Monday, September 19, 2011


After watching the Emmy's last night, I say yes. The quality of television that was honored last night is evidence of just how far the medium has surged past movies in these contemporary times. In fact, TV has become so good that we are now in the middle of a new golden age of the medium. The film world pales in comparison. Sure, there are wonderful films out there, but they have become fewer and farther in between. Instead what we mostly get are franchise reboots or sequels. Meanwhile, it’s TV that dares to create the more original and provocative work. Ignore the reality shows and anything with a Kardashian in it, and you’ll find amazing things on the small screen that trump most anything on the big screen these days. Particularly in genres that film used to own.
Bryan Cranston stars in BREAKING BAD on TV. (And in DRIVE in movie theaters)

Take thrillers, for instance. A movie like the just opened DRIVE is well made but its script is riddled with the same old clich├ęs that virtually every other “lone wolf vs. the mob” thriller traffics in. Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone made this type of movie a dozen times each. DRIVE is a triumph of style and mood but it’s painfully old hat with its obvious plotting and two-dimensional characters.

A better thriller, and one that also stars Bryan Cranston, is BREAKING BAD, now in its fourth season on the AMC cable channel. True, it has a loner battling the mob too, but that’s where similarities end. Its hero isn’t a handsome hunk like Ryan Gosling but rather a cranky, middle-aged cancer patient named Walt (the sublime Cranston). Walt used to teach chemistry in high school but now secretly cooks Meth for the mob so he can pay for his chemotherapy and assure his family’s financial well-being. It’s not glamorous or romantic like DRIVE with all of its midnight drives and longing looks between Gosling and damsel-in-distress Carey Mulligan. It’s ugly and dark and riveting in ways that most thrillers on the big screen have forgotten how to be. That’s because it twists and turns its narrative and never quite goes where you think it’s going. You won’t see anything as tense or as fresh anywhere on the big screen, not in the latest Jason Statham vehicle, not in the umpteenth Wolverine movie.  
Alexander Skarsgard and Stephen Moyer are superior vampires on TV's TRUE BLOOD.
And while we’re talking thrills and chills, compare movie vampires vs. TV vampires these days. A big movie vampire is a guy like the TWILIGHT series’ Edward Cullen. Some bloodsucker he is. He twinkles in the daylight, re-ups for high school every four years, and won’t hunt humans, preferring to nosh on small animals. (I feel sorry for the squirrels!) Meanwhile, over on HBO’s TRUE BLOOD series, the vamps are macho guys like Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) who like to bite, fight and f**k. Ladies, which bad boy would you rather have nibblin’ at your neck?

It’s amazing that horror can be done so much better on TV what with commercial breaks and all, but it's true. And the best scares today can be found on THE WALKING DEAD on AMC's network. What makes it so utterly scary is not its gore but rather how it shows normal citizenry turning monstrous to fight the zombies. Most horror movies would rather spend their time finding new ways to eviscerate teens than plum such psychological depths. How wrong.
Michael C. Hall as DEXTER, a serial killer hiding in the police department.

And isn’t Showtime's DEXTER (the all-American yet glowering Michael C. Hall) eminently more chilling than Jigsaw from SAW? What’s scarier, a dying old fart hiding behind a clown doll or a serial killer hiding in plain sight as a police blood spatter expert?

TV has always done comedy exceedingly well and that’s truer than ever today. How many movie comedies are as funny as ABC's MODERN FAMILY or Comedy Central's THE DAILY SHOW? There are more laughs in a mere 22 minutes of either of those comedic gems than most big screen comedies. 
The incredibly hilarious ensemble cast of ABC's MODERN FAMILY.
Even more amazing is that lately TV is doing period pieces as well as any film. One could easily put AMC's series MAD MEN or HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE or Masterpiece's DOWNTON ABBEY on PBS up against something like THE KING’S SPEECH and compare just as favorably. And the fact that TV does period just as exquisitely week in and week out is truly extraordinary.  
The cast of TV's MAD MEN, winner of four consecutive Emmys for best drama series.
Look, I love movies. And I know that the big screen can get out of its rut. The promising fall and winter slate of movies, from THE IDES OF MARCH to TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, certainly will help. And 2011 has already seen some terrific movies too, like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, BEGINNERS, THE HELP and HIGHER GROUND. But Hollywood needs to make more movies like this that are as smart and fresh. Tent pole epics are not delivering the audiences anymore, probably because they seem more like business calculations than entertainment. A movie’s goal should be to truly delight, not set up another multimillion dollar franchise. Stop with all the reboots and sequels and super heroes! Can you imagine what could have been made with the money that was put into a dud like THE GREEN LANTERN? Probably a dozen midnights in Paris. The mind reels.


  1. I couldn’t agree more with what you said in your last paragraph. The cheaper budgets on television must invite more risk-taking on unknown projects and writers. Certainly the talent can’t be busting the budget as much as in the film industry.

    The bloated Hollywood budgets of too many “big” movies today are painting the industry right into a corner. They don’t dare to fail, therefore they don’t dare take risks on unknown quantities. Perhaps Hollywood has gotten too big to fail? Hence the tried and true re-hashings of characters and stories with built-in guarantees. Of particular annoyance to me is recycling the (wonderfully done) LION KING again, from 1994, just to push higher 3D ticket prices on a nation in recession, as well as the upcoming Blu-Ray release. Needed, really?

    Well, maybe needed by the industry as it struggles to recoup the ridiculous costs of marketing and production of just about everything. And CGI expense is not always to blame.

    Sometimes it’s the stars’ bloated salaries, which as I watch mediocre film after mediocre film this year, I find harder to justify. If Hollywood wants to keep costs down, they should adopt the more financially due diligent approach of “pay for performance”. Instead of a whopping multi-million dollar payout up front, give the biggest stars some percentage of the back–end profits that they must earn to make. Meaning, they only do well if the film does well.

    One story I was pleased to hear about was the doggedness of Brad Pitt to get the upcoming MONEYBALL made. After various script rewrites, director controversies and money woes, Pitt hung on to making this picture because he believed in the beauty of it, the story of Billy Beane, despite the near death of the project. Certainly a big risk for a film based on American baseball, statistics, and mathematical models for improving pro ball draft success. (How’s that gonna play offshore?) What impressed me the most was his agreement to cut his up-front salary drastically to ensure the deal got done. And from what I hear, it should be a fine film. And he deserves every dollar on the back end he earns, if this one knocks it out of the park. But only then.

  2. Well said, Fan. Smaller focused projects would be refreshing instead of all those bloated special effects extravaganzas emanating from Hollywood these days. Which aren't all that special, are they?