Anything film can do. . tv can do better
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 11:01 p.m.
This is Hollywood's favorite time of the year, film's awards season, perpetuating the long-standing notion that the most significant, rewarding and exhilarating work coming out of the entertainment industry can only be seen at your local movie theater.
While this was once true, it is no longer. The best American television is better today than the best American movies, say a number of industry professionals who have worked in both mediums.
Since we're in the thick of awards season, consider these words from trophy-magnet Alan Alda, who was up last year for an Oscar (for "The Aviator") and an Emmy ("The West Wing"): "A lot of television programs are dealing with things that are interesting, complicated, subtle, that you don't see dealt with in movies. . . . All movies these days seem like they have to submit their script to the Office of Preposterosity. You have to have three preposterous things in every movie, otherwise it won't get made."
New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley wrote recently, "Only the uninformed or disingenuous complain about the quality of American television. . . . There are comedies and dramas that reach far higher in a single episode than most movies or Broadway shows."
Before you protest, "Well, defending TV is her job," absorb these thoughts from New York Times film critic A.O. Scott: "Adequate is what movies, these days, are above all required to be: tasteful, familiar and safe. . . . The schlock of the past has evolved into star-driven, heavily publicized, expensive mediocrities that carefully balance novelty and sameness."
So before you return to the weblogs handicapping sundry trophy horse races, consider our experts' thoughts. Maybe, just maybe, Oscars won't mean so much.
Denis Leary, star ("The Ref"), star/co-creator/writer ("Rescue Me," "The Job"): "I agree almost 100 percent. I've been saying this to my friends still hung up in the air in transforming from movies to TV and having doubts. More are realizing TV's where the best work is. I was afraid of the idea of playing the same character over and over, but it's become a great joy. I get to go places I couldn't in film.
"At one point on one film, I was handed these pages and said, 'My god, what's this crap?' " The executive producer rewrote the scene, I was told, and we had to shoot it. . . . There was this power struggle, this ego struggle that had nothing to do with the quality side: 'I'm paying you . . . do it.' "
"Most (films) are like 'The Family Stone,' which I saw with my kids - they're 13 and 15.ELLIPSIS DOTS . . . It was such a cookie-cutter that even they didn't find it satisfying."f-z
Leary's FX series, "Rescue Me," follows Tommy Gavin, a New York firefighter scarred by the twin memories of those he lost in routine rescues and the colleagues lost on 9/11. When Tommy's not managing hair-raising rescues or cracking sharply bitter jokes, he variously drinks too much, pops too many pills, gets into downright twisted sexual relationships and ignores sundry firefighters' codes of ethics. And he's the show's hero.
Tommy is a blistering, compelling character, made all the more memorable by his contradictions - he's a miserable human being, yet a decent man. Yet he's just one of TV's current pantheon of great characters - think of Tony Soprano, the mobster whacking a guy one minute, in therapy the next. Or "Deadwood's" Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the brutal brothel owner with the soul of a corrosive poet. Or Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), the acidic, pill-popping doctor who will save anyone but himself. Or Alda's Arnold Vinick on "The West Wing," the brilliant, iconoclastic politician who can barely censor himself.
These are characters you'll never see carrying a Hollywood movie, because they're too difficult, too disconcerting, too outside a focus group's comfort zone. Which is why, of course, viewers love them.
Or consider inspired TV characters that make film characters look even lamer than they usually are: Jason Lee's soulful bumpkin on "My Name Is Earl," Lauren Graham's hilariously neurotic motor mouth on "Gilmore Girls," Kristen Bell's bitterly quippy teen detective on "Veronica Mars," Tyler James Williams' ordinary kid caught in a delicate drift between racist peers and overextended parents on "Everybody Hates Chris." To name but a few.
Television not only offers writers the chance to create nuanced characters, but to follow them on far deeper journeys than any two-hour film could offer. Here are some thoughts about whether TV is better than film, from those who work in both mediums.
Joss Whedon, director ("Serenity"), series creator ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel"): "It's a wild generalization, but not an unfair one. . . . I'm not a fan of the 'ride' as filmed art. There's no reason films can't be more exciting and thoughtful. I tend to be Joe Mainstream and, in that stream, I'd like to see some more interesting fish."
Doug Liman, filmmaker ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith"), executive producer ("The O.C."): "You can do great work on TV, because it's so fast. You take something like 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' . . . the studios are so precious about it because at the end of the day, it's a quarter of a billion dollars' investment when you put the marketing money into it. With TV, there's another episode next week. It's happening so fast that, in some ways, it's like an impressionist painting. You can take more creative chances."
Mark Cuban, film producer ("Good Night, and Good Luck," "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"), co-founder of HDNet: "I don't disagree. The economics are such that big movies go theatrical, but movies for a specific audience, which can be better movies, go to TV. And because there's so much competition, budgets for movies for TV are going up."
Frank Spotnitz, screenwriter ("Sunset After Dark"), executive producer ("The X-Files"): "What it takes to make a movie profitable demands a certain type of movie, invariably geared to teens. That's enormously frustrating for those of us who love movies. They're not as provocative, or groundbreaking. TV does a much greater volume of more sophisticated work than is being done in movies."
On the cutting edge
OK, let's look at this year's Oscar races. "Brokeback Mountain" is being hailed as "groundbreaking": There are two cable networks specializing in gay programming. (Although in this case I will concede the point that "Brokeback Mountain" is better than, say, "Queer as Folk" or "The L Word," but then, HBO's 2003 miniseries "Angels in America," about the '80s AIDS crisis, was so accomplished that some film groups considered honoring it over the films released that year.)
"Good Night, and Good Luck" articulately tackles, through the prism of history, today's tremulous media; "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" speaks truth to power, reaming the mainstream news media for failing to do so - and with sharp, literate humor - 40 weeks a year.
"Munich" soberly examines the shocking terrorist acts at the 1972 Olympics; Showtime's "Sleeper Cell" (a Golden Globe nominee) disquietingly considers a potential terrorist attack today. Likewise, while the film "Jarhead" (directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes) essayed the first Gulf War, FX's "Over There" (produced by Emmy winner Steven Bochco) thrust viewers into today's war in Iraq. Lesson: Television reacts more quickly, resulting in more urgent entertainment.
Our point is, anything films can do, TV can do better, because it doesn't have to waste development money or massage vain executives. TV's motto: Just make it. Our response: Just watch it.
Comments Alda: "We did a show (on 'The West Wing') that examined the question: Should you need to have your picture taken coming out of a house of worship in order to get elected? . . . There's never been a movie about that, and that's one of the most important questions in our culture. And that's just one issue on this one program.
"In the old days, the movie business was controlled by people who had emotional and artistic investments in what they made. Now, it's accountants and lawyers. They could just as easily be running a shoe factory."
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