jesse (rockmarooned) wrote,

Next up: TV vs. the Radio

Allow me to direct you to an essay I hate. James Wolcott, a guy at Vanity Fair, wrote a long article about how TV is way better than movies, you know, empirically. Putting aside the absurdity and hubris of a Vanity Fair writer claiming as his own what is essentially an Entertainment Weekly cover story from ten years ago (seriously: EW did an article about this and it was not recent), there's the stunning arrogance, as pointed out by my L Mag editor Mark on Twitter, of the article's summarized thesis ("James Wolcott: Television Has Officially Surpassed the Movies"). You guys, it's official! This one medium is superior to another! Television now only needs to defeat painting and magazines, and then it will be OFFICIALLY all over!

So naturally, I'd like to take this article apart a bit and talk about what's wrong with it and these general state-of-the-union-compared-to-an-entirely-different-union nonthinkpieces.

First, I have to note that I'm actually a little confused about the online version, if it only represents the first two pages of a longer work or if it really does just trail off -- or maybe it's an intro to a bunch of pieces in their TV issue and therefore needs no conclusion? I'm not sure. But even without an ending, Wolcott does blather on for 2,000 words, which gives me more than enough to examine. Italics will be Wolcott; my comments follow.

After I fell out of love with movies (new movies, that is—classic Hollywood I still adulate),
Ah, a preamble: this isn't a piece about how Citizen Kane is no longer great! It's about how movies today just aren't as good! Just so we're clear! Wolcott wouldn't want you to think he's a philistine. He's just saying that the good old days (ascribed the conveniently vague definition of "classic Hollywood") are better than the bad now.

I realized during my rare visits to the multiplex that what I missed wasn’t the big screen, that Mount Rushmore larger-than-lifeness, but the short vacation in the receptive dark, the comfort and calm of the blinds being lowered on the city outside. But even that respite is too often tattered by the cell-phone compulsives texting and checking their messages, whatever spell the filmmakers attempted to cast spoiled by these mousy little screens flashing their gray pallor.
Were I unkind, I might summarize this as "Wolcott is old and no longer likes to go out to watch movies." But yes, people texting and phoning and chatting through movies is horrible. These people are no more produced by the medium than people who walk too slowly or say stupid things in an art gallery, but no matter: television provides comfort and sanctuary, while movies force you to leave the house. If whether you must leave your house is a major qualifier for evaluating an entire medium, by all means, continue to use this sound argument.

As movie theaters switch from film to digital projection, home flat-screens take up a wall, Blu-Ray discs exhume masterpiece-painting volumes of color and intricate detail from popular releases, and the unholy moviegoing experience cries out for human-pest control, cinema has lost its sanctuary allure and aesthetic edge over television, which as a medium has the evolutionary advantage.
This is sort of a weird classic semi-falsehood at work with many of the stay-at-homers (even cinephiles who would just rather watch the Blu-Ray): that your at-home set-up is anything like a movie theater. Do you know anyone whose home flat-screen takes up a wall? I've seen some pretty big TVs at friends' places, and yet they're generally smalelr than the smallest screen at the Nitehawk. This is a minor point, but definitely worth making, I think, when the home-viewing experience is glorified as this distraction-free temple where you can't fall asleep, check Twitter, pause the movie to get a snack, or answer the phone.

Movies will never die, not as long as a director like Terrence Malick can make every green blade of grass sway like the first dance of creation, but TV is where the action is, the addictions forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders. As I write this, the Academy Awards are a few days away, with The Artist the odds-on best-picture winner. Does anyone think The Artist is better than Mad Men?
I have no idea if anyone thinks if The Artist is better than Mad Men. Probably most people who have seen both like Mad Men better. Probably also there are some people who dislike Mad Men and therefore prefer The Artist. It's kind of a weird question, not least for the apples-to-oranges factor. For the sake of argument, let's indulge the comparison (hey, some people have strong opinions about apples or oranges being better than other fruit). How were these particular items selected? The Artist is brought up because it was the odds-on favorite to (and did) win the Oscar for Best Picture. Mad Men, presumably, is given as the TV equivalent because it won the Best Drama Emmy. What this really compares, apart from apples and oranges, is the comparative skill of two relatively small voting bodies in choosing something that the author or reader approves of. Can you find a lot of people who prefer The Artist to Mad Men? I really don't know. Can you find a lot of people who prefer Bridesmaids or The Tree of Life or Rise of the Planet of the Apes or The Muppets or Super 8 or Drive or Hugo or The Descendants to Mad Men or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or The Good Wife or 30 Rock or Mythbusters? You know what, you probably can.

