A few years back I read an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he said he wanted to move from cinema to Television because that's where there was more freedom to tell stories. He may have been right. While the Indie scene continues to pump out some very good stuff, Hollywood seems to have declared a moratorium on original cinema in the pursuit of the almighty teen dollar. Meanwhile on the small screen, things have never been better.
Yeah there's reality shit, which is mostly unwatchable but not particularly worse than the gameshows and terrible infotainment crap we've had all along. And yes there are some very bad shows out there, chief among them the "Fat guy, hot wife" sitcoms, which are triumphs of market research over inspiration. But we've always had bad shows and sitcoms, we just tend to remember the good ones that lasted.
Meanwhile, TV has undergone a quiet revolution over the last decade or so. With larger sets and the advent of HD it has finally become what it never truly was. A visual medium.
The old saw among screenwriters seems to be that movies consist of action and visuals, while television consists of people standing around talking at eachother. Look at a show from the 1980s or before, and you'll see this is mostly correct. Even programs like Charlie's Angels and Miami Vice, shows that supposedly broke new ground, were mostly gabfests. Oh sure there'd be the occasional confrontation between hero and villain, a car chase scene or a shootout or whatever, but then it was back to talking. This is true for several reasons. First of all it's hard to see action on a small or black and white TV, and TV networks are naturally aiming at the widest possible audience. Anyone can hear people talking. Secondly there was the budget issue. Action is expensive. Talk is, literally, cheap...to shoot.
But the 1990s and 2000s have brought change. Part of this is because we've finally reached the point where virtually no American who watches a fair amount of television does so on a 13" or smaller screen. 20 inches is the bare minimum, with 32 probably being average and a large portion of the populace owning mammoth screens in the 60 inch or above range. Secondly the internet revolution and popularity of DVDs has meant that TV is competing with a hell of a lot more than it was back in the 80s, where you had movies, Nintendo, and crappy VHS.
So TV has adapted. It has become more visual and exciting. It has become more intricate and intelligently plotted. It has expanded its season. It has basically become a hell of a lot better. Even shitty shows like the CSI spinoffs are better than the shitty shows of the past (in addition to being extremely visual.) Cable networks have pushed edgy shows that stack up very favorably against independent movies. The Shield, Nip/Tuck, The Sopranos, all have production values, writing, and direction worthy of the big screen. Sex And The City became a cultural touchstone for women in a way that very few shows have before, instead approximating the movies of yesteryear in its popularity and influence. 24 has production values that match the lower end of the big-screen, and a movie star as its central character.
And so we are seeing a gradual shift between cinema and TV. While one gets lower brow, broader, and stupider, the other smartens up, becomes more intricate and visual, and gains relevance even as its viewership fractures (Which is another element. With so many channels on the typical TV viewer now has more choices than his analogue at the multiplex.) In some ways this mirrors shifts in our society from public communal experiences to private homebound ones.
There are still structural difficulties to be overcome, but I think that this generation is going to produce TV Autuers who resemble great filmmakers more than the guys who brought us Gilligan's Island. You can argue that with David Chase and Shawn Ryan it already has. If you have a chance, compare a show like Deadwood with a film like You, Me, and Dupree, and ask yourself which one has more to say, better writing, and more...art to it.
TV is stepping out of the shadow of its big-screen brother, and I'm excited to see what it will bring.