Please Stop Comparing Movies to Television

By  · Published on April 5th, 2012

When I was at college, I took a course called Legislative Processes and Procedures that met in a small, sterile room and took up an hour a day, three days a week in order to exhaustively cover the differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate. Riveting stuff, but the real crime going on was that the class stretched an entire semester out of a very simple fact: the House and Senate are just built differently, so they do things differently.

Yet, it’s easy to compare the two. They work down the street from each other, have similar jobs and they even look the same. So it is with television shows and movies.

Unfortunately, it appears to make more sense to compare film to TV than it does film to, say, vacuuming equipment, but you’d get just about as far doing one as you would the other. It’s sexy, and it seems relevant, but comparing movies and television shows is pointless.

Over at Indie Wire, Allison Willmore is the latest to chronicle the differences between TV and film as a means to show (at least in one way) how one is superior to the other. Call it protectionism over my old friend the moving picture, but it all just seems a bit absurd. The two mediums are structurally different, which gives them both advantages and disadvantages. TV gets more time to flesh out characters, but that doesn’t mean a good movie can’t present complex people to care about. Film is often larger in scope, but that doesn’t mean a TV show can’t take our imaginations to new places. Diagnosing an entire world with A.D.D. does not mean the 22-minute sitcom is better than the 2-hour feature.

Not that Willmore does that. She deftly sums up other writers’ opinions then pivots to show wisdom by scoffing at the TV versus film debate. However, she also gives special attention to the recent Vanity Fair piece, “Prime Time’s Graduation” by James Wolcott. She finds herself aligning in that “…there is one point on which I wholeheartedly agree with Wolcott that TV holds the advantage, and that’s in terms of its uniting post-viewing conversation. As he describes film, ‘Arty entries may accrue a cult status over time that collects more disciples into the fold, but they lose the catalytic moment to set the culture humming.’”

As someone with a twitter feed that lights up every five seconds with movie news and opinions right down to the smallest detail, it’s difficult for me to imagine that this is correct, but it makes a certain kind of sense. “Did you see [insert show here] last night?” has become the siren song of whatever office cooler equivalent we’ve decided on now. People love talking about television shows, but that’s not to say movies can’t have the same effect (see: everything Hunger Games), and what’s the raw benefit of short term conversation anyway? Will people still be discussing the nuances of Fat Betty in 10 years (or even a year)? When it comes to playing the long game, there are arguably far more movies that have stayed in the cultural dialogue than television shows.

But again, not to tip the pretend advantage to movies, that’s another structural difference. Television is a younger medium than film; it’s had less time to deliver classics. It’s telling that Wolcott’s Vanity Fair piece uses Jim Parsons from Big Bang Theory in the pose made famous by Dustin Hoffman’s confusedly lustful face in posters for The Graduate ‐ in the same article where Wolcott claims TV is better than film (whatever that means), a photographer is undermining his point by proving the enduring cultural relevance of an iconic movie image.

Wolcott also purrs about people who missed out on the initial popularity of shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead being able to discover them through box sets…as if they can’t also play catch up on movies that have hit the rest of popular culture as hard as a spinning-or-possibly-falling top.

The second-best Ohio-set television series behind The Drew Carey Show.

This thing really gets ridiculous. So ridiculous in fact that it makes seasoned film critics make boldly moronic claims. In a 2010 piece by A.O. Scott titled “Are Films Bad, or Is TV Just Better?” he made the following point to the bleachers:

“Look back over the past decade. How many films have approached the moral complexity and sociological density of “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”? Engaged recent American history with the verve and insight of “Mad Men”? Turned indeterminacy and ambiguity into high entertainment with the conviction of “Lost”? Addressed modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of “Modern Family”? Look at “Glee,” and then try to think of any big-screen teen comedy or musical ‐ or, for that matter, movie set in Ohio ‐ that manages to be so madly satirical with so little mean-spiritedness.

How many films have approached the moral complexity and sociological density of The Sopranos or The Wire? Really? How about Hotel Rwanda or Whale Rider or The Departed or Donnie Darko or A History of Violence or There Will Be Blood or Take Shelter?

The verve and insight of Mad Men? How about Thank You For Smoking or In The Loop or Almost Famous? And, by the way, that last one also meets his intentionally silly “set in Ohio” qualification.

Before dismissing those entries based on taste ‐ even though most of them happened to be highly praised by A.O. Scott himself ‐ it’s not an ability to rattle off responses that invalidates his list of questions. It’s common sense. Scott cannot have been seriously claiming that none of the 5,000 or so movies that came out over a ten-year span could meet the power of Glee. There’s just no way.

Apparently Mr. Scott missed out on Mean Girls. Which was, admittedly, not set in Ohio.

It’s cool right now to point out how great television has gotten. And why not? It’s a writer’s medium, and the writers are currently taking more risks and getting more rewards at a time when the studio system (but not nearly all filmmakers) are holding tight to insecurities and playing it as safe as possible. It’s also cool right now to point out how safe and boring the studio system is playing it, how lackluster theaters can feel nowadays.

Comparing television shows to movies is the kind of impossibility that’s easy to do. It belies the fact that “movies” and “television shows” aren’t static things with a million moving parts that enhance and detract from overall quality. Asking if The Wire is better than Children of Men only seems more appropriate than asking if Time Cop is better than Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” but it’s just as useless a question.

These are vibrantly different storytelling mediums, they’ve both produced soaring works that have transformed lives and social landscapes, and they’ve both produced real stinkers (you never see writers extolling the New Golden Age of Television mentioning Work It or The Event). Yes, they share more similarities than a vase and an opera, but they’re still different art forms, and smashing them together is no way to get a result. Neither is superior, and each is only as strong as the people currently making them.

Which means we’ll inevitably revisit this pointless discussion in a few years when TV starts to get dull again and movie studios find their footing. Is TV bad, or are movies just better? Why is everyone talking about The Dark Knight Rises even though Dancing with the Stars was on last night? Which is better, the Senate or The House?

So instead of revisiting this pointless discussion soon, can we, please, just not?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.