Even in cine-mad Manhattan, where the admonitory ghost of Susan Sontag haunts theaters by night, the new movie that everybody’s talking about is being talked about by a shrinking number of everybodies. It’s seldom the presiding topic of cocktail chat and intellectual quarrel, as it was when critic Pauline Kael led the wagon train. (Her successors at The New Yorker, David Denby and Anthony Lane, might as well be tinkling the piano in the hotel lobby for all the commotion they create.) Movies divide and stratify; television, like sports, is the democratic includer.
Oh, Jesus. This is going to be one of those things where a Vanity Fair writer namechecking Sontag and Kael will also prove his common-people bona fides by talking about how real people like TV -- just like sports! That feels a bit like a, what's that sports word, ah yes, a Hail Mary, when you begin your paragraph with an unscientific pronouncement (lacking only the designation "officially") that movies are "seldom" talked about at cocktail parties.

Mention Breaking Bad, Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime Cleopatra-a-go-­go procession, Abby Lee Miller’s latest volcanic diatribe on Dance Moms, or Downton Abbey and all the birdies start to pipe up, except for the one pill present (there’s always at least one), who takes pride in declaiming that he or she never watches television—they only listen to NPR.
Dance Moms: it's what everyone's watching! Officially, far more people watch Dance Moms than have even heard of Bridesmaids! Note also that people who don't watch TV are a pill. Not like people who take pleasure in bragging about how little they care about going to the movies.

A sophisticated sensation such as public television’s creamy soap Downton Abbey (Upstairs Downstairs with fancier airs and more elbow room) corrals an audience and achieves a critical mass that explodes and expands beyond its actual viewership, the series’s cast, costumes, and signature strokes … inspiring tributaries of parodies, homages, fan fiction, fashion shoots, and tweedy commentary.
TV is good because people really, really like it! This is some New York magazine-covering-Gossip Girl-level analysis here. If only people really, really liked movies or books!

By contrast: for those of us who have fallen out of romance with movies, its franchise blockbusters seem to be leeching off the legacy of pop culture and cinema history, squandering the inheritance with endless superhero sequels and video-game emulations that digitize action stars into avatars and motion-capture figures, a mutant species with an emotive range running strictly in shades of bold.
The most popular shows on television right now are American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, NCIS, Criminal Minds, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Two and a Half Men -- you know, as long as we're talking about how the fairest representation of a medium is its most popular mass-appeal product (you know, since Wolcott is such a populist).

And those films that aren’t aiming for an opening-weekend monster kill seem to dwell solely within a realm of discourse dominated by film bloggers and Twitter twitchers, these configurations of loyalists and lost-causers adopting a film that they fell for at some festival and cradling it like a football as they chug downfield in a deserted stadium.
Hey, sports! Sports invoked to try to make anyone who likes movies sound kind of precious and twitchy and weird, but whatever! We're just supposed to be impressed by Wolcott's vast knowledge of sports. Movies are so lame they're like a football game that nobody watches! Who could even think of that? Everyone watches football! And also HBO! They are basically the same!

This is also a strange comparison because it seems to assume that every possible TV show is available for everyone and anyone who wants to watch it, regardless of what cable package they have, whether or not they subscribe to HBO or Netflix or whatever else, and how available their Internet streaming options are.

Margaret, Bellflower, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Future, Shame, Take Shelter—these are quality titles (so I assume, I haven’t seen most of them, I shall Netflix them in the fullness of time) that become objects of obsession for a few but float in limbo for those not on screening or “screener” lists.
It's a shame that no one is allowed to see any of these movies in any form: weeks-long theatrical engagements in big cities; DVDs; television airings. Actually, I would prefer to believe that, rather than listen to someone brag about not bothering to see movies he assumes are good but doesn't care enough to watch.

The controversial, heavily anticipated spooker We Need to Talk About Kevin fizzed out at the box office from too much foreplay; by the time civilians got to see it, it had already been pre-gnawed to death in the press and online. Arty entries may accrue a cult status over time that collects more disciples into the fold, but they lose the catalytic moment to set the culture humming.
And this, in any medium, is what truly matters (except when we're talking about watching The Wire five years later, in which case it is evidence of how revolutionary and lasting television is; see next paragraph for totally cogent explanation of this).

