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by Celluloid Liberation Front
May 17, 2013 10:31 AM
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Telephilia: Has Television Become a More Relevant American Medium Than Art Film?

Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston Lewis Jacobs/AMC

"Television is a formidable thinking tool. You are like an analyst to whom society's subconscious would be offered wide open…" --Serge Daney

Every medium stimulates and meets the sensibility of an audience as well as, impacting its orientation, political and otherwise. Television has been historically associated with distracted cultural consumption, a medium more suited to influence viewers rather than make them think. While the written word allowed for deeper reflections and articulated, complex thoughts, TV had to rely on the superficiality of spectacular images to attract viewers' attention. Cinema somehow bridges these two realms by constituting an art form that is both entertaining and enlightening.

As the 21st century started rolling, both cinema and the press started experiencing a paradigm-shifting, economic and existential crisis fuelled by the availability of free content on the internet. In the bid to preserve their traction, both cinema and editorial products lowered their standards, capitulating to the cult of celebrity and the plague of gossip. Fearful of alienating shrinking, largely "gate-crashing" audiences, as well as admittedly being unable to finance bolder endeavours, they both opted for blander content.

Audiences, despite what most people seemed to be so sure about, were apparently willing to chip in for challenging cultural products.
As tabloids and blockbusters appeared to be the only financially viable forms of infotainment, television, disputing its unsavoury reputation, began offering quality, informative and pay-for entertainment. Audiences, despite what most people seemed to be so sure about, were apparently willing to chip in for challenging cultural products. It is significant in this respect that the creator of one of the first quality TV series, David Simon of "The Wire," is a former investigative journalist who translated his craft from paper to ether. What had once been the prerogative of investigative journalism became a televisual possibility. Writing, not directing or acting, is the leading skill.

Not that television had never produced high-end series before Tony Soprano decided to confess his insecurities to a psychoanalyst, but the HBO-launched tTV renaissance presents unique features. Quality TV prior to "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" had mainly been the creation of established directors lending their lenses to the now defunct cathode-ray tube (Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz," Lynch's "Twin Peaks," Von Trier's "The Kingdom," etc.) There had of course been honourable exceptions, like Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner," but the new televisual wave featured no big names either in front or behind the camera. At a time when only star value seemed the only bankable asset in the film industry, TV proved the exact contrary, and successfully so. The writer/creator supplanted the director, Hollywood stars made way for ensemble casts mostly composed by relatively unknown actors.

Choral narratives challenged the individualist aspects of modern life and cinema. Society, as opposed to individuals, took the center stage after 30 years of cultural exile. Reality TV had represented the apex of a television genre and a societal tendency inwardly projected toward the personal dimension of life. A close and morbid relation with the spectator whereby gossip as opposed to current affairs represented our veritable bond with "reality." A type of televisual show whose very subject was not "the world" but the "I" deprived of any idea(l)s or principles, the terminal stage of the narcissistic process that began in the '80s. On the ashes of reality shows, the new TV series emerged. Emotionality and impulsive identification, which characterized reality TV, have been challenged by the rational elaboration and discerning understanding that new series require.

'The Wire' HBO
At a time of economic and social crisis, critical thought became once again a necessity that American television series managed to articulate where art cinema, with its clearly European ascendant, failed. Crisis and critique, after all, share the same etymological root; crisis can sometimes usher renewals. Not that arthouse cinema hasn't produced any remarkable film in the past decade, but it certainly lacked the cogency with which TV series relates to the present and its most pressing issues. As art cinema retreated into the solipsistic dimension of privileged lives, TV delved in and reconnected to the public sphere of common concerns. While television had, throughout its history, presented facts as "inevitable" and "neutral," today's TV series pierce the surface of reality to expose its inner workings.

A series like "The Wire," for instance, in clear opposition to the Hollywood morality, explored the socio-economic roots of "evil" to expose the relativity of "good." By adopting the stylistic conventions of the "cop show," David Simon subverted its core by dissecting with almost Marxist rigour the structural malfunctions of American society circa the '00s. "Breaking Bad" took the quintessential protagonist of sit-coms, the middle class American family, and literally dissected it in its every aspect. Money and lack thereof, lies and manipulation are the elements keeping the American family together in post-collapse America. Love, mutual understanding and harmony all belong to a tele-fictional past.

