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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?

'House of Cards'

As far as the debunking of myths and institutions goes, Netflix's "House of Cards" does an exemplary job in delineating the callous nature of institutional politics. Devoid of any progressive pretence, "House of Cards" details in unnerving details the very dark and cynical matter of political intrigues in the corridors of power. An intention perhaps best exemplified by the series' very opening sequence, a speeding SUV running over a dog; a rather powerful allegory of the modern rule of democracy. Though entirely fictional, the series strikes as extremely plausible and realistically accurate. One would be hard pressed to find a similar depiction of power on the pages of the national newspapers or in the news.

Equally hard-pressed one would be to see such a nuanced reflection on the ethical implications of capital punishment as the one Sundance Channel's "Rectify" is delivering. Once again, challenging and surpassing the calculative and mediocre tones of the "public opinion," "Rectify" unflinchingly stages the cruelty of justice without offering readymade sides to conveniently pick. It probes the darkest depths of institutional vengeance by positing crucial ethical questions before and beyond "innocence." Quite a leap forward from the Hollywood tales of god versus evil or the lynching mob antics the mainstream press often joins.

Damian Lewis in 'Homeland' Kent Smith/Showtime
Shows like "Homeland" or "The Americans" instead display an uncommon willingness to take a look at the humanity and possible reasons of America's "enemies." Quality TV in general seems to be reacting to a changing social and political landscape where blind trust in institutions is dissolving, where more and more families are struggling financially. A situation where the American way of life is no longer granting wealth to the middle classes and a cancer can suddenly undermine the very economic and moral sustainability of a family.

When the distinction between work and leisure blurs, so does the one between entertainment and critical thought. The need to serialize, typical of a consumer-industrial society, is met in the new television series by the need to criticize the very effects of that same society. A global, mass cultural phenomenon like "The Wire" represents one of the harshest indictments of American society and its structural injustices. David Simon himself recently observed on his blog that "We have given our democratic birthright over to capital itself. Capital has succeeded in buying the remnants of democracy at wholesale prices, so that profit can always be maximized and any other societal need or priority can be ignored."

That such a radical statement comes from the creator of a commercially successful television drama indicates TV as a potential site for critical elaboration. Cinema too can and does do that, with two crucial differences though. Its resonance among audiences cannot be compared with TV any longer (one of last year's best films, "The Master," did not even break even at the box office...). And, most interestingly, TV series come without the snobby aura that general audiences associate with art cinema. They in fact collapse the contraposition between creativity and commerce, quality and quantity, spirituality and materialism, knowledge and ignorance that have historically parted "high" from "low" cinema.

Most interestingly, TV series come without the snobby aura that general audiences associate with art cinema.
Pay TV, unlike traditional broadcasters, does not look for the lowest common denominator but provides instead different products for different niches. So instead of levelling down the public sensibility in order to satisfy the larger viewership possible, pay TV cultivates specificities. The characteristics of a standardized and genre-driven cultural product turned out to be incentives rather than limitations for their creators. Engaging, thought-provoking stories with a commercial soul whose creators conceived by merging authorial ambitions with design, ideas with tools, creativity with repetition. TV, not independent cinema, figures undisputedly show, is what is attracting more and more talent at the moment.

If for decades television had constituted a site of cultural homologation, contemporary TV series possess instead a rather penetrating, if not openly confrontational, edge. The healthy DVD and VOD market share that TV series enjoy is proof that spectators feel the need to return and analyze what they've seen already. TV series are similar to books in this respect, something you study in search of new meanings and angles. Thoughtful reflection, amply demonstrated by the amount of discussion TV series generate, calls into question the immediate, neurotic consumption that drives consumerism. The emotional stammering that precludes durable relations, the indeterminacy of an uncertain future requires a rigorous analysis, the kind of long-term planning that TV series exemplify. They offer meaning and direction in the deluge of random information stifling our cultural landscape.

Conformist, passive and disengaged was the traditional spectator -- proactive, inquiring and interventionist is the new spectator. Television series audiences do not want to be merely entertained, they want to be involved. TV came of age when it stopped being a disseminator of news and culture and started producing its own culture, very much like cinema. From a grey box emanating a feeble light swallowing any possible meaning, TV became a public arena where society's subconscious can not only be screened and interpreted but perhaps, also changed.

Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an "open reputation" informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. Read more at the Celluloid Liberation Front blog.

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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.