Filed under Opinion

Television, the knockout winner

In the past, films like Casablanca and Star Wars united viewers with different intellectual, cultural and economic backgrounds, defining generations and setting new standards of artistic quality. Television, meanwhile, was an acceptable choice if you had nothing better to do; crude, kitschy, and lowbrow, it worked as white noise or a substitute for awkward conversation. At best, TV was a waste of time; at worst, it was a mind-numbing, soul-sucking capitalist tool. It certainly wasn’t art.

It took almost 60 years, but that attitude is finally starting to change. The campy soap operas and insipid talk shows of yesteryear have been replaced by ambitious, cutting-edge programs which are just as intelligent and ambitious as their big-screen counterparts. With popular, successful, and critically acclaimed series like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” dominating pop culture, TV has finally entered its golden age.

Since TV programs are delivered in short, 22-to-44 minute segments, they’re easier and less expensive to produce. Producers make up for their smaller budgets by focusing on the bare necessities: solid scripts and talented actors. This method of storytelling also allows writers to respond to audience feedback and the current pop cultural landscape. An average season of “South Park” will skew everything from the BP oil spill to Shake Weights; this sort of flexibility would be impossible without an episodic format.

Better writing isn’t the only thing that TV has to offer. Since TV involves lower stakes and a longer timeframe than film, producers can take more chances with risky, unusual programs and filming techniques. You’d be hard pressed to find a more surreal viewing experience than “Adventure Time,” which was once considered a children’s cartoon. Even popular sitcoms like “The Office” and “Parks & Recreation” play with perspectives and camera work to create a unique, pseudo-documentary look.

With the film industry’s current woes, staying home and watching the tube sounds better and better. Rude audiences, inconvenient show times and ridiculously overpriced snacks have long been the bane of moviegoers. Now you can add inflated ticket prices and an overall poor selection to the list of complaints.

Even legendary film critic Roger Ebert agrees, “Ticket prices are too high. People have always made that complaint, but historically the movies have been cheap compared to concerts, major league sports and restaurants. Not so much any longer. No matter what your opinion is about 3D, the charm of paying a hefty surcharge has worn off for the hypothetical family of four.” Industry reps have blamed piracy and filesharing for shrinking ticket sales; the cold, hard truth is, movies just aren’t worth it anymore.

A quick look at 2013’s Oscar contenders shows that the film industry has changed little over the past decade. “Lincoln” is a period biopic about a beloved public figure, directed by industry honcho Steven Spielberg; total award bait. “Django Unchained” was also helmed by a veteran director, Quentin Tarantino. While it was entertaining, it was also sloppy and self-indulgent, ranking rather low in his repertoire.  “Zero Dark Thirty” dramatizes a fascinating real-world event – the execution of Osama bin Laden – but war films have been an Oscars staple since “All Quiet on the Western Front” won in 1930. It’s also worth noting that “ZDT” was directed by previous Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow.

TV has its duds. The “reality” genre has yet to produce anything remotely resembling it, and major networks still greenlight dumb and contrived sitcoms which only laugh tracks seem to find funny. But in recent years, television has also given us the funniest, scariest, and most realistic entertainment available. Modern TV is smart, creative and you get a lot more of it for your money. The screen may be smaller, but it packs a much bigger punch.

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