TV superior to film as dramatic medium?

Last night, I viewed a film on video that I loved when it first came out: FORT APACHE, THE BRONX (I think 1980 or so). It was gritty, subversive, and poignant (Paul Newman as an Irish cop, Rachel Ticotin as an Hispanic nurse, Ed Asner as a police captain.) Twenty-odd years later, I was laughing from how bad it was. What changed over the last two decades, was that I’d seen hundreds of cop dramas on TV (Hill Street, NYPD Blue and even Law and Order) that showed me how cops really operate, and I realized why. These shows had literally hundreds of hours to spend on details that a movie has to get right (or to approximate) in under two hours.

For example, Asner addresses his squad in the movie and virtually instructs them to harass local residents in order to solve a cop-killing. If this were HSB, for example, Furillo would have instructed Goldblum NOT to have the men do anything illegal and by the time the word got down to the cops on the beat, there would be enough ambiguity to make the meaner cops decide to bend the law, which would have annoyed Furillo. In FA, TB, though, Asner orders his men to break the law and promises to protect them if they do, allowing any of them to wreck his (Asner’s) career if they choose to. But the director had just a few crucial minutes to get across a subtle and detailed process, so he just painted Asner’s character with a broad and stupid brush. There were many such incidents in the film. At one point, all of the potential witnesses to murder are questioned as a group, which NYPD Blue has taught me to be contrary to getting useful results, for reasons which should be obvious, but not to the cops of FA, because they only have a few minutes to get all of the interrogations across.

I never considered TV to be a medium capable of fine-brush work before last night, but now the logic seems inescapable to me.

I recently came to the same conclusion about TV comedies. Without the requirement to establish the characters and the setting and not needing a plot worthy of a movie, good TV sitcoms are just better. Whatever your favourite is, say Cheers in my case, no movie will provide as many laughs as 4 episodes which minus ads and intro is about the length of a movie.

Even good movie comedies routinely become unfunny toward the end as they attempt to resolve the story.

I’ve noticed a similar thing with anime series that have had feature-length movies released. Escaflowne, the series, was epic in scope, with subplots within subplots and drawn-out love triangles and such. Escaflowne the movie just feels rushed and somewhat empty. They wisely chose to just cover the same themes, instead of being extra faithful to all the events and characters of the series, but it was a case where I would’ve just asked myself “what’s the point” and skipped the movie. Cowboy Bebop’s movie, on the other hand, got it right. Instead of trying to encapsulate the entire series into one movie, they just basically made an extended-length, higher budget episode. The story stands on its own; if you want more depth & character development, watch the show.

So I don’t think that movies are inherently better or worse than series; it just depends on the creators’ knowing how to use the medium. Pacing is key. You can tell a complete story, even an epic story, in less than two hours, as long as you have an understanding of what is and isn’t important to show. The original Star Wars is a great example of how to do it right.

There are different challenges to overcome in each medium. While films have to deal with brevity, television has to deal with the inherent problems of an episodic medium; picking up where last week’s episode left off, bringing everything to a dramatic or otherwise satisfying conclusion every hour or half-hour, and having to explain within the plot events that happen in real life, such as actors’ absences or pregnancies. There’s also the difficulty of establishing a diogesis despite the continual intrusion of commercials.

What must be taken into account is that there are some stories better suited to some media. There aren’t many ways you could take a Memento dramatic series; there’s not much to a Will and Grace movie. Television series, it seems to me, are about developing a cast of characters and seeing how many ways you can play them off a situation. Movies are about situations, and how they affect characters. Both serve different purposes.

What determines which is a superior medium is what particular movie or series you’re watching at the time, and how well that medium is used to tell its story and flesh out its characters.