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Television vs Film: Will TV ever catch up?

There was a time in the 40s through to the early 90s, when young and inexperienced film directors would be given the chance by big film studios to make a movie their own way, without any creative barriers. They were allowed to tamper with the usual structure of plot and characters, and create something with their own unique vision. It was a time when television was not thought as something that could produce heart-wrenching drama of the same quality as movies could. Now, times have changed.  Films are under a strict rule book by Hollywood; it has forced many talented actors, directors and screenwriters to television. This “emigration” has undeniably upped the class of shows, so much so that the “small” screen now seems to be producing “big” screen quality. Which leaves us with one question: has television finally caught up with films?

In those early days of when film was far superior to television, most actors found themselves struggling for work, so to try and get their name out there, they would accept small roles in television series in the hope that it would be a success and a career in film would be just around the corner. Comedies were the usual ones they would start off in – the likes of Morgan Freeman in The Electric Company, to Jennifer Garner in Significant Others, and to Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street, all started off in television. However, this has all changed; famous actors from film are now the ones looking for work in TV series. Just look at last year’s True Detective with Matthew McConaughey, and Woody Harrelson. Fargo with Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and Adam Goldberg; even Hollywood legend, Kevin Spacey has got his own series, House of Cards. Now it’s film actors breaking into TV, but why is this change in motivations happening?

The reason is that in the film business long ago, screenwriters were allowed to tinker with structure and create a style to the film which had never been seen before: it bred the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg, and David Lynch. They all to some degree changed the formula, with films that no longer stuck to the traditional three act structure, and in some cases the main character would change half way through the film. It boosted all their careers, but Hollywood was the main one reaping the rewards. Kubrick was the best example of someone who always, in each of his new films wanted to make something completely different. Just check out this talk he had with Steven Spielberg before he sadly passed away, as Spielberg recollects:

Hollywood for some time welcomed the so called “arthouse” films with open arms. However, with the growing popularity of Marvel and DC comic book movies raking in a lot of money from the likes of China, it has meant that budgets for films have exploded, and along with them, Hollywood’s change of heart towards the big blockbusters that make more of a profit than the smaller, “arthouse” films.

It has given many films these days a formulaic feel, where there are certain guidelines you have to stick by in creating the film so you do not risk upsetting anybody. Films like Taken, Unknown, and Non – Stop all feature Liam Neeson, while he is a great actor, he essentially plays the same character over and over again – a guy who can kill people just by tapping them. Hollywood knows though, that if they stick to making these kinds of films that are popular and make a big profit, then why take risks on films that could fail in the attempt at being more original? This has led many film actors to veer away from film because if they can only get work in big superhero movies or action movies (which do not tend to attract much academy award attention) then they will go and look for something more unique, and television is now the place to find that.

Liam Neeson: kills anyone, anytime.

TV series nowadays are so well written that an award seems more likely for these big stars when the TV scripts are this good. TV writing never used to be considered better than film, so why is it now?

TV companies allow for more risks to be taken with character choices and plot twists. SPOILERS AHEAD. Breaking Bad is a classic example of a character choice which probably wouldn’t have made it into 95% of films nowadays. The scene where Walter White leaves a girl choking on her own vomit from a drug overdose is a darker form of storytelling that leaves the viewer knowing TV has the power to shock. Just look at HBO’s Game of Thrones which feels like it provides a shock an episode where the writers are not afraid to kill off a leading character at any time. However, shock value isn’t the only thing that makes writing great, it’s the rich characters that are all three dimensional. Take for instance, Walter White’s change from quiet and nice science teacher, to a ruthless drug lord.  In films today, it might have had to be the other way around to make the film “safe”.

Another example is True Detective’s Rust Cohle, who is a cynical, sociopath who sees no hope in humanity until and thinks we should stop reproducing. These characters are compelling to watch because they do not necessarily make the right moral choices, they make mistakes, thus being flawed. Films can’t allow for their leading characters to do this much because it may drive some audiences away. However, these kind of villain/hero characters still appear in films, but are unfortunately few and far between, but when they do come around, they are just as memorable.

