What Is It About TV These Days?

With the advent of binge-watching one wonders, has television defeated cinema?

A few months ago, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas put out doomsday-esque statements about the end of movies as we know them. Spielberg, almost ironically, talked about the end of the blockbuster. Budgets are too high, investments too risky, audiences too spread out or bored with the product. Film will continue on some level, no doubt – there are plenty of stories that can be told in two hours, with or without giant robots – but the idea of viewed entertainment is changing. And it’s television’s fault. Because television is better than movies, these days.

TV’s ascent has been a long time coming. Film studios were worried about television stealing their audience back in 1948. They went as far as to prohibit their movies from being shown on the small screen (until they realized they could make more money, doing that), coming up with ideas ranging from Cinemascope to the Tingler to keep patrons in dark theaters instead of dark living rooms. Eventually, the movie studios and television stations combined to become multimedia conglomerates, and while television provided a welcome distraction from the everyday, it could never compete with the production values, artistry, and event status of movies.

In 1998 HBO, known primarily for showing movies, debuted The Sopranos and television changed. The Sopranos was not only meant to compete with network television series but convince the network audiences to pay extra for HBO. To do that it had to provide an experience that competed with the movies. It not only had to look like a movie but feel like a movie. And because it was a series, it needed to sustain itself for more than two hours. It needed deep characters and great writing to suck audiences it and continue to pay for the privilege of watching the show.

The Sopranos was followed by Oz, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under. FX soon debuted The Shield and Nip/Tuck. Other cable and pay networks followed suit. DVDs offered the opportunity for marathon viewings, and the advent of Netflix and internet streaming has only made that easier.

So why TV instead of movies? Actually, can what we’re watching even be called just “TV”, anymore? Serialized Dramas? Netflix lists its own series under “Television Shows” so I guess we’ll stick with that. It’s an interesting nomenclature that is apt to change over the next few years, becoming tied to the structure instead of the medium. Webseries, despite a couple getting interest from Hollywood, and a few featuring name stars like Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Stiles, are still largely viewed as being the realm of amateur filmmakers and are forced to share retail space with YouTube clips of cats and babies. Can it still be called television if there’s no network? Or even no actual, physical television?

However we classify it, it all comes down to the characters. Committing to a series involves watching dozens of episodes, dozens of hours of content. To do this, a show needs deep characters. On some level, we can relate to them, but on others, they must remain a mystery. They can’t be predictable, but they can’t be total enigmas, either.

Today’s TV characters embody certain elements that we both admire and despise. The Tony Sopranos, Vic Mackeys, Walter Whites, and Don Drapers of contemporary series provide both interesting contrasts and insights into our own lives. Let’s face it, most of us lead normal lives but want to lead extraordinary lives. These men (and it does seem to be mostly men) appear, simply by their presence on the screen, to lead extraordinary lives despite their struggle to maintain ordinary facades. This struggle between the ordinary and extraordinary, between reality and drama is what sucks us in initially.

As a good series progresses, and we continue to watch and keep watching and waste a weekend, we become more invested in the characters rooting for and against them, wondering how they will get out of this bind or whether their relationship will fall apart, or… well who knows what. We spend enough time with these characters that, while we may want to see a happy ending, we won’t stop watching if something bad happens. As long as it’s true to the characters and the show.

This is where movies begin to run into a problem. Two hours has long been the standard running time for films, while television shows often have 12 hours or more to tell their story. In that two hours slot for films, a writer and director have to establish the film’s world, the main characters and their relationships, in addition to introducing plot points and explosions. Something has to give, and it’s usually the relationship between characters and audience. I’ve come to learn that if I’m not invested in the characters, I don’t care about the story.

The Hulk smashing aliens to a pulp is great to watch, but the two hours preceding that point never got me to believe that any of those egotistical heroes are in grave danger and wouldn’t get the job done. However, almost in spite of self-satirization, Iron Man 3 (perhaps just by focusing on one character, and giving that character a lot to work with) provided some intense moments before it devolved into the endless-punching-explosions of the finalé. Long run times are often a detriment to box offices (and induce audience rumblings–despite them marathoning eight episodes of InBetweeners), and the extra run-time doesn’t always make the characters or stories any more interesting or engaging.

Explosions, while awesome, give essentially the same thrill no matter the screen. Action only holds one’s interest for so long, and right now the spectacle seems to be the major thing Hollywood is selling its blockbusters on – and after looking at some of this summer’s returns, they aren’t always selling. The structure of the typical movie follows its lead characters through a well-worn, three-act trek that sees the hero rise and fall only to rise again. While this formula has been used to tell some great stories, it’s far too limiting in its service to the mechanics of plot rather than character. Series, by nature of their drawn-out form, move beyond this – and it makes watching them all the more engaging.

