James Wolcott kicked the hornet’s nest, and now the bees won’t stop buzzing. His article on why television has surpassed film as the dominant visual medium in popular culture sparked a huge debate on social media and numerous online rebuttals — including one on this very blog. The latest response comes from Mark Olsen at The Los Angeles Times who offers a perspective “In Defense of Movies.” Though TV hogs all the attention these days, Olsen maintains that film is still the place for truly memorable art. He finds that television reduces everything to “relatively indistinguishable” products. Lynn Shelton’s movies don’t look anything like David Wain’s, he notes, yet their recent episodes of “The New Girl” were practically identical, “with the personal, defining characteristics of their films steamed out by the smooth machinery of television production.”
While Wolcott — and most television lovers — argue that the length and size of a TV story offer the medium a degree of depth and character development that film can rarely match, Olsen notes that the structure of ongoing serialized television offers a major drawback as well:
“Movies end, even obliquely, while television shows are specifically designed to go on and on, giving movies a satisfying narrative compactness and resolution that television can rarely match. The emotional gut-punch of a film such as the recent British thriller ‘Kill List’ gains its power in part because when it’s over, that’s it, audiences are left reeling to grasp for themselves the death blow of the film’s moral sinkhole and sort through their own feelings without the cushion of more to come.”
Olsen’s comments here reminded me of a column I’d just read in Entertainment Weekly by Mark Harris (which doesn’t appear to be available online; it’s in the Summer Movie Preview issue with “The Dark Knight Rises” on the cover) called “TV’s Crash-and-Burn Problem.” Harris doesn’t once mention films or the debate between film and television, but his article reads like a subliminal defense of Olsen’s argument. It opens by quoting Aaron Sorkin, Oscar winning writer of “The Social Network” and creator of numerous television shows including the upcoming “The Newsroom.” “TV,” Sorkin says, is “all middle.” Harris brought up Sorkin’s comments as a means of critiquing a bunch of new midseason dramas — “Missing,” “Awake,” “Touch” — that kicked off with strong, hooky pilots and quickly settled into repetitive middles.
The problem with a show like “Missing” — about a woman (Ashley Judd) searching for her kidnapped son — is you know that barring a major show-redefining twist (“Aliens took him! And there’s David Duchovny!”), Judd will never find him. You could watch six hours of Ashley Judd looking for this guy, and at the end of six hours she might be no closer than she was at the start. On the other hand, there’s very little chance you could watch “Taken” without Liam Neeson finding his missing daughter and also killing three hundred angry European guys in the process. This was often a problem on “24” as well. Jack Bauer saved the world twenty-four episodes at a time, and not a moment sooner.
I love film and television. I’m not ready to say one is better or worse than the other, nor do I want to have to choose between them. But reading Olsen and Harris’ pieces has me reflecting on the show I’m watching right now, NBC and DirecTV’s “Friday Night Lights.” It’s the story of a high school football team in a small town in Texas. The show ran for five seasons, a year longer than anyone stays in high school, which meant the cast that appears in the final episodes looks very different than the one that appears in the first episodes. As long as a character remained on the show, they were caught in the proverbial middle — they might resolve a long-standing feud with a teammate in one scene and get dumped by a girlfriend in the next. Almost everyone that left the show got a happy ending to go with their goodbye. The one original member of the football team who stuck around longer than the rest? He wound up in jail; a literal prison sentence that also represents the plight of characters like him.
Television puts us into a weird relationship with characters on shows like “Friday Night Lights.” Over the course of dozens of episodes, we can’t help fall in love with people like Matt Saracen or Smash Williams. But our love keeps them on the show, and as long as they’re on the show, the structure of television’s endless middle means they can never truly succeed. So we root for these guys all the while knowing in the back of our minds that the only real resolution comes when they ride off into the sunset. Sometimes that makes television suspenseful. Other times, it makes it frustrating.
“Friday Night Lights” is an interesting example for the film versus television debate because it’s appeared in both formats: the 2006 TV series was created by Peter Berg, who also directed the 2004 film version. If I had to pick one over the other, I’d choose TV “FNL” for all the reasons that Wolcott outlined: it’s bigger, deeper, and more complex. The subject matter — the way a football team defines a community, and vice versa — was better suited to a 75 hour televisual exploration than a 2 hour cinematic snapshot. But the “Friday Night Lights” film has its advantages too: bigger budget, better production values, a very strong cast, and a more compact, streamlined narrative. The lesson? Play to your medium’s strengths.