By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 25, 2011 at 10:00AM
We don't cover much television here at The Playlist. Generally speaking, the magic of sitting in a dark room with a big-ass screen trumps the home experience every time. But TV news is starting to bleed across, thanks to the reams of big-screen stars, writers and directors who are moving into long-form TV work, and the line in terms of the product is starting to blur as well: "Mildred Pierce," for instance, barely qualifies as television, aside from its length, and its premiere airing on HBO. It was a highly cinematic experience, and arguably the best film of the year so far.
And for some time, debate has been raging in cultural circles as to whether TV, once film's crass, populist little brother, is now the natural choice for storytellers with serious aspirations. We're told that filmmakers have harder and harder jobs funding ambitious, high-minded pictures, while, to glance at a TV-centric site like AV Club or Vulture, you can barely move for high-quality programming, stuffed with impressive talent.
Tomorrow, to mark the end of the TV season this week, we're going to try something a little different, and run down some of the series The Playlist believes has been worth your time in the last year, and exactly what makes them so special, and so deserving of your attention. But first, we want to look closer at that TV/film divide. Is the small-screen really superior these days? And what can studios and filmmakers learn from what works on television?
Super-producer Scott Rudin ("The Social Network") perhaps summed up the feelings of many when he told GQ that "For all those people who spent years trying to get movies made at all the companies that are now gone, there's now one place to work where you can get respectfully treated and fairly judged. It's HBO." And the evidence is certainly there to back him up: names like Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes, Curtis Hanson and Michael Mann have already found homes for projects on the channel, while the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Derek Cianfrance are set to follow them in the coming years. One of the greatest living actors, Al Pacino, is practically part of the furniture there, between "Angels in America," "You Don't Know Jack" and the upcoming Phil Spector biopic, with David Mamet at the helm. And that's even without mentioning the likes of "Treme," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," among many, many others.
And they're far from the only standard bearers. AMC, which has entered the original series world in a big way in recent years, houses Frank Darabont's "The Walking Dead" alongside more home-grown hits, Showtime has Diablo Cody's "United States of Tara" (although it's just been canceled) and Neil Jordan's "The Borgias," and FX is hosting names like the Duplass Brothers and Denis Leary. Netflix is producing original content for the first time, teaming David Fincher and Kevin Spacey for "House of Cards," while DirectTV picked up Peter Berg's "Friday Night Lights" and the star-packed "Damages" after they were cancelled elsewhere. And yet somehow we've barely scratched the surface: few, if any of these shows even entered into our discussions around tomorrow's list. And the non-cable networks each have a handful of top-notch shows as well, albeit with fewer movie stars or big-name directors, for the most part.
Rudin's point is certainly a good one. It's rare to find a movie with the Great American Novel scope of "Mad Men" or "Treme," with the uncompromising twists and turns of "Breaking Bad" or with the gentle humanity of "Friday Night Lights." And when was the last time you saw a big-screen comedy with as many laughs-per-minute, or even total laughs, as an average episode of "30 Rock," "Parks & Recreation" or "Archer"? For an audience member who wants more from their entertainment than explosions and dick jokes, TV seems to be the way to go; it certainly feels like there's a great quantity of quality programming than ever before.
Of course, it's nowhere near as simple as that. For starters, the mediums are entirely different. TV is able to focus on rich, complex characters and spider-web plotting because it has the time to do so: two hours of storytelling real-estate will rarely be able to achieve as much as, say, the 70-odd hours of "The Wire." Furthermore, no matter how many Emmys they might win, and how much they might penetrate the culture, few of the most acclaimed shows are real successes: aside from a few exceptions, like "Modern Family" and "The Good Wife" (the latter of which was still at risk of cancellation, thanks to an audience mostly older than the key demographic which advertisers care about), almost none of the best-reviewed shows are watched by more than 5 million people, with the top-rated shows remaining the likes of "American Idol," "Glee" and "Two And A Half Men."
Indeed, as we discussed a few months ago, the box-office success of films like "The King's Speech," "Black Swan" and "The Social Network" suggests there's more reason to be optimistic about the big-screen than Scott Rudin suggests. Like their studio executive cousins, TV bosses are principally concerned with the bottom line, and for every show that miraculously escapes the chopping block like "Fringe" or "Community," there's an "Arrested Development," "Deadwood," "Party Down" or "Terriers," cut down before their time. The idea of television, or even HBO specifically, being some kind of sacred church for the artist is a fallacy -- even among the best shows, HBO airs "True Blood" and "Entourage," the latter in particular a show as bad as any you'd find on Fox or CBS, but the pair are among their highest rated.