Whereas those who missed out on what all the initial fuss was about with Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones (it and Spartacus spearheading premium cable’s brawny-buxom pagan revival), and Dexter are able to catch up with past seasons on DVD—an immersion course of binge viewing—and bring themselves up to speed in time for the next season’s debut, fully conversant with the workings of Walt’s woefully understaffed meth lab, say, or the latest trend lines in zombie migration. And those who missed out completely on The Wire can get hold of the boxed set and ingest the entire drug saga, boring all their friends with revelations about plot twists that everyone else marveled at five years ago.
So TV is superior, because it can also be watched on DVD. Unlike movies, which, uh, hey, isn't it fun watching a whole season of a show on DVD or Netflix?!

I mean, yes, it absolutely is. I just watched Terriers. It was so fucking good, you guys, and I felt remorse for not watching it when it was on, and I wish there were four more seasons of it instead of just the one. I don't really see what this has to do with the inherent superiority or vast evolution of television as a medium. It's interesting and fun and important, but I don't understand how this makes it better (maybe because arguing about what media are better makes absolutely no fucking sense, but more on that later).

The characters in a thick-tapestried, treachery-strewn series such as The Wire acquire dimensions, depths, personal flaws, moral failings, and discordant quirks that seem integral and variable, not pinned on like prom corsages. They’re given enough time to sit and stew, to mull over the next move, a luxury seldom extended to movie characters (with a few notable exceptions—Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane in Moneyball, for one). These beats of downtime are how TV protagonists and those in their orbit take a novelistic hold on viewers, each story arc unveiling another aspect of their personality without extinguishing the inner shadow of a Don Draper, the ruthless ingenuity of Walt in Breaking Bad. The slowly etched outlines of psychological terrain are what endow ambiguous heroes with their own 3-D quality, a by-product of excellent scriptwriting that doesn’t feel the compulsion to connect every ridiculous dot. Actors, in turn, don’t have to serve as pointers, message carriers.
On its own, this is a fine point. That is definitely an advantage of television narrative: writers have more time to tell their stories, actors have more time to develop their characters, and there can be a novelistic immersion into a place, time, and ensemble (at least for a certain type of show; it should be noted that despite the cursory faux-populist references to Dance Moms, Wolcott is essentially referring to a handful of top-tier dramas from the past five years that put together air about as many hours per calendar year as a cycle of American Idol).

Yet this is where the more fundamental pointlessness of this argument also comes through. I object to many of Wolcott's points on the grounds of stupidity, smugness, inaccuracy, etc. But more importantly, I can't see the difference between television and movies as an argument of pure quality. There are certain things TV is better-suited to accomplish; there are other things that movies are better-suited to accomplish.

If I wanted to make the equally pointless "pro-movie" version of this argument, I could talk about the individuality you can see in some great filmmakers, the sense that their personality and obsessions are all over their work, or the stylistic flourishes I so rarely see on television, even as the average TV drama (and even comedy) has become far more cinematic than the average programming from ten or twenty years ago. There are rarely amazing images or shots in even some of the best television shows, because ultimately they're much more about storytelling. But all media is not about storytelling and narrative, or at very least not multi-character storytelling and long-form narrative. I don't always get the sense that even the most dedicated showrunners have a particular obsessive worldview or style so much as themes and storytelling tropes that interest them. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; a lot of these guys and girls are brilliant at their jobs. And there are certainly stylistic voices coming from TV: Joss Whedon or Aaron Sorkin, no matter what you think of them, have very particular styles -- although both are rooted more in their writing than visual style (or at least, the visual style of their shows can't always be attributed to their sensibility so much as directors finding signature ways of adapting to their detailed scripts). Film can have a speed, fluidity, and economy of visual storytelling that just isn't always necessary or even correct for a great TV show.

But that wouldn't be a real argument about why movies are better than TV; it would be an argument why I generally prefer them. Preferences are fine. But preferences are not really astute criticism. Preferences aren't really an argument, because they don't boil down to much beyond: but I prefer this. I don't mean it's all just, like, your opinion, man, so none of it matters. I frequently state my opinion with absolute certainty, trusting people to understand my feelings without adding "in my humble opinion" to anything. But to reduce something as vastly different as the medium of television versus the medium of film and reduce it to an argument that one is much better isn't just foolhardy; it's vaguely insane.

It's also counterproductive if your goal is to argue for how amazing television is. If you're arguing that TV and movies are basically the same except TV is just a way better version, that shortchanges a lot that's interesting and challenging about television as a medium. I might make an analogy between short stories and novels, although in some ways I'd say short stories and novels are way more closely related than film and television. But in any case, if you want to make the case for TV, don't think of it as Movies 2.0 or even Movies Plus Novels. Just think of it as its own medium that may have superficial production resemblances to film but doesn't really go about its business the same way at all.