TV writers are also given more time to explore the depths of their characters, and time to create compelling dialogue for each individual. These TV writers are so great at showing the different parts of the story world; shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, and Twin Peaks are all top examples of shows that make you feel immersed in these worlds by exploring each individual characters life. In effect it leaves no stone unturned. You begin to feel for almost every character; you fear for their life if they are in danger, or care if they’re hurt. It’s just another advantage that TV has over film: time to build up “lesser” characters. It again goes back to what I was saying earlier about actors flocking to TV, but this time I’m talking about the lesser known actors, the ones who are only seen as “character actors” in the movies.

Tony Sirico as Sopranos mobster, Paulie ‘Walnuts’. An actor who got his big chance in the hit HBO series.

When these “character actors” move to television now, they know they will have a chance to prove themselves as actors who are capable of bigger roles. In the recent past with shows like The Shield, some of the supporting characters would get a “spotlight” episode, which means they will have an episode where the plot mainly revolves around their character. It gave a chance to these supporting actors to show off their proper acting chops, and this “spotlight” is in part thanks to the classic series, The Sopranos. The Sopranos was a show about a dysfunctional mafia family, and was one of the first shows for giving each individual character a big plot line that mostly ran through a whole season. Some of the characters would start off as only appearing occasionally in the early seasons, but by the end they were all in main roles, and some went onto land bigger roles in movies.

So, it certainly does seem at the moment that TV is winning on the plot, characters, and dialogue front. However, film is still landing a few punches too.

Film still has the sense of awe when a huge set piece comes off, or you can see your favourite childhood comic book characters come to life on screen in a way that looks remarkably real. Just look at this year’s films, Guardians of the Galaxy and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Both of these have such great work done in the CGI department that you soon realise: only the movies can give you this kind of immersion with sci – fi worlds. TV shows do try to have real looking creatures on screen to, like TNT’s Falling Skies, but it just doesn’t hold up to the summer blockbusters, mainly because of budgets, thus losing a bit of believability.

Falling Skies Alien creature.

Another punch film has landed is that a lot of the time, a screenplays plot has to be tight, and thus rarely having any wasted scenes in the plot. Film can show you the life of one person in just over two hours, but still managing to document every important step in their life. Films like The Curious case of Benjamin Button, and Raging Bull do this very well. These are handled by master storytellers who know exactly how to keep the plot interesting while focusing so intensely on one character. TV can sometimes be guilty of what you might call “filler” scenes. Take for instance, the second half of season 4 in AMC’s The Walking Dead. There was a lot time spent with characters talking about random things like food or just scavenging for supplies without any conflict apart from the odd zombie popping up. Those scenes weren’t necessary, and if they were in a film, they would have been cut in the editing room pretty quickly. I’ll be quick to mention though, that not all shows do this, Breaking Bad was excellent at having every scene matter, but overall, film wins on the sense of pacing of plot.

Now, this is where it comes down to how TV is separating itself from films, they are now both becoming a separate entity. One for the big and louder stories, the other for the deep, philosophical stories, but it’s the advent of social media that is another game changer that separates the two.

Twitter and Facebook allow fans of TV shows to talk and share thoughts on what they might think may happen in each episode, building the sense of anticipation every week. Something films can only do once. However, with every pro, there is a con. This entire internet buzz has allowed many to see the next episode by internet leak, and then they go and post spoilers on the internet, at least with film, that cannot happen too much.

Overall, it is safe to say television has not only caught up, but has past film in the originality department for daring storytelling; even though film will always be the place for the “spectacular.”

In the end, it all comes down to preference. Maybe, one day, TV will be the place for huge budgets and film will be for the directors/screenwriters who want to break into TV, who knows.

Let me know below whether you think TV has finally caught up with film.

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  1. tgruver

    I’d have to agree. You’ll get ten times more TV out of your life than film, and even the best Shawshank Redemptions and Forest Gumps can’t beat Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead’s story arcs. You feel like you get to know a character over a lifetime as opposed to a small snapshot.

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