The question that New York Times writer A.O. Scott recently posed, “Are Films Bad, Or is TV Just Better?” is one that has been thrown around over and over again in the last decade. Now that television has ostensibly reached its second major creative peak (the first, in hindsight, being the era of All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show), movies are taking a crowded backseat in the pop culture zeitgeist to the folks writing for the small screen.
But who even really calls it the small screen anymore? Once dubbed that moniker for reasons derisive as well as physical, the budgets have now risen, as one episode of Lost and Mad Men can behold, the comedy has become quirkier and more daring—thank you, Tina Fey and the writers of Arrested Development—and it all translates to a fascinating changing of the guard. No longer is television the Island of Misfit Toys where dwindling movie stars are cast away and their careers left for dead; now television is the place to be, for some even, the place to end up, because in the grand scheme of things, the monetary stakes are lower than in film and the opportunity for great returns in both fanfare and critical acclaim is much grander.
Scott is certainly right to worry about the movies’ ability to create for us, if only for a fleeting moment in the august history of this country, a sense of mutual excitement, a feeling that everyone in the nation is talking about and experiencing the same thing. Avatar and Inception had their moment, and the Harry Potter franchise seems to reach across all demographics, but those examples are sparse and far between. Even though Lost is now gone, you can still presumably talk with a stranger on the street about the return of Glee and last week’s episode of Mad Men. And despite being off the air for two years now, The Wire can still incite feverish discussion about its multifarious cast of characters.
Going beyond Scott’s positing that television has become more daring and film more formulaic, one could assess that part of the problem also lies in our culture’s aggressively quick attention span. Mainstream movies nowadays rarely see a major run in theatres that lasts more than a couple of months. Their marketing plan tends to be to get in there, do as much business as possible and then get out of there. Executives don’t seem to expect anything good to happen beyond the first two weekends of its release. And audiences may clamor to see said film initially, but once that has occurred, it’s on to the next one; building a cultural phenomenon by word of mouth in the film world is all but extinct as the movies have nothing exciting going for them.
Television is a little different; because show creators and casts feel like they are forever on the chopping block (they recognize how easily fans can change the channel), the risks they take are bolder. And even if one misses an entire season of a popular show like Modern Family, they can catch up with it after the fact online or through reruns and there will still be people willing and excited to talk about it (and it doesn’t hurt that it will be back this season). The evolution of the serial format gives it a more lasting shelf life. That is why a newcomer to The Wire can gush with other fans in delight and why someone who just saw The Dark Knight yesterday may be met with a “Where have you been? That happened years ago.”
Going to the movies and paying a pretty penny for something that is not a sure bet is just not appealing anymore—television is right there and everywhere at once and can be sampled or indulged at virtually any time and place. The shorter lengths of the episodes make it easier and less time-consuming to watch repeatedly. And now that our televisions have become wider, crisper, and overall more cinematic, if we miss that latest flick that Rolling Stone supposedly raved about according to the promo, we can always just catch it on demand or on cable a few months later—on the “small screen.”