Then the article goes into a bit about how TV found bigger and better roles for underappreciated actors like Steve Buscemi and Gretchen Mol, to name two from Boardwalk Empire. I'm not sure how that squares Buscemi being great in Ghost World and Reservoir Dogs and Trees Lounge and Mol not really having that huge of a role on Boardwalk, but, again, for the sake of argument, say that their work on Boardwalk will be unequaled in either career. I'm not sure how that reflects poorly on movies. I agree that some people really find their potential on TV. Sarah Michelle Gellar would probably not come across as a very good actress in movies. But given time to really work with her character on Buffy, she was often surprisingly terrific – almost as if movie acting and TV acting are markedly different in a lot of ways. Hey, speaking of actresses...

It’s the contemporary woman that movies don’t know what to do with, other than bathe her in a bridal glow in romantic comedies where both the romance and the comedy are artificial sweeteners. (And it’s not even a sumptuous bridal glow. The flight attendants on ABC’s Pan Am are more flatteringly lit, framed, and costumed than the female stars of most movies, whose tensely toned emaciation cries out for a cookie.) To trace the arc of Reese Witherspoon from Legally Blonde to This Means War is a depressing business, and the overpraise for Bridesmaids—a lumpily paced, indifferently shot, distended exercise with funny scenes fending off plotty inertia—reflected a craving for something more real and bumptious from the rom-com formula.
First of all, I may have missed the episodes of Pan Am that weren't about skinny girls. I like Christina Ricci a lot, but where was she more full-figured and less in need of a cookie? In Buffalo 66 and The Opposite of Sex, or on TV in Pan Am, a solid twenty or thirty pounds lighter? And look, the girls on Pan Am look great for the most part, and I do hate how crummy-looking most studio rom-coms look. But talking about the amazing, glamorous movie-star treatment Pan Am provides sounds less like a sharp analysis of the aesthetic differences between movies and TV and more like someone who watches a few movies and a lot of TV.

Second, I'm not sure what is meant by "tracing the arc" of Reese Witherspoon from Legally Blonde to This Means War. I guess the idea is that of diminishing returns, after a great and popular success (so this article may or may not be assuming that Legally Blonde is a really good movie? It's hard to tell. But just FYI, it's not), or maybe that there hasn't been much of an arc: that ten years later, Witherspoon is still doing junky rom-coms. OK, sure. I mean, that "arc" does include her winning an Oscar in between junky rom-coms, but let's assume Wolcott doesn't much like Walk the Line either (fine by me; it's an OK movie, not a great one). Wouldn't it make more sense to trace her arc, then, from Election to This Means War? Does he not bring up Election because it has the disadvantage of being really fucking great and therefore unuseful in this article that fails to mention specific movies the author particularly likes apart from non-answer "classic Hollywood" and one comedy that gets mentioned below?

Third, Bridesmaids, which I apparently was foolish to bring up earlier as a high-point of comparison for movies, which Wolcott wishes was more stylish even though, if anything, it looks like any number of TV shows as directed by Paul Feig, mostly a TV guy. But its digressions from standard rom-com formula are dismissed as too little too late, and, anyway, "lumpily paced" and "distended," not because Feig doesn't know how to direct comedy (he absolutely does) but because... well, I'm not sure. Because it's two hours instead of a trim eighty-nine minutes? Because it doesn't have easily outlined act breaks? If anything, a dislike of Bridesmaids (which I would fault, if only slightly, for not having enough time to explore all of the interesting and funny characters it creates) might provide generous ammunition for the idea that the values of television can't just be applied to movies to make them better.

And, for the young and the listless, the quartet of twentysomethings scraping by in the upcoming HBO series Girls. An attempt to create a rookie division in the Sex and the City genre (signaled by a Sex and the City poster in the premiere episode), Girls doesn’t cater to the shiny pretty richy-bitchy stick-figure expectations of a CW audience bred on Gossip Girl and the rebooted 90210; it’s moored to the pokier manner and metabolism of its writer-director-star, Lena Dunham, whose low-budget, tightly enclosed, first-personal debut film, Tiny Furniture, made a critical splash that helped get her profiled in The New Yorker, which means we’re stuck with her.
Just to summarize: in this article about how TV is vastly and "officially" superior to movies, Girls (which I really like so far) is praised for not resembling two current TV shows that are on the air right now and as such presumably count as "television," but for hewing closer to a recent independent film which reached a far smaller audience than almost all of the indies Wolcott cheerily dismissed sight unseen as "probably good" curios he'd catch up with eventually on Netflix.

