Slate's David Haglund has a #slatepitch-y piece titled with the imperative "Stop Saying That TV Is Better Than Movies These Days," and he's not just bugged about what has become a cliché. Haglund is a film buff, and he's touchingly protective of the cinema, a place that where I spent a good chunk of my childhood but almost never visit these days.
Haglund can't dismiss TV outright, so he instead charges critics who champion the box with an "attempt to narrow the range of what sophisticated viewers feel obligated to watch" (abetted, I assume, by magazine and website editors who are giving these critics more and more space.) TV critics, he writes, are not only intolerant, they're predictable:
Critics who claim that TV is better than the movies now would generally, it seems, prefer that there only be one [ascendent medium]. And when it comes to quality, TV remains, for the most part, a great simplifier. Ask nearly any professional critic — not to mention many amateur ones — for the best TV shows of the last decade or so, and you will get a very familiar list, starting with The Sopranos and ending, probably, with Breaking Bad, or maybe, say, Homeland or The Americans. You will almost certainly have heard of every show. You are not likely to encounter the sometimes bewildering variety that a collection of film critics is likely to present you with.
Yes, good TV is still less "bewildering" than good cinema to keep up with, but that's not so much a matter of quantity as it is a delivery system that's superior to the film industry. Good films now dribble their way into the consciousness of the cultural elite. Some premiere at film festivals and get reviewed months before a significant number of people can see them. The lucky ones run for a few weeks in the shrinking number of cinemas not devoted to 3-D movies. Eventually, on an unpredictable schedule, they turn up on Netflix (maybe on streaming video, maybe not) and on cable TV. Many of them get a second chance at (brief) reviews when they become available for purchase on DVD, which is how almost no one gets to see them.
There are still some sophisticates who make film a priority in their entertainment habits, provided they live in a city with enough arthouses. (Does Boston still qualify?) But most of us hear about independent and low-budget masterworks when we hear friends mention them at parties, see them as personalized recommmendations on Amazon, or get around to checking off lists of "Best Movies of the Past Decade" and the like.
In contrast, a well-made television series becomes available to the entire country at once. Even shows on subscription services like HBO and Netflix are easily seen by millions within a few days of their being reviewed on Slate or any other entertainment site. This summer, Netflix's prison drama Orange Is the New Black is deservedly getting a lot of critical coverage, which should help it to attract thousands of new viewers by the day.
Haglund admits that "for much of the year, you can’t find good movies just by driving to the multiplex, while there’s often something good waiting on your DVR." In this way, film and TV have switched positions. In the early 1980s, when I entered college, you had to watch the live broadcast of a TV program or miss it entirely, unless it was popular enough to be rerun the next summer. At the same time, there were enough cinemas for well-reviewed films to run for months, even with screenings that attracted only a couple dozen people. I remember leisurely working my way through critics' recommendations to see Diner, Diva, My Dinner with Andre, This Is Spinal Tap, Atlantic City, The Year of Living Dangerously, etc. In some cases, I missed initial reviews and had my interest piqued by follow-up pieces or by critics taking any opportunity to champion their favorites. (Siskel and Ebert nagged me into seeing a lot of films I was skeptical of.)
Today, you can see any TV series worth talking about, in its entirety, at your convenience, thanks to "on demand" cable options and streaming-video sites like Hulu. By contrast, non-blockbuster films get pushed off the limited number of cinema screens faster than most of us become aware of them. (On a Sunday evening in July, I counted only 14 current films being shown in commercial theaters in Boston, with 11 more in the neighboring communities of Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.)
Film lovers, meet theater buffs
I really am sympathetic toward film lovers like Haglund, but I'm also snickering a little because before I started writing about television, I was a part-time theater critic. Now that's an art form that can sing the blues. When (surviving) newspapers started to slash arts coverage, it was local theater that suffered the most. In a big city like Boston, there are some plays and musicals that get far bigger audiences than arthouse fims, and they get a fraction of the coverage. Film is always going to get more attention, thanks to its more recognizable actors and its national PR machine. Still, movie critics might gain a little appreciation of the challenges in covering an art form that doesn't overshadow all others.
There's no easy way to restore the relevancy of smart film writing. The cinemas that could help a film grow through word-of-mouth are never coming back. Ironically, one solution would be to have "home theater" options like HBO and Netflix to package independent films into a kind of TV series, releasing and promoting one film at a time to encourage people to watch it in unison (or, at least, during the same month). That's essentially what happened with Steven Soderbergh's Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, which was released theatrically in Europe but shown on HBO in the United States — and the subject of more long-form reviews, including on Slate, than many arthouse films are lucky to get.
The problem here is that HBO, etc. may not ever be interested in promoting films the way they promote their original product. And the Hollywood PR machine (and film critics themselves) is likely to balk at shifting the bulk of a film's coverage from its theatrical premiere to the date at which it becomes available to home viewers, even if the current system puts a few thousand people in major cities before millions of people all over the country.
I do know that it's futile to argue for less coverage of television because it has an unfair advantage in stimulating popular discussion. Sure, we need more arts coverage of all types from intelligent and experienced critics. But television isn't going to lose its pre-eminence any time soon.
Below: A trailer from the days when film critics really mattered. (HT: The A.V. Club)