ever made.

              And “Taxi” was terrific.

          • Ed says:

            Production values aren’t everything. There are also the pleasures of good acting, good writing, and a fine comic ensemble playing strong characters, all of which are on offer in Barney Miller, (now out on DVD in a complete edition, finally).

        • ajay says:

          It’s always “Babylon 5″ that’s cited as the first to have series-long or even multi-series-long arcs, a few years before BTVS and so on. That was early to mid 1990s, long before DVDs came along – but IIRC Babylon 5 also had a lot of VHS sales, more than most other series at the time. So you might well be on to something there.

          • bob mcmanus says:

            Babylon 5 was one of the first written as a long form with the ending known to the writer at the start.

            St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues had long arcs and continuing subplots and narrative development (interns became doctors) but I think they were more extemporized. But this is where I think it starts.

            • Warren Terra says:

              Doctor Who had at least one series-long arc in the mid-70s. I suspect the practice goes back longer still.

              (don’t judge me).

              • Caravelle says:

                Then again Doctor Who functioned very differently from modern, US-style TV series, with each story being spread out over four episodes or so.
                Serialization isn’t even new to US TV – as many have pointed out, soap operas have been serialized since forever. But there was still a distinct shift from episodic to serialized storytelling in the US in the 90s.

                • Warren Terra says:

                  Um, I meant a series-long arc across a full year’s series of serialized episodes. See Wikipedia for more.

                • Caravelle says:

                  I know that, I was saying Doctor Who as a show worked differently from most US TV of the time so it doesn’t really play into the shift in serialization of US TV in the nineties. It could have been an influence on that shift but given the huge time difference and given how little known Doctor Who was in the US before the reboot I’d want more explanation than just “it was serialized”. So was “Coronation Street”.

          • Chuchundra says:

            B5 was, in a lot of ways, the model for the modern, serialized drama, especially ones based on central mysteries like Lost and Battlestar Galactica.

            I rewatched a bunch of S1 Babylon 5 eps recently and, while the acting and dialogue is often tooth-grindingly bad, JMS generally played fair as far as setting up and revealing the mythology arcs.

        • Left_Wing_Fox says:

          Three big changes I think.

          I think Babylon 5 was the first to prove that long-form storytelling was effective at building audience loyalty outside soap operas.

          I think the second was the internet providing a wider community for discussion, catch-up and fan engagement. People could have a shared experience, even for niche entertainment. In the 90′s there was probably a lot of overlap between internet users and SF fans. In the 2000′s, the internet had a far wider user base.

          The last was technology making it easier to catch episodes, and easier to watch missed episodes: TiVo, DVD seasons, Netflix, On Demand, online piracy, digital distribution, and now streaming.

          These days the benefits of audience engagement from long-form entertainment outweigh the necessity of episodic programming, so it’s almost ubiquitous.

    • John says:

      Movies aren’t very much like short stories. Have you ever seen a genuine short story adapted into a movie? The movie always has to invent large quantities of story to fill up the time. Because short stories, generally, are short. A couple of characters, a single plotline, often a twist ending of some sort (or at least a Joycean epiphany, where you suddenly realize you are a creature driven and derided by vanity, and your eyes burn with anguish and anger, but nothing really happens).

      A short story is more like a single episode of an anthology series – shows like The Twilight Zone were pretty perfect distillations of short stories. Often individual episodes of non-serialized TV series also function roughly as short stories – an episode of a police procedural is comparable to a short story in a detective series.

      A movie is more like a novella – enough room for a larger cast of characters, for a couple of plotlines, for a deeper engagement with characters, but not enough for the full scope offered by a novel or a serialized TV series.

      • Ed says:

        Since the comparisons with various forms of fiction seem to keep popping up, I am bound to note that writers of fiction conjure their worlds from words on a page, and they do it entirely alone. They don’t have actors to breathe credibility into dubious lines or character developments, they don’t have junior writers whose credits they can horn in on, and they don’t have a camera to aim at the local scenery to set a scene or a DP to inform them tactfully when they’re about to screw up the shot….

      • dswift says:

        >> Movies aren’t very much like short stories. Have you ever seen a genuine short story adapted into a movie? <<

        Brokeback Mountain. Unusually faithful, beginning to end.

        Maybe Annie Prouix's short story (which ran in the New Yorker) is more like a novelini or a deminovel or a tomette. I lose track of the distinctions.

      • Caravelle says:

        That’s true. I guess the parallel to the short story in the AV medium (if we were to look for one, and I think I’m probably pushing the parallels as it is) would be the short film. Which is also a thing, which I’d forgotten.

  11. parrot says:

    what would denis diderot watch if he were stuck in east podunk hollow?

  12. I thought that Times article was poorly thought through link bait, but to second some of what was said above at three in the morning, comparing cable TV to big Hollywood movies is apples to oranges. Network television, the rough movie equivalent of bloated summer blockbusters and treacly Oscar crap, is just as awful as it has ever been. With one or two exceptions, it’s CSIs and NCISes, formulaic comedies, and plenty of doctor/lawyer/police shows.

    The tiny number of really interesting cable shows are much more akin to smaller independent or semi-independent films. But cable has a huge advantage in terms of distribution. FX, HBO, AMC, they’re automatically piped into a majority of American households all day every day. Whereas if you want to see a movie about something off the beaten path, you’re options are extremely limited until it’s dumped onto home video with little to no fanfare.

