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

Television
by David Chute
December 3, 2013 3:48 PM
3 Comments
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Kerry Washington in "Scandal" ABC

"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'

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.

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'

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."

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3 Comments

  • Ted | December 3, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    We have quality television right now. Everyone is fine and interesting, but nothing is challenging - artistically, thematically, narratively etc. This largely has to do with the format of television and the demands of satisfying a wide audience, whereas cinema mustn't meet those challenges. Plus, I'd add, I don't think any creative mind is intelligent enough to sustain itself for such durations in a single creative universe. Perhaps Balzac came the closest with his La Comedie Humaine series.

    But, really, I don't know why we debate this "Is TV the new cinema?" or "Has television eclipsed cinema?" etc. The answers are obviously no. Is there a television show (and don't be cute and count Bergman's miniseries') that could rival anything done by Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer, Mizoguchi, Cassavetes, Bergman, Chaplin, Akerman, Godard etc etc etc … . The answer is obviously no. I'd take a second-rate Bresson over a first-rate HBO show any day, and that's not even a contest. Now, I'm not sure what films and directors of today we will be marveling over and discussing 50 years from now (though I have some ideas), but I'm damn sure nobody will give a crap about Scandal, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland …

  • DavidC | December 3, 2013 6:16 PM

    I'd suggest, as Nussbaum does, that "Rectify" and "Top of the Lake" are closer to auteur/art cinema than the high profile crime and fantasy shows. So if you don't respond to the lengthy novelist complexity that many see as the great strength of premium TV, maybe those shows will please you more.

  • parsybe | December 3, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    There isn't any formal innovation in TV. You'd be better off watching any single Peyton Reed movies than a season of any show on AMC. You'd save a helluva lot of time too.

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