Say, did you know that television has gotten really good now? You bet your ass you did, because you’re alive and reading the internet. You could no more be ignorant of the rise of Quality Television than you could of the existence of Pizza Rat, or of how Donald Trump is president now because of the traitor Jill Stein. I can’t deny it, nor would I ever want to. Hell, I wrote a book about it, as at least a half-dozen Americans are already aware!
The curious thing about the age of Quality Television, though, is that it’s set up a weird competition between movies and TV of the sort that American culture hasn’t seen since the early days of the idiot box, when nervous film studios worried that home viewing would be the death of their medium. It seems obvious to me that, regardless of the changes wrought by streaming services and demographics, film and television are still entirely separate media, and asking if TV is the new movies is like asking if apples are the new oranges. And yet, here we are! Here, indeed, am I, talking about it myself, filling space as if it’s a question that needs to be addressed rather than one that can safely be ignored.
Look: there is really nothing that can happen that will make television and film be the same thing. Not the actual technology of filming (that is, film being made using one media and video another), not the technology of delivery (television and film both being made available via streaming), not the quality or the quantity of the production, not the narrative framework. Bringing an ongoing narrative structure and a loose framework of continuity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and for a better world, let’s jettison for all time the concept of ‘cinematic universes’ starting in 2017) doesn’t make them not movies. Letting name-brand Hollywood directors produce or direct television series doesn’t make them not television. The integration of film and television properties into a semi-coherent whole, as is happening with a lot of franchises, is just a marketing gimmick. No matter what developments have taken place over the last ten to fifteen years, film is still film and television is still television.
Cinema has its own language, its own rhythms, its own sense of narrative structure. So does television. The production processes for the two have never been the same, and even with consolidation and synergy, they likely never will be. Television will always be more episodic and film will always be more discrete. Even with the growth of the foreign markets and changes in the nature of distribution and licensing, the two media have entirely different financial structures and different measures of success or failure. Television will always be able to do things that cinema cannot, and vice versa. Quality of product and other critical measures have nothing to do with the case, and never have; while there has certainly been a rise in the skill and ambition displayed in television programming over the last few decades, that is a coincidental and not an essential element of the medium. Talent has always bounced back and forth between the big and small screens, and the direction and angle of that bounce may have changed, but it hasn’t really made any measurable difference.
So how did we find ourselves here? Part of it, I think, is simply a question of semantics, of nomenclature, of the sort that never bothers casual fans of either medium, but which drives critics and pundits, who tend to have compulsive tendencies, to distraction: is a movie released by a television network a movie or a television show? Are Netflix and Amazon streaming services, television producers, or film studios? Does it really matter? I don’t think so, but some people seem beside themselves with frustration. This started when Netflix started releasing stuff like Beasts of No Nation, which caused headaches over whether or not it should be considered a motion picture in terms of Oscar eligibility. It carried on when debates began over whether or not TV series produced by cable networks and streaming services should be eligible for Emmys. And it reached a sort of apotheosis this year, when O.J.: Made in America — a multipart documentary series produced by the ESPN cable network — caused all sorts of handwringing over whether it should be considered a movie or a television show or something else altogether for the purpose of end-of-year lists and awards shows. The answer to this is relatively simple: the Oscars and Emmys are both terrible and should be canceled forever, and critics are under no obligation to anyone to establish arbitrary rules for what can and can’t show up on their best-of recaps.
And that’s maybe a little closer to the heart of the ‘television is the new cinema’ fixation. Up until fairly recently, film criticism was something of a prestige occupation, while TV critics, where they existed at all, were considered far down the scale in terms of class and, to use a word that’s tellingly in common usage these days, prestige. Part of this was a function of the material being produced, of course; most television was garbage and movies made for TV even more so. Of course, that’s largely still the case; the proliferation of Quality Television is largely a function of the economy of scale, reflected in the far greater number of networks and outlets. But around 2000, concurrent with the rise of the internet, the number of paying jobs for TV critics (or, more accurately, recappers) shot up while, as newspapers began to tighten their belts, the number of paying jobs for movie critics went way down. Television’s episodic nature, segmented and ephemeral even when it began to develop a sense of continuity, was tailor-made for the internet, while film, which lent itself more to long-term contemplation over time, was strictly old-media. And, reading a lot of the TV-vs.-movies war correspondence, it’s hard not to get the sensation that television critics are enjoying a chance to raise their own standing and get back at those old-school snobs who used to look down on them.
Regardless, it’s not really worth spilling all the pixels that have been spilled over it; I even feel foolish addressing it here. A good critical mind knows the strengths and weaknesses of each medium, and doesn’t let minor cultural and technological shifts convince her that some kind of revolutionary overthrow has taken place. If we spent more time on assessing the actual quality of Quality Television and less time worrying over its position on some theoretic totem pole of the arts, we’d have a lot better critical material to show for it.