Vince Gilligan's creation combines noir elements with a mounting, Shakespearian narrative progression embroiled into a crystalline clockwork plot where everything matches and falls into pieces at the same time. A multi-seasonal narrative arch fully exploiting the temporal possibility of serial storytelling supplants the old episodic structure of traditional TV series. Aesthetically, "Breaking Bad" rivals the finest cinematography. From the acid green and sand yellow of the first two seasons to the sun-setting tones of season three. From the blood dark red of season four to the livid blue of the last season, constantly measured against the crystal blue of the purest meth, the cinematography in "Breaking Bad" is an integral part of the narrative.

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  • - | June 1, 2013 5:23 PMReply

    I would say that this happened quite a while ago. In the late 90's-early 00's, we had both The Sopranos and The West Wing running at the same time while both shows were at their best, then in the mid-00's we had The Wire and Deadwood, with a few slightly diminished but still very good seasons of The Sopranos, and now we have Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Whereas the last great (I use the word 'great' to mean 'one of the best ever') film in my eyes was There Will Be Blood, which was almost 6 years ago.

  • Sid | May 23, 2013 11:29 AMReply

    Honestly, I understand what you are trying to say but I think you were trying too hard to sound intellectual. You could have written the piece a little more simply and conversational in tone to make reading it a bit more enjoyable. Your analysis of the topic would have convinced me; not the complexity of your sentences.

  • Cinephobe | May 17, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    "It is significant in this respect that the creator of one of the first quality TV series, David Simon..." Wut.

  • Gpatrol | May 17, 2013 7:08 PMReply

    One format that has survived like a roach is the TV sitcom. It's still being watched often and can be selective. "Two and a half Men" is for a different crowd than "George Lopez" and "Big bang Theory". I think we like the 30 minute show because we can get around the commercials easier.

  • Anon | May 17, 2013 5:42 PMReply

    The short answer: hell no.
    Of course there are quite a few great TV shows out right now but the vast majority of TV is still terrible. I'm not saying that there aren't tons of shitty films too but at least with cinema there is a strong community of people willing to make films for little to no money just because they want to make something personal, artistic, creative, intelligent, important, etc. TV is pretty much always commercial. And on top of that, even the best TV are shows rarely on par or better than the best films.

  • Anonymous | May 17, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    I was excited by the headline because, as a cinephile, I lament how well-crafted, serious cinema has lost some cultural energy relative to writer-driven, episodic television series. But this article is pretentious and awkwardly written -- couldn't make it to the end.

  • Edward Copeland | May 17, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    As a lifelong film buff who always looked to television as a diversion, it took me a while to admit that we have entered the age of television superiority to the motion picture medium. I don't think relevance is the correct word when comparing the two forms, but it has been clear for some time that television produces (on a percentage basis) far more quality programs in relations to the crap it still churns out than film does. Each year, I find fewer and fewer movies that capture my imagination because the explosion of outlets for TV allows for risktaking that the film industry refuses to take. Most of the best movies I still stumble across either come from abroad or are documentaries. Major films that impress are few and far between and even a large number of U.S. independent films have slipped into a formulaic groove. Movie studios and broadcast networks almost seem to be twin brothers at this point, scared to death of taking chances. When I discover great American films, they tend to be older ones that I just haven't had the chance to see before. When it comes to cable TV, there are too many shows that I simply haven't had the time to sample all the ones about which I've heard good things.

  • parsyeb | May 19, 2013 9:44 AM

    "The age of television superiority" might be true for mainstream material that you can talk about at cocktail parties, but I'm still learning a hell of a lot more about the world from film than I am from TV. The only thing I can say to someone who says that television is where it's at is that they need to get serious about life and watch more movies (from abroad as well as the US). In a given week, you can see 7 great new films without too much hassle if you pick them out carefully.

  • Rania | May 17, 2013 11:34 AMReply

    Good piece.

  • mxmx | May 17, 2013 10:52 AMReply

    the thing is, that tv is always a money and viewer driven experience. a show has to gather the biggest possible audience with a plot that appeals to said audience. an art film can be produced independently, targeted at an audience that's very interested in the subject and the art it's trying to convey. a tv show can't do that. there are no independent tv shows that have the freedom to tell stories like movies do. maybe in the next 10 years we'll see digitally distributed shows that can be produced without a huge budget and target a niche audience, but not right now. everything we're currently getting is a half-edgy production that's very suspense and glossy, so we'll eat it up fast enough so we can have the next bite. there's no reflection, it's just fast food.

  • parsyeb | May 17, 2013 10:42 AMReply

    Did we actually decide that the cinema hasn't said all of what's been said above, but BETTER, with matters of FORM that TV shows, even quality TV shows, aren't interested in? For me, the best episode of Mad Men or The Sopranos might as well have been directed by the crassest of directors (Christopher Nolan or someone of that ilk). Anyone who cares about the image should be concerned about these developments.