    To take just a small example, I thought “Branded” was one of the most original and unusual movies I’ve seen in years. It’s a weirdly dark fairy tale about the evils of advertising in the modern world (reminded me more than a little of early Coen brothers), but it only played in 307 theaters nationwide ( and the Times didn’t even bother to review it.

    Even the lowliest of cable shows get better releases than that. If it had been a six-episode show on FX or something, it would’ve garnered immensely more coverage and attention. Good movies that don’t have massive advertising budgets have no path to mainstream attention, that’s the fundamental reason for trend pieces like this one.

    • Bertie says:

      I think this is exactly right.

      The sort-of-interesting thing that has happened here is that these niche cable TV shows have kinda taken over the cultural space once occupied by art films[*]. And as written above, the distribution channels are the reason: in the old days, we had art houses and print articles in the NYT or TNR or whatever telling us about the movies in them. That can’t compete with the convenience and availability of cable TV — even a niche media form benefits from the mass shared experience that cable makes easy.

      [*] I don’t actually know whether there’s been any decline in art films in absolute or relative terms, but it seems safer to claim that the kind of people who used to talk and write about them are these days a lot more likely to be talking and writing about something on cable.

  13. Wido Incognitus says:

    I do not know a lot about these shows on cable TV that are supposed to be so great, but I imagine it is because TV shows go on for a while and let you tell a longer story, if you look at the series as a whole instead of indivual episodes, which many people can do because of growing variety on television, and improved technology for recording shows so you can watch them at a later time.

  14. greylocks says:

    I’m sort of with Erik here, although I agree that his supporting argument compares chalk and cheese.

    I almost never go to movies any more and cancelled my Netflix subscription because it was getting harder and harder to find something worth renting.

    On the other hand, I’ve got a DVR literally almost full of stuff I haven’t been able to get to yet, most of it episodic series.

    Another point I haven’t seen mentioned is that new television series often start out a little rough but get better as the actors settle into their roles and the writers figure out what works for the characters and their interactions. For example, I don’t think there was anything particularly noteworthy about the first 2-3 episodes of Breaking Bad other than the premise – IMO the series didn’t really hit its stride until well into the first season.

    Movies don’t have that luxury of feeling their way along for the first 3-4 hours, although I’m somewhat baffled as to why the sequel and/or remake is usually worse than the original. (Notable exceptions exist of course.)

  15. LFC says:

    Haven’t read most of the thread, so I’m no doubt repeating what some have already said, but I think the post is wrong. Admittedly I’ve never had any kind of cable sub. so have never seen The Wire, e.g., which I’m sure is good. (Right now I don’t have a working TV at all.) But there are still some good movies being made. For ex. I just put up a short post about ‘Argo’, which was pretty good, albeit not flawless. ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (the recent version from last yr.) was highly entertaining, if not esp. profound. ‘The Hurt Locker’ prob. deserved its Oscar(s). And outside of mainstream Hollywood is prob. where the really good work is still to be found.

    • greylocks says:

      Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, if anything, a textbook example of the differences between movies and miniseries. Without getting into which version was actually “better”, there’s no disputing that the television version conveyed more detail and allowed richer character development.

    • witless chum says:

      If you’ve got a computer, you’ve got a working TV which almost certainly includes a DVD player.

    • Eric says:

      You can watch The Wire. I’ve never had HBO, but I’ve watched the entire runs of several HBO series. All you need is a DVD player and a screen.

  16. vacuumslayer says:

    I think there’s exciting stuff going on in both television and film–you just have to search out the good stuff.

    I think the superhero genre is incredibly unreliable. I loved “Iron Man,” but many of the others bored me to tears.

    • spencer says:

      I think the superhero genre is incredibly unreliable

      “Unreliable” is an excellent way to describe it. And with the proliferation of sequels (it may just be my perception, but it seems like those are coming more quickly and frequently) and reboots, it seems like the sheer volume of superhero genre films is going to drag down the overall level of quality.

      Just my perspective. And fwiw, I have enjoyed a number of comic book / superhero movies myself.

  17. dswift says:

    Nice friendly brawl here. Don’t know why Mr Loomis’ point is so hard to fathom.

    Movie writing is 95% flailing at cleverness, undercooked and overheated. The writing for any number of the new wave of long-form TV shows is polished yet breathes upon execution, impressively similar to how humans think and behave.

    I just saw “Cloud Atlas.” Tin-eared claptrap — and this is from a crew who is cocksure of their ability to deliver quality product. My teenage son just got me hooked on “Breaking Bad.” The dialogue is simple, straightforward and downright potent. Not a moment of “Cloud Atlas” was remotely as rewarding as any random scene from “Breaking Bad.”

    Michael Tolkin said it best. (Urgle, can’t locate the original quote.) He pointed out that Hollywood movies have become delivery systems for a director’s overconfidence.

  18. Njorl says:

    Why has television surpassed film as the most important form of motion picture media?

    The correct question is, “Why did it take so long?”

    Movies should warrant being shown on a gigantic screen. Movies should be primal eye-candy. Movies should do what television can’t.

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