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Chicagoist Smackdown: TV vs. Movies

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 22, 2007 3:00PM

2007_2smackdown_raw1.jpgA provocative new piece by Devin Gordon in Newsweek sets out to explain why, in his view, TV is better than movies. The way he sees it, TV programming is now "bigger and bolder" than what's on display at the local theater; Hollywood has gotten lazier and more predictable, while TV has become sharper and more agile. Ira Glass claims, "The people working in television right now are the Shakespeares of the medium." (Is he including Mark Burnett?) Local gal Tina Fey actually defends the movie experience, saying, "There's always going to be that excitement where you think, 'Oh, I made a movie! And it's gonna be at a theater! And people will be eating popcorn!' It's just different."

Never one to shy away from a good brawl, we decided to bring Margaret Hicks, our TV writer, and Rob Christopher, our film writer, together for a nice friendly chat on the subject. Under the cut you can watch as they go toe-to-toe, pixel versus celluloid.

Rob: I know recently you posted that basically you love TV in all forms, the good, the bad, everything. The article seems to posit that there's more "worthwhile" stuff on TV these days than at the movies, but don't you think it's really more about the fact that people are able to tolerate more crap than ever before? In other words, more programming = more good stuff but also more crap.

Margaret: I definitely do think there is more crap on TV. And that crap is attractive to a wide range of people. We all like to think that we have taste, but someone out there is watching “The Flavor of Love,” and it ain't me! The thing is, with more choice comes more crap. And more quality. It's a democracy! With more freedom, comes more freedom to be crap.

Rob: You have a point. But I think that what the TV vs. movies debate really comes down to is distribution. Programming on TV is relatively easier to distribute to millions of people at once, and it's cheaper to distribute. Therefore you can have lots of lots of different stuff on the air all the time. The result of that though is that most TV is incredibly disposable. I mean, who's going to want to rewatch last year's "Survivor" in ten years? Movies are harder and more expensive to get out there, but somehow because of that they largely seem to be made for "permanence" (whatever you take that to mean). I think that's why I like movies better.

Margaret: Unfortunately, you're asking the wrong girl about watching “Survivor” over and over, I just watched the first season again. And there are shows like “Buffy” or “Seinfeld” or “Beverly Hills, 90210” that I watch over and over. Maybe I'm divulging too much information! I see what you mean though, and the article referenced that too, that movies still consider themselves "elite," but by trying to remain that way, they're cutting off a large base of people and spending massive amounts of money to do that. I thought what the article said too about movies either being huge blockbusters or indie films is interesting. It's almost like Hollywood is scared to take a chance anymore, but with TV, you can take chances all over the place, its cheaper to make, cheaper to consume and most likely someone somewhere is going to watch.

Rob: Yeah, TV has that "continuing storyline" advantage. You can't really do that in a film. But it can be a straitjacket too. I mean, look at "Lost." It's bleeding viewers like crazy. And it's basically because they painted themselves into a corner with the storyline, and people basically realize that there's no reason for the show except to tease you along; there are no "answers." Whereas in a movie, OK, you only get two hours of screen time. But you can generate that same feeling of mystery and have the movie end ambiguously — as you leave the theater the story is "over," but you keep thinking about it for days afterwards. On TV it always seems like any show's resolution is anticlimactic. Even with the reality shows. The season is over, and it's like poof! Who cares?

Margaret: Interesting, like a movie can tell a whole story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and TV doesn't really do that. Although, I would argue that good TV does do that, and I'll throw out “Buffy” just as an example of really good TV. What it started out to be and what it ended up to be were similar: thought out, lovingly cared for and a complete story. But I often feel more of that "poof" with a movie. I mean, granted, I watch a lot of mainstream movies (although Notes on a Scandal? RAWR, was that great), and I never feel like it lived up to its hype, I mean, Superman Returns or Spider-Man, I rarely feel "wow" moments anymore. We've seen the best the movie has to offer in the previews. But I have had a few wow moments with TV. When the bomb actually went off in “24” this season, my jaw dropped and I didn't speak till I heard that clock ticking again. It angers me that movies cost so much money to make and so much money to see. I think that's where a lot of my annoyance comes from. The money involved is so ridiculous, and what I get in return is so not worth all that money. It may sound ... shallow, but with TV I don't expect as much, so there tends to be more room for wowing me.

Rob: It's a fault that both TV and movies share: spending all the money in the world doesn't make any difference if you don't have a good idea first. That's why summer blockbusters keep getting more and more expensive and more and more stupid. Hollywood just throws money at the problem and hopes that'll cover up all the idiocy. Then again, there's stuff on TV that's even worse (I bet you can think of some good examples) and yet somehow stays on the air for years. I mean, I have never met a single person who ever watched Ted Danson's sitcom, and yet how long was that piece of excrement on the air?

Margaret: Yup, like the “The King of Queens,” or that one with Belushi and that girl from “Melrose Place” (mmmm “Melrose Place!”). I thought it was interesting too what the article said about production value, that shows like “24” and “Lost” look just as great as the movies. And with home systems and flat-screen TVs and HD, it's like we can have our own movies right at home. And this is also what makes me mad at the movies ... the fun of it was the social aspect. Even if you go alone, you're still in a theater with like-minded people, munching on popcorn and laughing out loud and breathing each others' air. I miss that "specialness" of going to the movies, but I don't blame TV for that, I blame the movies for rehashing the same old shit that I don't want to see. Somehow moviemakers have got to figure out a way to make the movies new for us again. Whereas shows like “The Sopranos” and “Entourage” and “The Wire” are all edgy, taking TV to a new level. And TV has been around forever, why can't the movie people keep up with the innovation?

Rob: Well I would argue there are plenty of movies doing that right now, they're just not coming from Hollywood. I mean you can go to the Chicago International Film festival, the Midwest Independent Film Festival and the Siskel downtown and see amazing stuff, and see it with a great audience of people excited to be there. Hollywood is a dinosaur. The future is people doing it themselves, making movies all over the world and beaming them anywhere. Not just online either. DV projection in movie theaters is getting better and better, and as it gets cheaper, I hope that the "communal" aspect of movie-going will have a resurgence. Because people still crave that I think. But I have to get back to what you said about production values. Last weekend I started rewatching "Twin Peaks" from the beginning, because Season 2 comes out on DVD April 3. And I think it took a director like David Lynch to start working in TV to bring that "film" aesthetic to TV and class it up a bit ... the writing, cinematography, art direction etc. in that show were better than pretty much anything else that was on at the time. I think it really revolutionized TV and paved the way for shows like "The X-Files" and "Desperate Housewives" (obviously) but also shows like "Lost" and "Six Feet Under." Hopefully we can agree that both mediums have a long way yet to go before they fulfill their potential.

Margaret: I absolutely think you're right. But to sum up why I think TV is better than the movies, I would say that #1, TV is better at appealing to the masses. I'm sure many people will say that that is a failing, but to be successful, people must see it. #2, I think TV is a safer venue for experimentation. Because there's so much more of it people feel more free to take chances. And #3, I don't have to leave my warm cozy apartment to be entertained for far less money.

Rob: In my opinion, movies are better because #1, because of the time/expense to make a movie, filmmakers exercise more deliberation and thoughtfulness. #2, Movies usually have a longer "shelf life" than most of the stuff that's on TV. And #3, the communal experience of seeing something at the movies isn't something that TV can really duplicate.

We'd like to hear from you now! TV or movies: which do you think is better, and why?