Following the protagonist from A to B to C in a movie takes two hours. Everything, for the most part, should be neatly wrapped up because the movie is (usually) an independent piece of work. A large amount of the secondary and all of the ancillary characters are there in service of the plot. They represent one force or another that tries to facilitate or inhibit the protagonist’s inner and outer goals.

However, in a series, these characters have an opportunity for their own storylines. Series have the ability to let elements unfold slowly, like a well-structured novel. Layers of character and plot often reveal themselves instead of being forced out by the needs of the run time and story. This fleshes out the world of the story, allowing us to get into the lives of these characters, further understanding their motivations and relationships. We learn about characters’ home lives, their past, what they do when they leave the office or aren’t;t saving the world. After 50 years, does anyone know what James Bond does on a Sunday afternoon? There’s no time to learn this over the course of the movie. Forward movement comes at the expense of texture, resonance, and ambiguity.

In Mad Men, we are able to engage with the otherwise impenetrable Don Draper because we know about his past, how he acts differently at home, with his mistresses, or in a meeting with a client. The limited scope of plot-driven movies rarely allows for such a detailed rendering of a character. On the other hand, would anyone want to watch the slow decline of an ad executive without all the side characters?

By creating a richer, more in-depth environment, we are allowed to sink into the program and draw from a deeper involvement as we approach them with our own world views and social mores, which becomes that much more personal. Through time and experience, we become invested in these characters and their fates. It’s that investment that separates contemporary shows from their filmic counterparts and television of the past. There are times when I want to turn my mind off from my life and sink into this other world.

Getting back to the idea of structure, most mainstream movies attempt some sort of conclusion at the end of their running time. A hero (if he is, in fact, a hero) may sink further and further into the depths of despair or the evils of the underworld, but will ultimately pull free. This is rarely the case with contemporary series.

First, today’s television series rarely have heroes, anymore. Even the white-hatted cowboy has his hidden past. Not only does this make characters more complex, blurring the line between good and evil, but it also offers the idea that there is no neat resolution. The episode may end in five minutes, but the storyline will continue over the course of the next episode or season. Characters can get sucked down the drain and stay there.

On Breaking Bad, for example, Walt’s dealings with the meth trade have brought to the forefront his bitterness need for control. He’s seized the type of authority many of us wish we had, yet he’s also involved in a situation we’re happy not to be in. It’s clear that, even if he can get away with living his criminal life, his character, his person, has become nearly irredeemable in the process. Mad Men started at the beginning of the ’60s when Don was riding high as a star of Madison Avenue. Given the events of last season, it’s not hard to see the decade closing down upon him.

This ability to not wrap things up neatly means television or serialized dramas (and comedies and dramedies and comedramas) can take us in any direction (that reasonably fits with the characters). It leaves us with not just a “What will they think of next?” feeling. It’s not merely that we can’t always predict what will happen next. No, the real draw is watching the characters make choices. A character can be utterly reprehensible, but given the opportunity to engage with him/her (or in comparison with another character) to the degree that television allows, the audience may become more understanding.

A character can be both hero and villain, playing in a grey area that allows the audience to root for them or against them dependent on the actions of other characters. The Shield does this incredibly well over the course of its run. From the start, we know that Vic is willing to do anything to protect his crew, and himself. Shane is his right-hand man, always there for him. In a way, he looks up to Vic but is even more of a loose cannon.

After the shock of the initial episode, we slowly begin to appreciate Vic more when compared to the more dangerous Shane. When Shane commits an unspeakable crime, offing one of his own team, we want to see Vic get revenge. But, as Vic comes closer to getting revenge, Shane has had his own turn and tries to seek some manner of non-religious salvation.

As these two ride along the labored path to an inevitable showdown, our initial conceptions of the characters change. This is an example of creating active viewing, by asking the audience to constantly think about and reassess the meaning and relative morality of the characters’ actions. In turn, we reevaluate the notion of heroes and villains, cops and criminals, as a whole.

So, has television finally defeated cinema? The concept of traditional television will likely fade away far earlier than movies. That said, the appeal of today’s top series amongst viewers may change the way that movies are made. And there’s no reason a film and a series can’t exist side by side in today’s culture. Who’s to say they should be defined separately at all? New forms of visual expression are constantly emerging. And as long as they maintain their quality, and create great characters, they will stay interesting in the name of entertainment. I’ll be watching.