Can Television Be Better Than Film?

TV shows are better than films. That’s a pretty broad statement that twenty years ago you couldn’t make at all; it wasn’t even debatable. But now there are definitely TV shows better than most movies, although there are also a lot of movies better than most TV shows. It depends what you want. If you want big, overcompensating, live-action robots beating the crap out of each other then you’re not going to get that on TV. Equally, if you want to follow ‘real’ people around who do nothing of interest, apart from having a surprising capacity for using the least amount of brain cells possible and still being able to dress themselves and talk in vaguely coherent sentences, then you need look no further than television. Both mediums have their highs, but they also have their embarrassing lows.

From a technical standpoint, films are better than TV shows; hands down, kick their ass. The directing, production, cinematography, mise-en-scéne, catering. Almost everything is done to a better standard simply because of money; where movie studios can sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a two hour blockbuster, which then brings in a billion in ticket sales alone, TV stations instead need yearly coverage and simply cannot compete on that level for individual episodes. This gulf has begun to close in recent years, however, with the main development on TV’s side being new technology. Increasingly cheap, higher standards of technology have facilitated the building of believable period pieces, such as Boardwalk Empire, to entire worlds, see Game of Thrones. This means all round better quality productions for relatively lower amounts of money, and it’s only going to get better.

The main strength of the TV show lies is in the writing. Television long ago became home to the character study, something now almost abandoned by the big-budget movie conveyor belt. The nature of the medium allows an unparalleled exploration of character over hours of episodes; where movies have to rely on split-second establishment of character history, TV shows can explore it, allowing a multi-faceted portrayal of human behaviour. See, for example, the familial interactions of the Walker household in Brothers and Sisters, something that just cannot be done in an hour and a half.

Because relatively lower budgets meant you had to have good writing – it’s the only thing you’ve got. You need to be inventive, since you can’t rely on overly long car chases or fight sequences to fill time. However, this changing tide of developing technology and increasing amounts of money in television has allowed for the use of big CGI sequences, such as Battlestar Galactica jumping into the atmosphere above New Caprica, and for Mad Men supremo Matthew Weiner to dish out $250,000 for use of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows in possibly the greatest episode of a TV show ever. They need to be careful with their new found money though, careful that they don’t let it go to their heads and splurge on over the top scenes of violence and sex, as in Game of Thrones, to pad out a mediocre show.

Character Study: Mad Men’s Don Draper

All that being said, there are some hideously awful TV shows. See Glee, or don’t, as you may suddenly and inexplicably find yourself gouging out your eyes and eardrums with whatever sharp object was nearest to hand. Even the good ones require some hefty suspension of disbelief; see Fringe, which has a brilliant and inventive plot, but whose show runners seem incapable of casting good actors outside of the main cast. Coupled with some goddamn ridiculous dialogue that nobody the good side of a stroke would ever say, they provide some truly cringe-worthy moments which require a mantra of “it’s a good show, it’s a good show” to get through them.

There is another beast lurking in the shadows that TV shows have to face, once again fuelled by money. That is the networks, ready to tear TV shows into unimaginative, thoughtless and easily digestible strips. Just look at ABC locking Twin Peaks in a sex dungeon to be continually raped until nothing but an emotionless husk remained, all in the worship of the holy deity, Ratings. The fact is that an art form is reduced to a product by the network system, determining a show’s quality by how many 18-49 year olds it attracts, and therefore how much it can charge for adverts – something somewhat mitigated by the cable channels. The television show is art. See HBO’s The Wire for one; it’s a cop show, a crime drama, but it’s also an exploration of the complete desolation of urban America, a view of a failing police system trying to cope with a systemic rot pervading society. It is art, not just escapism or the filling of time between adverts.

There are advantages and disadvantages to television over film, but when TV shows are great they can eclipse everything done in even the best of movies. Think of Walter White’s slow descent into near-evil criminality, or Don Draper’s constant drive for ‘better’. Being able to follow these characters as they grow and change over years of our own lives is something so unique and important, which makes all the mediocre shows out there a tragedy for not living up to their potential.

I would like to say that we are at the Golden Age of television, but we’re not. Golden Ages are the peaks, and while television is not there yet, it’s only going to get better.

Ian Claydon


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