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As the Emmys approach this weekend, you’ll no doubt be seeing a lot of commentary on how we’re in the midst of a golden age of television, and how current movies just can’t compare. Sunday’s awards show will celebrate bold and innovative series like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “Homeland,” “30 Rock,” and “Louie,” while moviegoers are coming off of a summer that featured such derivative, risk-averse options as “Kick-Ass 2,” “Getaway,” “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” “The Smurfs 2,” “R.I.P.D.,” and “RED 2.”
It’s true that artistic ambition has become more common in scripted TV in recent years, just as it’s become less common in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Still, the TV-good/movies-bad argument focuses on narrow niches of both media and ignores most of what’s actually out there. More importantly, it ignores the increasingly common ground that both TV and movies occupy as digitization remakes both media into something new.
There are certainly arguments one can still make in favor of the primacy of movies. For one thing, the comparison of TV’s best fare to the movies’ summer fare is, well, unfair. Over the next few weeks and months, we’ll be seeing a fall full of potentially awards-worthy movies like “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “August: Osage County,” “Captain Phillips,” “The Monuments Men,” and others. And that’s not to mention awards-contender movies from earlier this year like “Blue Jasmine,” “Before Midnight,” “Fruitvale Station,” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” On the flip side, people who make the TV-is-better argument aren’t too quick to cite “Extreme Cougar Wives,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Last Man Standing,” or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” In either medium, there’s a lot of junk and a handful of great titles that cater largely to a small, elite audience.
TV fans say TV has become more of an auteur’s medium than the movies. Certainly, shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Louie” reflect the individual visions of Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, and Louis C.K., respectively. But film, for all its commercial compromising, still has more than its share of auteurs. TV does not have a James Cameron, or a Christopher Nolan, a Quentin Tarantino, a Woody Allen, a Peter Jackson, a Kathryn Bigelow, a Guillermo del Toro, an Alfonso Cuaron, a David O. Russell, a Darren Aronofsky, an Ang Lee, a Joel and Ethan Coen, or a Sam Raimi, to name a few. It has no animators who compare to Hayao Miyazaki or the Pixar team, and it has few documentarians the caliber of Errol Morris or Alex Gibney.
Whether it’s merited or not, film still has more prestige and glamour than TV. (Just ask any of Sunday’s Emmy winners whether they wouldn’t rather have an Oscar.) Of course, much of that prestige comes from structural factors (movies are bigger, they’re more international, they’re special experiences you have to leave home for) that are increasingly falling by the wayside. Film may not maintain the upper hand for much longer, not because TV is improving or movies are deteriorating, but because the two media are converging.
I’ve made the argument before that the TV-vs.-movies debate is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of digital technology and distribution platforms that are steadily erasing the boundaries between the two media. (You can read the full argument here.) Now that film and TV are both becoming a digital product — not necessarily an image painted by light reflecting off people and objects in the physical world onto a strip of celluloid, but code generated in a computer, transmitted by a computer, and translated by a computer into pixels on a screen — it’s becoming increasingly hard to define what movies and TV are, let alone to tell the difference.
Movies used to be long-form narratives you watched communally on a larger-than-life screen, immersing yourself completely in the experience. TV was, because of its shorter narrative format and smaller screen within the familiar environment of your living room, a less engaging experience, a glimpse through a window at another world. But now that all movies and TV shows have become portable, where we ourselves decide at our own convenience on the size of the screen and the length of the viewing experience, how do you distinguish anymore between movies and TV?
At the Emmys this year, for the first time, Netflix is a major player, up for several prizes for the streaming service’s “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development.” For many viewers, those shows never hit their television screens but went straight to their computers or tablets or smartphones. And many viewers didn’t watch an episode at a time but streamed an entire season at once. So you could ask: Is it still TV if you binge-watch 13 episodes in one sitting? Similarly, you could ask: Is an epic 3D spectacle like “Pacific Rim” still a movie if you’re watching it scene by scene, as your schedule permits, on your 2D two-inch smartphone screen?
One more way movies and TV are changing is that their distributors are encouraging “second screen” viewing — that is, engaging in social media on your tablet or phone while you watch a show or movie on another screen. The TV networks now want you to visit their website or make comments on Twitter (in hashtag-branded conversations) during their shows so that you can have real-time commentary with other fans while being exposed to additional advertising. Meanwhile, even though movie theaters still generally discourage cellphone use as a nuisance, some are considering allowing phone-friendly screenings as a way to attract kids and teens who can’t bear to stop texting for two hours. And Disney is now inviting kids to bring their iPads to movies, starting with this weekend’s re-release of “The Little Mermaid,” so that they can play games and sing along during the feature. (There’s a free app called “The Little Mermaid: Second Screen Live.”)
In other words, the next generation of viewers may be one that doesn’t grasp the current film-vs.-TV debate at all because they won’t recognize the difference. To them, both features and episodes will be audiovisual wallpaper, something that plays in the background while you’re engaged with activity on another screen.