I’ve seen a lot of discussion recently about whether this New Golden Age of TV has surpassed cinema as the best, most important mass art form. I can understand the arguments. While I don’t think there have been nearly as many great TV series as there have been films, the great TV shows of late have been quite extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that did for me what HBO’s The Wire did. There wasn’t a single film last year that had me gasping for air like Breaking Bad‘s fourth season. Neither of these comparison’s are fair, though. First of all, these shows are exceptional. They’re also long form fiction, which allows much more time to build stories and develop characters. Film just can’t do that, but it does do other things well. There’s a benefit in the short form. The precision of storytelling in film almost always surpasses what’s possible in a TV series over multiple episodes.
Arguing which format is better is essentially pointless. We can all agree that they’re both capable of greatness. That said, that movies and TV are very different doesn’t mean they have nothing to learn from each other. I think that TV has done a great job of adapting the qualities of cinema. Shows look grander and more cinematic, a direct result of widescreen and HD. Series have also become more serialized, which isn’t really a cinematic technique, but the approach of essentially making a movie that happens to be cut up into 10-20 hourlong acts is distinctly a response to how films are crafted.
Films, I think, have taken less from TV than they have given, and the things they have taken are for the worse. Where TV is beginning to look more cinematic, many films are looking quite scaled down. Even with Cinemascope -style widescreen, the focus these days is on medium shots and close-ups. Many films today feel more at home on a 50 inch screen than a 50 foot one. From a storytelling perspective, though, films have basically stuck to what they’ve always done, which is to tell a singular story in a precise manner.
Here and there a film does something different. Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s film released last year, was cut down to 159 minutes, but even at that length it felt like a short run TV series. In fact, I could easily imagine the film being extended into several seasons of a TV show. Instead of precision and specificity, Margaret is a film that starts small and grows as it runs. This isn’t the same as a big movie with a huge cast and different plot lines, like an Altman film or Magnolia. Margaret grows the way TV series often do. As more characters come into the pictures the film expands its scope to include their stories. It’s like the way The Simpsons began as a show focused on the main family, but grew to include an entire town. Parks and Recreation is following that path as well. Or look at Breaking Bad, which started with a few characters and one basic story. While that main story remains the focus, its scope and its assortment of characters has ballooned. This is the result, not just of basic storytelling, but of the need to introduce further complications over the course of such a long story. Margaret does this, and it feels like it could work on TV, but it also feels distinctly like a contained film. It takes that element from TV and then adapts it.
Another recent film that felt very “TV”, but in a good way, was Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. I wouldn’t call Tiny Furniture a great film, and I think it suffers from the inexperience Dunham has in telling her stories visually. The writing occasionally lacks focus as well, but for the most part the film paints a great slice-of-life portrait. It has a semi-clear beginning, though we do learn some tidbits about the protagonist’s recent history, and the ending is quite open. It nearly works as a pilot or later entry in an ongoing television series. It draws out those episodic elements to feature-length, and that works reasonably well for it. Interestingly, Lena Dunham has now moved over to HBO where she’s about to première a new comedy series called Girls. Going based on the previews I’ve seen for the series, it seems like she’s taken a similar approach to the one she used on Tiny Furniture, but altered it to make for better TV. There seem to be more characters, as well as more situations, but ones that are also more focused to fit within 30-minute episodes. TV informs film informs TV. I love it.
Maybe Margaret and Tiny Furniture should be used as examples. TV should learn from film and vice versa. Neither one is better than the other, but they each offer great potential for storytelling, and their differing methods can be adapted to work in either format. I think TV is probably the bigger story of the last decade or so, but only in that it has finally matured into something truly special. Boundaries are being pushed, but there’s also a clearly understanding of just how far out those boundaries really are. Film has luxuriated in that state for a long time now, but maybe the influx of quality TV will spur a new revolution in how filmmakers tell their stories. It’s becoming a TV world, and at a time movies are premiering on cable boxes before theatres it’ll be interesting to see how movies fit into that new landscape. I, for one, see a bright future ahead.