Movies versus TV, plus the Emmys


Today I read an article by David Haglund on Slate about how TV is not better than the movies. (Thanks for the link, Matt Yglesias.) The article is worth reading but Haglund’s main point can be summed up in the following quote:

So while the best movies come from an intimidating diversity of sources, and present a similarly wide range of aesthetic approaches and aims, the best TV shows tend to come from three or four American cable networks and frequently follow a familiar model.

Now my prior before I read the article is that TV is indeed better than movies but I’m afraid that Haglund has a point with which I can’t disagree. In fact, I felt stupid for ever thinking that TV was better than movies. However, I still prefer TV and I’ll tell you why.

Before I get into this, I want to go back to a time in my life when I preferred movies. That period lasted from the time I was about ten until maybe 35. Before I was ten, I loved television, primarily the old Batman series and reruns of the original Star Trek on WPIX. Although I remember going to various “children’s” movies before this, the first movie I remember going to of my volition was The Empire Strikes Back. I went to see it by myself (the first of many times that I’d see a movie by myself) and it changed me. After that, television was fine for when there were no other options but the cool stuff was only at the movies.

This is not to say that I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. I’m pretty sure saw every episode of Magnum P.I. and M*A*S*H and many other shows but it was movies that I was obsessed with. I remember buying the first issue of Premiere magazine and being amazed that someone created a magazine just for me. I got a part-time job at the local movie theater so that I could see movies for free. I saw everything (everything that came to my little town, that is). If you had asked me what I really wanted to do when I grew up, and if was not too self-conscious to be honest, I would have said that I wanted to do what Roger Ebert did. That seemed like a dream. So what happened?

The experience of watching a movie in a theater with other people ceased to be enjoyable. This didn’t happen because I had a large HD TV at home (although I did) but because the magic of sitting in a darkened theater was ruined by the declining behavior of the other patrons. As far as I’m concerned, there is no reason to talk during a movie. As far as I’m concerned, there is no reason to use your cellphone during a movie. As far as I’m concerned, there is no reason to arrive late and bother me with “Is that seat taken” once the movie has started. I could go on.

My wife and I loved movies and we hated going to the movies. The rest of the movie going public let us down. (For the record, this didn’t apply to all theaters. I’ve never had a bad experience at Brooklyn Heights Cinema or, oddly, Regal Battery Park Stadium 11.) My wife and I joined Netflix (back in the red envelope days) and we had cable and we watched movies after they left the theaters. Sometimes we still went to the theaters if the movie was an event but for the most part we were content to wait.

Sometime during season two of The Sopranos, we got hooked. Naturally this led to Six Feet Under and The Wire and the rest of the revolution. There was so much good stuff to watch that we, paradoxically, felt comfortable giving up cable; there was no longer time to watch all the crap that cable forces you to watch when you are trying to figure out what’s on. Then I discovered Sepwinall and Goodman and Ryan and all the others and they wrote about TV in the way that I remembered critics writing about movies and the idea of a Golden Age of Television was perpetuated. And it was good.

Now, I want to believe that TV is that good because I love watching TV and I can do it almost any time I want from the comfort of my home and because it gives me something to blog about. In that way, I’m no different from the TV critics. We all have an interest in promoting TV because we benefit from the idea in some way. It couldn’t be more selfish, which doesn’t make it untrue but it means we are not reliable. (That being said, movie critics and people who prefer movies have their own biases. The person who I’d like to have weigh in is someone who has his or her feet in both worlds, like Matt Zoller Seitz.)

In his latest book I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman has the following quote which made me think very differently about making a case for what I like or don’t like.

Every other response [to explaining he likes or don’t like something in art] is the process of taking an abstract feeling and figuring out how I can fit it into a lexicon that fits whatever I already want to believe … Once you realize you can’t control how you feel, it’s impossible to believe any of your own opinions.

I like TV more than movies today, which means I want to believe that TV is better than movies. I can’t disagree with Haglund’s point but that doesn’t matter. We all have what we believe and then we construct strategies to defend our choices. Which brings us to the Emmys. (Note that when I use the word “Emmys” I am talking about the Primetime Emmys.)

As I’ve said and written before, I think awards are meaningless. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awards Emmys because it directly benefits from greater interest in primetime television. The goal is not to recognize the outstanding performances and work by people in the business, it’s to get people to talk and read and especially watch television. This is why the Academy will never really do anything to address the annual complaints about who deserved or didn’t deserve to be nominated: the Academy just wants people to talk about it. (See the links below.) But even if the Academy really wants to reward what is outstanding, it’s really just an elaborate construct to prove what they already believe.

That being said, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the Emmy-quake that happened this morning when the Emmy nominations were announced. I looked at the nominations in the fourteen top categories, my cutoff being after drama and comedy series and before mini-series. Of those categories, the only one in which I saw all the nominated series/performances was Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama. As much television as I watch, I still can’t watch everything and still have time to work a full-time job and exercise and play video games. Sacrifices have to be made.

The most disappointing non-nomination was, of course, Tatiana Maslany for her multiple roles in Orphan Black. (I don’t say “snub” because I assume most of the Academy didn’t watch the show.) I’m not clear on what “outstanding” means in terms of acting but it seems to me that a person playing multiple roles, including situations where one character impersonates another, while making each role subtly but clearly distinctive is outstanding. Plus, if Maslany is not convincing then the show falls apart. This is important in every show (we have to believe Don Draper knows advertising and that Walter White knows chemistry and that Raylon Givens is a badass), but the difference is that Orphan Black is a science fiction show. We already have to suspend more disbelief than in a “normal” show. And Maslany crushes it. With all due respect to Michelle Dockery, she was not better than Tatiana Maslany.

Most of the other non-nominations are not as annoying. I thought Rectify was great and I would have loved to see Aden Young and Abigail Spencer get nominated but I never really thought it would happen. I also really liked The Americans and hoped the two leads would get nominated but there’s probably still time for them. (I guess the same could be said about Maslany.) Justified will never be recognized and that’s disappointing. Granted, Justified is not on the same level as the last of the Golden Age shows but it had a better season than Downton Abbey and Homeland. (Also, I co-sign on Matt Zoller Seitz’ point that Patton Oswalt deserved a nomination in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama. “Drewbacca”.)

On the comedy side, the only series I feel strongly about it Parks and Recreation which is consistently great and which features Nick Offerman in a supporting performance that cannot be inferior to all those Modern Family actors. It also seems clear that The Big Bang Theory and Saturday Night Live (as well as Modern Family) are over-represented. There should have been room for The New Girl and Raising Hope.

I know that I can’t really control what I like and it’s not reasonable for me to expect that others are going to feel the same as I do. There are things that I just want to be true even if they probably aren’t, like TV is better than the movies and that it doesn’t bother me that Tatiana Maslany wasn’t nominated.


As I mentioned, the TV critics love to write about the Emmys. Alan Sepinwall, Tim Goodman x2 x3, Emily Nussbaum, Andy Greenwald and Matt Zoller Seitz.

Also, here are a couple of other interesting links. Alyssa Rosenberg on Orange is the New Black and Caroline Framke on female agency in Orphan Black.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.