Television, and the experience of watching television, have undergone a radical shift in the twenty-first century. While the internet promises (or threatens) to make the experience of watching broadcasted TV entirely redundant, as well as altering the viewing experience irrecoverably from that of a weekly drip feed to that of a televisual binge, the quality of television has been violently torn in two very separate directions. Indeed, television has never been better, or worse, than it is in the current moment.
On the one hand, the global realisation by television networks that general audiences are highly engaged by content that draws on the voyeuristic impulse, has resulted in an overabundance of reality television. Of course, the category of reality television comes with a plethora of sub-genres (some far more acceptable than others), but generally they can be divided into the exploitative and the innocuous. The exploitative end has its earliest (and perhaps nastiest) incarnations in programs like Big Brother or the tragically inappropriate The Anna Nicole Show, and can more recently be seen in (admittedly less severe) examples like Jersey Shore. The innocuous reality show is made up of everything else I suppose – shows about cooking, pawn shops, and Louisiana gator hunters. Such programming covers everything from the educational to the inane, but I suppose the same could be said of any other genre in television history.
On the other hand, television has reached new heights in terms of quality, critical reception and audience engagement. This new wave of quality television, commonly understood to have begun with the much lauded HBO program, The Sopranos, appears to have come out of a significant gap that lay in the market in the late 1990s. The qualitative gap between the cinematic and television experience was gargantuan, not just in terms of production quality and performance, but also at the basic writing level. The reasons for this were many, but predominantly came down to issues of cultural legacy, audience expectation and simple economics (an article for another day, perhaps). In any event, the commencement of The Sopranos; its outstanding critical and public reception; and the ease of access provided by internet downloads in the years that followed, have allowed for a whole new breed of television show focused on strong writing and far more adult content than has ever graced television screens in the past.
And people get through these shows fast. The idea of coming into a show midway through a season run is almost unthinkable now (earlier episodes are readily available online), as is the idea that one would watch only a single episode of a favoured program each week. Indeed, Netflix set a game-changing precedent in early 2013 when they released the entire first season of the new BBC series, House of Cards, online all at once. The notion of waiting for next week is teetering on the brink of becoming entirely obsolete.
And to an extent, this is a natural reaction to audience demands. I remember burning through a stack of Twin Peaks VHS tapes in the 1990s as soon as I got my hands on the them. And more recently, I’ve certainly binged my way through series like Deadwood, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. The reasons for this kind of consumption are many, I suppose. The superior production quality, acting, and writing are significant general factors. And apart from the fact that the content is readily available online, and that there are so many well-regarded series to watch that one feels compelled to burn through each show as fast as possible, this new mode of adult-oriented storytelling is far more intelligent in its use of overarching narratives and open-ended conclusions to drive viewer engagement through sequential episodes.That is to say, they more expertly achieve the task that television drama has always sought to achieve – keeping viewers wanting more.
This might sound like an obvious thing to say, but one need only look at The X-Files, CSI, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or any 1990s sitcom to see that in the past, the focus of television programs has been traditionally far more imprecise. That’s not to say that these older shows do not have linear narrative development, but they more frequently tend to juggle between narratively significant and insignificant content – forward momentum and filler, if you will. In The X-Files, for example, one might have seen an episode about Mulder’s overarching goal to undercover “the truth”, followed by an episode about a case that has no relevance to Mulder’s quest. Or in Deep Space Nine, a narratively significant episode might be followed by a diversionary episode focused on a particular character’s holiday. In other words, earlier series were (at least from my perspective) far more imprecise, mellower, and took a less driven approach to television drama. This is not a qualitative judgement per se, just an observation. There will be countless exceptions I’m sure – but my point is that, generally speaking, the contemporary high-concept television program very aggressively attempts to drive the viewer directly from each episode to the next through an unwavering forward-focussed narrative structure.
So as this new world of high-quality television permeates the internet and modes of viewing, how is it to be understood when placed in contrast to the feature film. Do they fulfil different needs? Will the lines blur between the two modes even further? I would suggest that both the modern series and the feature film have enough strengths and weaknesses to keep each other alive, although my personal preferences see me leaning far in the direction of the cinematic for several reasons. Admittedly, the structure of these new high-quality TV series, as I touched upon earlier, is the product of a far more disciplined hand than that of earlier eras. Stronger character development, a greater dedication to forward momentum in the service of the overarching narrative, and a deeper appreciation for formal production elements have contributed greatly to the changing face of television. But the reality is that television is still limited in many ways.
Firstly, commercial and time constraints (as well as the need for certain levels of consistency) still limit the formal qualities of television production. These programs look professional, but ultimately they are (up to this point) constructed in merely aesthetically serviceable ways. In other words, the composition of each shot in a TV series is based on a pragmatic need to simply communicate the content of a scene. Within cinema, of course, each shot is of greater import to the overarching form, and in even the lowliest of productions has been considered prior to the production phase. Perhaps more importantly, cinema offers the film’s author the opportunity to use these formal elements for the purposes of individual artistic expression, something television shows no signs of offering in the near future.
Secondly, even with the greater level of discipline now apparent in television narrative, it is inevitable that the television program, given enough time, will need to start diverting into a range of melodramatic narrative tributaries. This affords the television program a unique ability to further flesh out its characters, but it also ultimately leads to a certain generic quality over time that begins to reveal a deterioration of unique vision. For example, the narrative dissimilarities of shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire seem to deteriorate over time. All three of these feature deeply troubled alpha-male heads of criminal organisations whose character severities soften as they go through the not dissimilar ordeals of attempting to see two steps ahead of everybody else while dispatching enemies and friends (Breaking Bad is structured similarly, but in the inverse). These are all brilliant shows – I’m not attempting to claim otherwise – but ultimately they show the beginnings of a kind of creative degradation in the new post-HBO high quality program, largely caused by the simple need to service a narrative on an ongoing basis (perhaps Game of Thrones, based on a series of books, offers an interesting counterpoint here).
Thirdly, the gargantuan face of the television series offers a myriad of opportunities for spending time with characters and exploring narrative worlds, but conversely, its girth will always result in an imprecision (both thematically and poetically) not present in the feature film. I’d suggest that there is no point made in the moral gap between Walter White and Hank Schrader of Breaking Bad that wasn’t made just as perfectly in that between Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly in Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces. Nor will Boardwalk Empire ever offer quite as much insight or emotive perfection as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America.
There is room in this world for great television – and I hope to see the form continue to develop. But the feature film still remains, to my mind, the moving image in it highest form.