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IS TV THE NEW CINEMA? From 'Scandal' to 'House of Cards,' Pundits Continue the Debate

Thompson on Hollywood By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood December 3, 2013 at 3:48PM

There was an odd discussion on a recent Charlie Rose show, seemingly about TV as an art form, although technology and business models took up too much air time. These were the subjects the men on the panel (David Carr, Terence Winter, Josh Sapan, Rose himself) seemed most comfortable talking about. New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum was the only participant who stayed on topic.
Kerry Washington in "Scandal"
ABC Kerry Washington in "Scandal"

"I`m hardly an expert on the economics of television," said "New Yorker" TV critic Emily Nussbaum during a recent Charlie Rose discussion of the so-called Third Golden Age of Television. "I mean," she said, "I`m mostly interested in whether I like the shows or not." Well, yeah. Me, too.

Damian Lewis and Claire Danes of 'Homeland'
Damian Lewis and Claire Danes of 'Homeland'

Apart from the obvious omission of discussing a concept for thirty-some minutes without mentioning the critics who introduced it, principally Alan Sepinwall, this was an odd discussion about an art form that was more often about technology and business models. I began to get the feeling that these are subject the men on the panel (the New York Times' David Carr, "Boardwalk Empire" showrunner Terence Winter, AMC Networks' Josh Sapan, and Rose himself) were most comfortable talking about.

Either that, or they avoiding the issue in order to gloss over the fact that they don't actually watch much TV or care very much about what's specifically on it. They are serious grown ups who wrestle with the big questions. Discussing whether you like something or not gets dangerously close to talking about feelings.

Downton Abbey Season 4

Nussbaum referred several times to a vastly entertaining show that I'm convinced none of the guy panelists have ever watched, Shonda Rhimes' deliriously overwrought "Scandal" (ABC). The show had an all-time episode last week ("Vermont is for Lovers, Too," directed by Ava DuVernay) that packed more plot twists and reveals into a single hour than two Bollywood melodramas. The storyline was squeezed through a space time anomaly as transformative as anything on "Doctor Who."

The point is, those are often the sort of thrills people are enjoying on TV even when they pretend otherwise. When my cousin Jim referred to "Downton Abby" as "'Dallas' with British accents," I knew I'd never be able to think about that show any other way. "Downton" has mind-boggling episodes that pay off almost as many plot threads per minute as "Scandal."

Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'
Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

Similarly, fans may object to Nussbaum's suggestion during the Rose panel that "Scandal" and "House of Cards" are fundamentally the same sort of back-stabbing political melodrama, though "House" is decked out with markers of quality that allow cable TV viewers to enjoy it without feeling guilty. It's a key responsibility of a critic not to be taken in by that kind of stylistic misdirection.

TV is good enough now, as Nussbaum says here, that it's no longer necessary to grade on a curve. Yet embracing the notion of the Third Golden Age (GA3) often seems to make people less rather than more critical. Safe in the arms of PBS or HBO, they relax and accept things that they would be tensely be on guard against if they were watching a network.

"Homeland" gets a pass for implausibilities that would be scornfully rejected if they cropped up on "The Blacklist" or "Marvels' Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." -- most recently that it would only take about two weeks of jogging in the countryside to rehabilitate a drug addicted ex-marine. I was willing to let that one go because, like the show's producers, I desperately wanted Brodie to get back in the game, and was willing to give up a few degrees of verisimilitude to achieve that. That's why they call it "fiction."

This article is related to: Homeland, Television, Television, Charlie Rose, Scandal, Critics, TV IS THE NEW CINEMA, TV, TV Reviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.