Cal breaks down why the small screen is currently out-classing the big one.
Let’s not beat around the bush on this issue: Television shows and miniseries events are better than theatrical motion pictures. Now TV shows like Hannibal, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, The Flash, Arrow, The Walking Dead, Agent Carter, True Detective, BBC’s Sherlock, and much more are hitting our television displays, exhibiting a brand of artistic integrity and bold originality that’s predominantly missing from cinema screens in this day and age.
Television shows are, of course, produced on paltry budgets compared to their summer blockbuster brethren, but in a lot of cases, the lower budget is to the benefit of the final product. Blockbuster budgets in cinema necessitate big stars and as much action as possible to be shoehorned into the movie, even if such elements are completely out-of-place and ultimately damage what had the potential to be an instant classic. Just look at the recent flop Jupiter Ascending, which was clearly meant to be high-minded sci-fi but was visibly trimmed down to become a flashy, action-packed special effects reel. Contrast this against Fox’s recent underrated sci-fi drama Almost Human, which was visually striking and delivered action when the need arose, but also focused on character drama and proper storytelling. I will happily re-watch all thirteen episodes of the unfortunately-cancelled Almost Human before I watch even half the sci-fi guff entering multiplexes today.
Admittedly, television is packed with far too many clichéd comedies and sitcoms to count, most of which do not even make it past the first season. Television executives understand that these types of shows work – just look at Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, and Two And A Half Men. Not all television lands, and as with motion pictures, there are hits and misses. But the point stands that television remains a far more reliable medium; HBO and Netflix’s original programming are guaranteed to be worth a look over some middling cinematic drama.
It is only in the past couple of decades that television has really started to take off. Years back, TV was usually produced on the very cheap. Not to say that there weren’t any great shows (there were), but the production values were often not there, and not even close to cinema standards. For decades, homes around the world were stuck with tiny little standard-definition TV sets, so shows were often shot on VHS cameras to save costs. And even if they were lensed on film stock (Friends), they were edited in VHS-quality standard definition because there was no point creating pristine images that would be wasted when broadcast to shitty little TV sets – the HD images would never be seen.
However, this has all changed. At the turn of the century, HBO in particular started creating shows with higher production value, like the long-running The Sopranos and the acclaimed miniseries Band of Brothers. And now, in 2015, the high definition revolution has taken hold, allowing consumers to watch beautiful HD images via Blu-ray, streaming or high-def broadcast. VHS quality is not even close to good enough anymore, and now we’re seeing older TV shows being remastered for HD broadcast and Blu-ray to retire our DVD and VHS sets. And with incredible developments in ultra-HD digital filmmaking that’s no longer hugely expensive, television producers are capable of generating slick, visually succulent shows that rival Hollywood’s best. The production value is suddenly present in TV that has never existed up until now. Hell, in some cases, digital effects in television shows like Game of Thrones actually surpass Hollywood; compare the show (which costs around $60 million a season) to recent period pieces like The Legend of Hercules (with a reported $70 million price tag) or the Dwayne Johnson-starring Hercules (with a $100 million budget), and the visuals in GoT take the cake any day of the week. Hell, the dragons look at least on a par with Smaug in the hugely-budgeted Hobbit trilogy. Since television is a smaller medium, resources are scarcer and therefore every cent must count. TV is also shot quicker, with a smaller crew compared to blockbusters, which minimises a lot of costs, yet the results are still something to behold.
But perhaps the primary reason why I prefer television right now, is because it’s much denser than a film franchise. In the first fourteen episodes of The Flash’s first season, it has already created a rich universe with fully-formed supporting characters, covering plenty of ground and plenty of stories, on top of introducing several villains. Just fourteen episodes aired over a few months is more satisfyingly rich than any big-budget superhero franchise, which necessitates a two or three-year wait between movies, and only one story and one or two villains covered in each. I am not saying that The Flash is necessarily better than most of the recent big-screen superhero movies, I am rather saying that its richness is more satisfying. And while quality over quantity is a solid mantra, The Flash is extraordinarily well-written and takes full advantage of having twenty-three hour-long episodes in a single season. In fact, the television show is so well-done that I have precisely zero interest in the upcoming Flash theatrical feature that has no ties to the TV show. Covering Barry’s origins again, and only exploring one villain and one story? Sounds boring compared to the utter brilliance of CW’s addictive, expansive television series.
Without a doubt, television is the most ideal medium for superhero and comic book adaptations. While they cannot feature the high-budget, flashy CGI of their theatrical counterparts, the fullness of their storytelling and narrative more than compensates for this. In fact, looking at television shows like Arrow and The Flash, they do not need the budget boost, as CGI is used sparingly and the show-runners rely more on what counts – it’s not always about big action scenes, after all. And with superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman and Superman remaining for the most part in the big screen realm, non-comic readers will be clueless about so many story arcs and villains that could be tackled in a television format. Yes, all of the above have received animated TV shows (and they are amazing), but such shows have become niche. And that is a shame, because the animated offerings are often perceived as the definitive representation of the superhero in question. Go figure.
