Monday, January 6, 2014

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Television

Once upon a time, cinema was the grand adventure. It was where the pinnacle of storytelling, technology, acting, cinematography, music and craftsmanship all collided to provide an experience unlike any other. Cinema has a rich and glorious history around the world and in my opinion is one of the best lenses into any culture. I grew up with a deeply ingrained appreciation for film and as I got older, my palette widened and I found myself finding excellent films in genres that I never would have considered as a younger man. Cinema truly has something for everyone. Or at least, it used to.

Conversely, television was born as a medium for advertising. It was built to circumvent everything that was good about cinema. It lacked deep narrative, its characters were intentionally milquetoast, its sensibilities as broad and as flat as possible so as to reach a maximum number of viewers. It was small snippets of storytelling broken up by commercial breaks and overlaid with laugh tracks. Television was designed to pacify and mollify. Television truly was made for everyone. Or at least, it used to be.

Every new year I used to write up a list of all the films that I'd watched the previous year. Not just new films but anything that was new to me, anything I'd missed along the way. I always shot for 100 films per year. Only two per week. Not a lofty goal, but a fun one. Over the last couple of years though, I noticed a disturbing trend. I was having a harder time hitting that 100 mark because more of my 'screen' time was being consumed by television.

So, I'm going to say something pretty bold here. Television is now better than cinema. What I mean by better is that it has become a richer medium, with better storytelling and more artistic value. That's not to say there aren't fine movies out there. For popcorn style thrills, I was very pleased this summer with Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim. And to be certain, there have been some great smaller budget films: Byzantium, The Way Way back, Europa Report. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the spectacular Gravity.

But on the flip side television over the last few years has gone leaps and bounds past cinema. It's given us incredible imagery, amazing dialogue, unforgettable characters and has moved our culture in ways that used to be reserved for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

How many of those images do you all recognize instantly? Even if you haven't seen the show? How many of those characters have we all laughed with and cried over and loved? I grew up on 80s television and I remember the biggest moments. Who shot JR? Will Fonzie make the jump over the shark? They said the word 'crap' on television! Mister Rourke was an angel all along! Those days are long gone and may they never return.

I still love cinema, but this year, instead of talking about the high and low points of my movie going experience for 2013, I'm going to just say that for me, television became more enjoyable. The last couple of years might have been a draw, but in 2013, television was the clear winner.

Besides the shows above, which were among my favorites (Downton Abbey, Orange is the New Black, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and American Horror Story in case you somehow didn't know), The other standouts for me were:

Orphan Black (from BBC Canada)
An amazingly well acted show about a woman who discovers she has clones living out in the world. Just excellent.

Justified (from FX)

Timothy Olyphant as a marshall in modern day Kentucky, created by Elmore Leonard. Gritty, wry and fun.

Luther (BBC)

Idris Elba as a London detective with real anger issues. Brilliantly written and acted. And damn. Idris Elba!

Person of Interest (CBS)

This could have been just a 'bad guy of the week' show. Instead it's turned into a fascinating series about privacy, artificial intelligence, surveillance, morality and atonement.

The way I see it, there are two reasons for the the flip flop between film and television. One is that somewhere along the line (probably on some random Tuesday between the release of Star Wars and Ishtar), accountants became more powerful than directors. The idea of a blockbuster consumed Hollywood and they embraced only safe films that would guarantee a return on investment.

At the same time, cable stations and streaming services were fighting for viewers attention and were able to gamble on less traditional programming. Go back and watch a little bit of Queer as Folk or Six Feet Under and think about the fact that those programs are more than a decade old. There were some visionary execs at Showtime and HBO at that time and the success of those shows heralded a huge change.

Marshall Mcluhan famously said, 'the medium is the message'. What I take from that and from what I see going on in film and television now is that the audience wants to feel connected to their characters, as they always have. If Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox hanging out with rapping robots on the big screen doesn't do it for us, then we turn to a medium that can provide what we're longing for. So, I've decided to stop worrying and love television.


Annabella said...

I wholeheartedly agree. I can name every character of every series in the picture collage but have yet to watch any of the 4 other series you listed after. I contemplated Luther last weekend after I watched (binged all in two days) the current modern day BBC Sherlock episodes. On to Luther, shall I go. Then Orphan Black... sounds amazing! How far are you into Sons?

Connor Alexander said...

We just caught up on Sons. The season finale this year was brutal! I would have included Sherlock if there'd been any episodes in '13. That show is incredible and if you like Sherlock, you'll love Luther. I also recommend The Fall which is available on Netflix.