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TV Or The Movies?

In this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott writes a fascinating article comparing TV to the movies. In light of Billie’s weekly Doux News (which now has me actually looking forward to Sunday nights) and J.D.’s great post on the movies, I got motivated to write a response.

I grew up watching movies and not TV. In fact, we did not own a TV until I was nearly ten and even then it was a small black and white set in the most uncomfortable room in the house. My parents, both English teachers, thought that books were the best form of entertainment and, to their credit, I tend to agree with them still. But, we did go to the movies. The very first movie I saw, my mother took me to see The Sound of Music. I was very little, but I remember being swept away by the story and knowing that, when I grew up, I was going to have a wedding just like that one (oh well).

I loved the movies as a child and I still love movies. I couldn’t even pick one genre that I like better than others – I’ll watch just about any film if it tells a good story. Some of my favourites I have seen so many times that I can quote whole scenes. But I tend to watch them at home. I can no longer stand going to the cinema where people talk, text (what is with that??) and chew in my ear. Why pay for the aggravation when, a couple of months from now, I can watch the movie in my sweats, on my couch with no one talking and no one eating but me? And, all that luxury for a fraction of the price. But, honestly, there just aren’t that many great movies made any more. The exception that proves the rule is The King’s Speech that I not only went to see in the cinema, but went back twice more and have watched it countless times on BluRay.

I agree with Wolcott that TV is now telling stories better. One direct comparison is the BBC’s 2006 televised version of Jane Eyre and the 2011 movie. Although the movie did a fair job, the televised version was so much better. The reason, of course, is that TV had four hours to do what the movie only had two to do. Of course the story and the characters were better fleshed out – they had the time and the space to do so. Another example is the 1995 BBC version of Pride & Prejudice against the 2005 movie. Barring the fact that I am not a fan of either Keira Knightly or Matthew Macfadyen and I think that Colin Firth is the second coming, the BBC version is so true to the book that it was almost like reading it again. Again, six hours instead of two.

Like Wolcott writes, my friends and I discuss television over our pints, not movies. The current rage is Homeland, which is still showing over here. Absolutely everyone I know is watching it and talking about it. I don’t remember the last time that happened with a movie. The Christmas night episode of Downton Abbey brought this country to a stop. I was at a party in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago, and the biggest discussion of the evening was about Game of Thrones – the book or the show. People are passionate about it!

The other joy of television shows is the DVD box sets. It was the only way I could watch 24 – I was too impatient to wait for the following week, so I would avoid the show when it aired and then devour the entire year in one weekend. When I was very ill recently, I watched the first six seasons of Supernatural this way, literally one show after the other over a couple of weeks. It was a brilliant way to keep from going crazy holed up in the house.

Television is far from perfect. There are way too many reality shows, the draw of which I don’t completely understand. Having said that, I tend to get swept up into Masterchef, The Apprentice and Strictly Come Dancing, so perhaps I should descend from my horse.

The other problem with television, especially network shows, is that the season is too long. Forcing the writers to come up with 20+ stories a year inevitably leads to more than our fair share of filler episodes – especially when sweeps are not on. I love Castle, but this year especially felt like a lot of wasted time between episodes that mattered. Cable shows seem to understand this. If we look at the best of cable (Game of Thrones, Justified, True Blood), they all have seasons about half as long. As a result, a lot less filler which makes for a lot more story.

Finally, the shows that draw us in tend to have characters that we learn to love or love to hate. Because there is so much more time for character development, we grow to care passionately about them and talk/write about them as if they were real. All you need to do is look at the current discussions here and elsewhere about Alaric and Caskett, among others, to see what I mean.

But – when all is said and done, would I rather watch Singin’ in the Rain or Once More with Feeling? Gone With the Wind (Clark Gable – my first crush – I was nine) or The Vampire Diaries (Ian Somerhalder – my current crush – I am no longer nine!)? Butch Cassidy or Justified? Romancing the Stone or Friends? The Godfather (any of the three) or The Sopranos? My Cousin Vinny or Hart of Dixie? Thank goodness I don’t have to choose!

What about you? Which would you choose -- television or the movies? Sound off below.


  1. ChrisB, great article!

    Somewhere, somewhere in a comment somewhere, somewhere on this site I talked about my increasing aversion to movies. It stems from all the reasons you mentioned: delivery method, context, and content.

    Mostly, it's content. Movies feel like short stories: fun for a quick read, but over too soon or not elaborate enough. TV feels like a novel. A big novel. Sometimes a series of novels. And that's the sort of immersion I want from entertainment.

    These days, I need a darn good reason to watch a movie.

    Example One: I just watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol this weekend. Why? Because I'm fairly obsessed with the Burj Khalifa, and I wanted to see that one scene, which was awesome. The rest of the movie felt like a three-star Alias episode. Not a coincidence, as it was penned by Alias writers.

    Example Two: I've got Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sitting in its Netflix envelope right now. I'm excited to see it because Daniel Craig is hot, and because I like the books. But it's been sitting in its little envelope for a week now.

    Do I need a reason to watch a TV show? Not really. It needs to seem appealing, but it's the subject matter of the show itself that appeals, not external circumstances like the tallest building in the world, Scientology, or Swedish noir.