There have been cases when motion pictures actually try to copy the television format of creating numerous story threads and plenty of characters, but two hours a movie, and very limited instalments, makes these franchises ultimately unsatisfying. For instance, the recent Amazing Spider-Man films literally play out in a television format, establishing a surplus of villains and characters, all the while dealing with the mystery of the death of Peter Parker’s parents and everything relating to Oscorp. These movies are the ultimate in showing why TV is a better medium for this formula: Films are too scarce a commodity to tackle everything it has established, and sequels are not always a sure thing. Sony was so sure of themselves that they had The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and 4 lined up, along with a number of spin-offs, but their plans crashed to the ground and now the film series is starting all over again, leaving Sony’s grand plan falling flat on its face. Years on, the Amazing Spider-Man movies with all their abominable loose ends will be absolutely, thoroughly unwatchable. (For fuck’s sake, the second one ends mid-battle, and we will never see the end of said battle.) TV, on the other hand, has the benefit of so many episodes to work through everything, and it’s often customary not to leave too many loose ends at the end of a season in case it’s not renewed. But even if it’s not renewed and things still need to be wound up properly, the producers and writers are occasionally given the chance to give the show a proper send-off by creating one final episode (like the US version of Life on Mars) or a one-off special (Derek). A film studio, however, is not going to spend another $100 million+ on a sequel to a flop, just to finish off the franchise.
In a lot of cases, there is the idea of creating a theatrical expansion of a TV show, though the majority of these do fall through. A 24 movie has been bandied around for years, and I’m frankly happy it has not come to fruition. Unless it will be a real-time two-hour movie about a story that only runs for two hours, there’s no point. Each twenty-four-episode season of 24 has so much going on in it, and the real-time depiction is all part of the show’s hook. Such things will be lost in its translation to the big screen, if it wants to covey a twenty-four-hour period in two hours. There is also the threat of cinematic expansions of TV shows coming off like extended episodes of the series, and to counteract this, the makers are compelled to force depth into material when it does not really fit. For instance, every episode of The Inbetweeners is roll-on-the-ground hilarious, but both of the Inbetweeners feature films underwhelm because there are lulls in the laughter to try to wring some emotion out of the material. While such things might work with original characters and an original property, it feels weird seeing these characters in such scenarios. The beauty of the show is diminished.
Another solid illustration of why television’s richness is more satisfying: BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is far superior than the Guy Ritchie film series with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Over four years, the Sherlock series has beget nine hour-and-a-half episodes – essentially, nine ninety-minute feature films in four years, and all of them are bloody amazing. The TV format has given the Sherlock writers the opportunity to explore more stories and take full advantage of the villains on offer. Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows was such a fucking amazing bad guy that you feel disappointed he will not be back. But on Sherlock, Moriarty was recurring throughout season two, with the possibility that he will return in the future. Whereas recurring villains in movies don’t gel unless it’s a truly long-running franchise (Blofeld in James Bond), recurring villains in TV shows are a bona fide staple, and feels more true-to-life in the first place. I don’t exactly predict that the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes series will reach nine features in total – as a matter of fact, a third movie is still a bloody question mark.
Once again, the question of quality over quantity has to be addressed. For the most part, shows manage to take full advantage of the breathing room that TV affords, and while there can be boring filler, I will still take it over motion pictures that oftentimes feel rushed. And in a lot of cases, TV shows only run for eight or ten episodes a season, like True Detective or Agent Carter, so as to ensure they do not outstay their welcome. For the most part, TV producers are able to find that sweet spot of episodes, though even then it still leaves you begging for more, showing that even in the case, they still do take quality over quantity. (I wish there were one hundred episodes of Sherlock, oh how I wish.)
Another reason why television does it better than cinema: Television shows are not so strictly neutered to meet PG-13 rating regulations. It’s not that every show is filled with blood and gore for the sake of it, but shows often fall into the region between PG-13 and R, which in cinema terms would mean that, if they were going to cinemas, they would be trimmed to PG-13 to the detriment of the final product. TV producers do not seem as ratings-sensitive, allowing the show to retain some badly sought-after artistic integrity. Most TV shows these days do not pull as many punches in their depictions of violence, sex or profanity. Hell, Almost Human is darker and more violent than the theatrically-released RoboCop remake. Sheesh. And good luck smuggling a Game of Thrones movie into multiplexes with all the adult content in tact. (Yes, there was a recent IMAX release of a few GoT episodes, but the episodes were written, shot and completed well before this; the horse had already bolted.)
The fact is, television is more adult-oriented than motion pictures, and that is one of the big reasons why I’m watching more TV shows than ever before. R-rated adult movies are growing scarcer at the multiplexes because teens are perceived as being the biggest demographic for cinema. Television does not have that issue, however. It’s easy for adults to tune in to a show, and they are indeed more likely to settle in at home and watch TV than go out to the cinema on a workday afternoon. So, adult dramas on TV gets ratings, and we adults are more satisfied with them. It’s win-win.
It is critical to note at this stage that I am not saying that a television approach would suit everything. I mean, can you imagine if the Hangover was a TV show? And something like Guardians of the Galaxy with its motion-capture characters cannot be achieved in TV, period. But, in a lot of cases, TV is a better medium. I mean, just try to convey the story of Band of Brothers or the recent Gallipoli miniseries in a two-hour movie; it’d be horribly underdone. Nowadays, I find myself far more satisfied after digging into a full season of a brilliant new show than I do after watching three or four so-so new releases which were brought down by cinema’s big contemporary pratfalls. TV shows have often featured top-flight scripts to compensate for their cheap sensibilities (Fawlty Towers, Black Books, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Red Dwarf, Spaced), but now the production value is there to support the writing, which is often as amazing as ever.
Television has not only caught up to cinema – it has surpassed it.