With the 64th annual primetime Emmys hitting the small screen this Sunday, it seems as though all anyone can talk about these days is television: Will three-time winner Bryan Cranston claim a fourth Emmy for his flawless performance as Walter White in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad? Will freshman series Homeland take down the reigning champion, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men? Does any comedy really stand a chance against Modern Family?
The quality of the nominees just goes to show that television has upped its game. More than just an excuse to give out another round of tiny gold statues, the Emmys — and the shows that it celebrates — engenders another round of the age-old television-versus-film debate. To sum it up: How does television’s new status compare to that of film, and which is the better medium?
Vulture’s Gavin Polone addressed this issue last week in his article “The Main Reason TV Is Now Better Than Movies,” arguing that the studios’ reliance on financial security rather than passion projects has led to the decline of originality. He claims that television reigns supreme as it delivers more interesting, creative works to a wider audience.
Many viewers agree with Polone, who also believes in the “nothing out worth seeing” reason for not going to theaters.
That’s just an excuse from a lazy mindset. People tend to be passive about film — if they really want to find the next modern American classic, they should just do their research (obviously, critics can be helpful here) and seek out films themselves.
It’s not like there’s a dearth of great films. Take a look at this summer’s Beasts of the Southern Wild: The indie film was one of the most critically praised of the year — it’s surely Oscar bound — yet was ridiculously underrated, attracting little mainstream attention.
As with any medium, film has seen its misses. Let’s face it — the last thing the film industry needs is another John Carter or Battleship. These misses, however, don’t suggest film is a lesser medium than TV. In fact, the entire argument is unnecessary: TV and film are completely distinct mediums, and should accordingly be treated and judged individually.
Most notably, we must evaluate TV and film on their own terms because of their disparate narrative structures, which have a trickle-down effect on the development of characters and storylines, among other critical elements.
Film, on one hand, uses a dramatic structure and has to hook you from the very beginning as a result — it’s faster-paced by nature, allowing the audience to be shocked, sad, overjoyed and every kind other kind of emotion, all in a nice two-hour package.
TV’s episodic structure, however, boasts the longevity to develop a slower plot, invest the audience in the characters and grow those characters over time. Think about it: A regular season of TV can have roughly between 10 to 14 episodes. Multiply that by however many seasons, and you have what seems like an eternity to unveil a story.
Think of it this way: Breaking Bad follows a high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer, Walter White, who begins cooking crystal meth so that he can better provide for his family. Would the audience still sympathize with Walter if they didn’t have the time to see his background and motivations unfold? Probably not.
Walter is one of television’s leading antiheroes — someone you can’t help but root for even as he becomes increasingly more corrupt. Crucially, audiences continue to support Walter — despite of his massive flaws — because they had the time to invest themselves in his personal story. In fact, the increasingly popular narrative of the anti-hero simply does not translate as well to film: It takes too much time to grow genuine sympathy toward a character like Walter or Mad Men’s Don Draper.
At their cores, the media of film and TV are just different from each other: not better or worse, just different. Though there haven’t been many American classics in film lately, that doesn’t mean film is a lesser medium than TV, which happens to be on fire right now. Nor would the opposite be true.
Emmys fever aside, we, as consumers of art, need to re-conceptualize the way we perceive film, TV and their relationship in order to understand these mediums correctly — on their own terms.
C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication. Her column “Keepin’ it Reel” runs Wednesdays.