What's changed, though, is that there are more networks and outlets than ever before. A decade ago, Judd Apatow's beloved "Freaks and Geeks" ranked 93rd in the ratings, averaging just over 6 million viewers, leading it to be cancelled before its complete run aired. Today, it would be one of last-place network NBC's top-rated show, and would likely have been renewed after only a few episodes. The breadth of entertainment available, not just on cable, but also on streaming services like Hulu, Netflix and their less-legal equivalents, means that shows can merely meet expectations for their slot, like "Fringe," or perform strongly for their network, like "Justified," and achieve a relatively long life, so long as the costs aren't too high. So a quirky, not-for-everyone show can survive, and go on to greater things.
Furthermore, the sheer quantity of programming means that, by the law of averages, there are simply more good shows around, and more bad ones. "Community" star Joel McHale put it perfectly when he recently said "Someone once told me that 90% of all art is crap, and 10% is tremendous. I think it's the same way with TV. And there's just more TV than there was, so the more crap we see, the more great stuff there is. It's getting worse and better at the same time."
It could be argued that this isn't quite the golden age of television, despite what some would claim. The AV Club made a strong argument a few months back that as much quality programming as there is around, it can't quite compare to the middle of the last decade, which featured hall-of-famers like "The Wire," "The Sopranos," "Deadwood," "Lost," "Arrested Development," "The Shield" or "The West Wing" -- as strong as the current line-up is, few shows seem deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as that pack. And as we said, we're not convinced that TV has the edge on the movies, just as, say, architecture can't be called superior to music.
But there are certainly things that the big screen can learn from its smaller cousins, in an ideal world. (Whether they do is another matter...) Firstly, TV is, first and foremost, a writer's medium. The auteur-obsession of the cinema is rarely to be found, with directors generally hired hands more than anything else (when Rian Johnson helms an episode of "Breaking Bad," or Nicole Holofcener " takes on Parks and Recreation," they're fitting in with an established aesthetic), while writers generally double-up as producers and show-runners, leading an extensive writing staff. We don't want to downplay the contribution of directors on TV -- there are hugely talented helmers doing sterling work week-on-week who won't go anywhere near the big-screen -- and we wouldn't swap our favorite cinematic polymaths for anything, but considering the colossal disrespect with which screenwriters are treated in the film world (there seems to be a direct correlation between the number of credited writers and the shittiness of a finished film), surely trusting the people behind the typewriters a little more wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, considering the small-screen success of names like David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, Matthew Wiener, Dan Harmon, Steven Moffat and many, many others. Let's not forget, people from Judd Apatow to J.J. Abrams started off as small-screen showrunners.
Furthermore, there's the question of faith in your product. The last thirty years have seen a shift towards the opening weekend being everything, meaning that the slow-burning success of a "Bonnie & Clyde," which became one of the biggest hits on record at the time only on its second go at release, is near-impossible now. Even a limited arthouse release lives and dies on that inital screen average -- Jodie Foster's "The Beaver," for instance, died even on limited release, and it's unlikely that it'll have the chance to see if it catches on with audiences. TV isn't necessarily much better -- the critically acclaimed "Lone Star" was the first show to be cancelled this season, for instance -- but many of the biggest hits, from "Seinfeld" to "The Office," are shows that easily could have been cancelled after their first season, but were kept on the air with fingers crossed, and the gamble paid off. A direct comparison isn't quite fair, but what it shows is that if you have people who truly believe in what they're putting out, and are willing to go the extra mile, rather than throwing it to the wolves when it disappoints in the first three days, you might end up reaping the rewards.
Finally, an increasingly common complaint, particularly from older audiences, is that it's no longer worth the bother or expense to trek to a new release in theaters, when the relative cheapness of large TV sets, HD home entertainment and shrinking theatrical windows mean that you can have a far more pleasant experience without leaving the house. Studio bosses hoped that 3D might provide the answer to get people back into the multiplexes, but with more and more evidence mounting that not only are 3D films badly and dimly projected (even affecting 2D presentations), but that increased prices are actually deterring audiences, rather than bringing them in, it seems increasingly wrong-headed. Why not use that money to train projectionists so that they're no longer staggeringly incompetent, to deter audiences from texting during the film, to give them something that they can't get by sitting down in front of a boxset of "Mad Men"? We can but dream...
Tomorrow: The Ten TV Shows Worth Skipping The Multiplex For