Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Is TV Really Better Than the Movies?

Is TV really better than the movies? The debate is in the ether. An Spailpín was discussing the issue only a fortnight ago with a man acclaimed by many as the Pride of the Ross, and now I see the matter mentioned in passing in the Telegraph and in Edward Jay Epstein’s Hollywood Economist blog.

The Telegraph and the Hollywood Economist concentrate on the parlous state of the movie industry, and do a fine job of it. An Spailpín recommend’s Tom Shone’s Blockbuster of some years ago for further study. But this notion that TV is better than the movies is one that concerns us more so than the future of Hollywood.

That the movies are particularly bad at the moment is more or less beyond dispute. With the exception of shooting stars like The Hangover the output of the industry is generally dreck. But is TV really that good either?

The rise of cable TV in the States is the reason behind the rise in the status of TV drama. Shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Sex in the City on cable in the past ten years have elevated TV drama to a more adult and serious plane, while the rise of the cheap DVD boxset and Sky plus means that TV watching isn’t as time-constrained as it once was. You can consume TV on your own terms, in your own time.

However, An Spailpín can’t help but think that TV as an art-form is denied the most important thing that an art-form needs: permanence. Because TV shows are so very long through their runs, who is going to be able to sit through all of a particular series that didn’t catch it first time out?

Most people of this generation love The Sopranos. In ten years’ time, who is going to want to sit down and watch a six-series, 28 disc box set in the hope that it will be worth his or her considerable time?

You can call a friend, tell him or her you’ve just seen this great movie from the 1970s called The Godfather and recommend it highly. Within a week your friend can have called around, borrowed the DVD or downloaded it him or herself, and report back. Your discussion of your shared aesthetic experience can enrich both your lives.

But if he or she has never seen any of The Sopranos and you make your recommendation this week, he or she won’t be able to report back until the Six Nations rugby starts, unless he or she has a most remarkably dull Christmas and might then make the finishing line before the end of the FBD League.

And even then, the experience of an intense exposure to those 28 discs isn’t the same as the slow exposure that our generation has had to the Sopranos, when it wove itself into our consciousness over ten years. It’s the difference between letting the pint settle or draining it white.

And as every year since the Sopranos was in its heyday goes by, the references to Tony Soprano will become more and more obscure and will become meaningless, like those to Poldark or The Onedin Line.

Poldark or the Onedin Line? They were big deals in the 1970s, along with I, Claudius, Rich Man, Poor Man and Washington: Behind Closed Doors. All of them thought revolutionary, must-see, appointment TV in their day. But who bothers sitting through 20 discs of the Onedin Line now? What would be the point? That was then, this is now.

Fathers can watch Shane with their sons and share an artistic experience. Mothers can watch Gone with the Wind with their daughters, and everybody can watch It’s a Wonderful Life. You can’t do that with TV series. It takes too long.

The Sex and the City TV show was the most revolutionary cultural experience for fifty per cent of the population of the west. But will the woman to whom that show spoke be able to share that with their daughters when they’re old enough to understand?

It’s difficult to see how. The DVDs will be kept at the back of a press somewhere, only taken out in punishment towards delinquent gentlemen of the house who do not leave out bins, do not put down toilet seats or talk during the X-Factor. Time’s fell hand will have obliterated the rest.