In fact, anyone looking for comedy should just nest at home, because Hollywood comedy has become a plague, a blight, and an affront to humanity. The gross-out element in film comedy (puke, poop, sperm, breast milk—any bodily fluid with projectile possibilities) has gotten so prevalent and predictable that it’s as if filmmakers had their heads diapered. […] Feature-length film comedy is harder to pull off than the episodic sitcom—it doesn’t have the same factory machinery up and running, teams of writers putting familiar characters through permutations—but that doesn’t explain the widening quality gap that makes movie humor look like a genetic defective. (Check out Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star if you doubt my word.)
You know what does actually explain the "widening quality gap" referred to here? Picking Bucky Larson, a consensus choice as one of the very worst movies of last year (which I'm supposed to assume Wolcott has seen despite skipping Take Shelter, The Future, Martha Marcy May Marlene, etc.), and perhaps one of the worst comedies of the past five or ten, as an example of Hollywood comedies, and comparing it not even to the likes of Two and a Half Men or 2 Broke Girls (which in all likelihood would trounce it anyway!) but to a highlights-only version of TV comedy as a whole that refers mainly to the most acclaimed half-hour comedies on the air (and, OK, also The Big Bang Theory, which is a different sort of red flag: if you're lumping The Big Bang Theory in with 30 Rock, maybe you just have a soft spot for TV comfort food). This is a classic move when pitting movies and TV against each other: take something that represents the worst or at very least the mediocrity of movies and throw it against some of the strongest stuff on TV. Maybe there are fierce movie partisans somewhere writing articles about how movies trump TV because There Will Be Blood is better than Jersey Shore, and if there are, hey, I'm sorry, that's a stupid comparison. But I don't know; I see a lot more going the other way around, ignoring the vastness of TV, and how much crap it must therefore include, without affording the same considerations to film.

And look, I also find it frustrating that I can go see a Steve Carell movie that isn't as funny as three episodes of The Office, or a Tina Fey movie that isn't as funny as three episodes of 30 Rock. But he's right: movie comedy is hard, and TV comedy is having a great couple of years. But weirdly, the fact that I currently watch seven or eight half-hour comedy programs that I like-to-love doesn't make me more impatient with a lack of great movie comedies any more than Star Wars makes me mad that there isn't a big-budget sci-fi-fantasy show on TV that measures up to it.

There’s more imaginative attack, ensemble mesh, unmuzzled personality, and exuberant id in Arrested Development (rerunning on IFC, with talk of a TV revival and a film to follow), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, Modern Family, The Office, Community, Parks and Recreation, The Big Bang Theory (Jim Parsons’s Sheldon: the Niles Crane of nerd-dom), the cellular regeneration that is The Simpsons, and the crazed rapport between late-night host Craig Ferguson and his gay robot sidekick, Geoff, than in almost any recent Hollywood comedy I’ve seen, apart from Horrible Bosses, which has the makings of a reprobate classic.
Again, I'm questioning just how many movies Wolcott has seen if he's holding up Horrible Bosses as an instant classic. If that's the bar, last summer I laughed just as much or more during Submarine, The Trip, Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids, and 30 Minutes or Less.

Its three male leads all came from TV: Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), Jason Sudeikis (Saturday Night Live), and Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), which only reinforces whatever point I’m trying to make. TV also found the perfect fairy jar for Zooey Deschanel (the Fox sitcom New Girl), providing a role model for a new generation of Tinker Bells, something even a manly man like me can appreciate.
That can't be the end of the article, right? Surely there's additional pointless scorekeeping to be made, on the order of Buscemi being a film guy whose potential was squandered until he did TV, but Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day being TV guys who were generous enough to spread their talents into decrepit, floundering film?

I know I might seem kind of bitter and bent out of shape over a silly Vanity Fair essay. But honestly, these pieces turn up more or less annually now, and it's a ridiculous argument to have. If you want to write about how TV is eclipsing film as a watercooler/cocktail party medium or whatever, I mean, that's still pretty fucking difficult to quantify, but sure, you can probably make that argument (not least because sitting at your computer tweeting about a show you're watching isn't considered rude the way doing that through a new movie obviously is). You could also make the argument that this transition actually happened forty years ago (hence that semi-outdated "watercooler" language) but that a lot of self-satisfied self-styled cultural experts want to pretend now everyone is watching this newfangled TV thing because of The Wire. And sure, even if it sometimes comes from snobbery, it's interesting to consider the cultural implications of those changes in different media. But maybe in doing so, we could refrain from the need to declare an "official" winner.
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