    Clark Gable is hot, though.

  2. Awesome article ChrisB !

    I agree with you Josie !

    Used to be a big movie buff, but since a good 10 years or so, my emphasis have shifted to TV. Yes, (plenty of) time to tell a good story (and stories), character growth (oh ya, my fave !) and so on.

    Painful to have people in the theater to ruin your experience. Fortunately, not happening too often.

    Some movie moments will be remembered forever though : seeing the (original and real) Star Wars in 77 dubbed in french with my father; The Shining where the show was as good on screen AND in the theater !

    But, now, TV. Period. I love British TV because their seasons (series) are way shorter than American one. So, much, much better quality. (Remember the 60's and 70's ? where it was 26 ep's per season ??? Too much; quality was indeed diluted)

    Hum, a good American example now is In plain Sight, unfortunately finishing tonight, after 5 great seasons. And yes, plenty of character development (not to mention great writing and sublime acting).

    The DVD (and blueray) explosion is changing the scene. I'm very thankful for the digital technology. (Goodbye VHS) Oh yes, and thank you Internet too.

    I still go to a movie theater, but much less than I used to. Tv is number one with me. And yes, it's even better in DVD with no annoying commercials to break your concentration.

    And my Alias 5 seasons blitz in 2.5 months was an awesome experience !

  3. I find it painfully obvious when I compare movie vs TV comedies. I will laugh more in one episode of any of my favorite TV comedies than almost every adult movie comedy I've seen in the last 10 years combined together. Now I will laugh during many Pixar or Disney cartoons, the recent Muppet movie, or even some of the Dreamworks cartoons. The adult stuff really doesn't do anything for me. Even the Judd Apatow or Wil Ferrell type comedies that everyone raves about just aren't as funny to me as the stuff I can watch on TV.
    I think that "A Dog's Breakfast" is the only movie comedy that I've seen recently that made me repeatedly laugh out loud. And I'm pretty sure that movie was never released to theaters - just dvd and maybe screenings at sci-fi conventions.

  4. Oh what a tough choice..I guess both for all of the reasons you mentioned. I prefer shorter seasons on tv than 22, there's only so much filler you can make..The current season of Castle would be better as 12 episodes..less time to mess with our heroes relationship troubles for one thing.
    Ah Clark Gable..agreed. Hot.


  5. I love Television. Some of my favorite examples of story and sheer entertainment are, or have been, on Television. Yet I'm still a movie buff. I still love the sounds, and scope of the theater. I actually like going to the midnight shows and getting involved with the reactions of the crowds. Now, to be clear I don't like interruptions in the theater experience. But there's something special about being with a group as passionate about what they're seeing as you are.

    I love the long form of Television, getting to see a carefully crafted story unspool over several hours. Learning to love characters, and get involved with their lives. But there is something visceral about movies, and for me I don't think I will ever stop feeling that. As for which one I prefer? I'm honestly incapable of choosing. I have hundreds of movies in my collection, but there are dozens of shows that I consider absolute favorites. Shows that I will watch again in their entirety.

    Thank you for this insightful and personal article Chris B. I truly enjoyed reading it. As for that last paragraph, I love everything you listed with the exception of The Godfather and Hart of Dixie :P

  6. I used to be such a movie buff. Lately, I don't rouse myself to go to the theater unless it's something I'm desperate to see, and that just doesn't seem to happen all that often any more. Television has just gotten better and better (well, some of it has) and as Josie said, a really good television series is like a big, fat novel, while most movies these days are like short stories.

    I love books. I fell in love with books when I was a child, and I still read all the time. If I had to choose between books and television, I would probably choose books. But if I had to choose between television and the movies, television would win, hands down.

    Loved the article, ChrisB.

  7. Excellent post ChrisB!

    When you say: "I loved the movies as a child and I still love movies. I couldn’t even pick one genre that I like better than others – I’ll watch just about any film if it tells a good story", it's like we're of one mind! And my family was the same when it came to books and TV (our first TV arrived when I was 6-7 I think).

    I'm still in love with the movies, the experience of watching them in the cinema... in a comfortable seat with a giant screen and an excellent sound system! I manage to avoid most of the "annoying" crowd by going at times when I'm almost alone (for example "siesta" time in Spain... 4pm shows are almost always empty!).

    However, I have noticed in recent years that a TV obsession has taken the place of my original movie obsession! Where less than a decade ago I was spending hours and hours reading blogs and websites about movies (and the Oscars, am a sucker for the little gold fellah!), now I don't go near them, I pretty much stick to TV stuff! I also used to buy a lot of movie dvds, but now I rarely do unless I absolutely adored the film or could use it in one of my English classes. While my TV box-set collection is slowly growing...

    I used to pop a movie in for the evening, now it's TV. And you're right, in most cases it's because good TV shows are basically a 12h movie! So they have a much better shot of telling a good tale than the one which can be told in 2-3h. We also seem to be getting better writers in TV shows than in the movies, what with the studios just craving the remake/sequels/prequels/tentpoles stuff.

    So I guess to answer your question: I now prefer TV to Movies, but there's no way I'm going to stop watching what I like on the BIG screen! ;o)


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