TV Shows Vs Films: The Gap Is Narrowing

By Ruth Margolis

Jun 21, 2011

The fact that you’re not reading this on a site called film.com should give you some clue as to where we stand on the big versus small screen debate. Still, we’re not out to convince you that cinema is boring and obsolete (it’s not), nor that films aren’t as good as they used to be. But while cinema has stayed static in the last decade, televised fiction, here and in the US, has evolved into something stately and inspired. Filmic sensibilities--artful camera work, edgy plotting, nuanced characters--have crept in. But instead of a carefully composed two hours, we get up to a full day of screen time eked out over half a year.

Insipid, silly procedurals and formulaic sitcoms are still in production, and that’s not likely to change. But browse TV listings on any given night and you’ll find series so splendidly realised that actors who once instructed their agents to burn any TV scripts are now aching to take part. If you’re a movie star, dabbling in telly used to signify game over--or at least an embarrassing career dip brought on by spending too long in rehab, or failing to halt the aging process. When Kiefer Sutherland took 24 a decade ago, his contemporaries would have sniggered secretly. But five years later, when Alec Baldwin signed on for 30 Rock, the sneerers kept their top lips in a straight line. Similarly, in the UK, no one thought to wince when we learned that Kenneth Branagh would play the lead in the remake of a little-known Swedish detective drama.

In fact, quality television dramas are now more likely to lure movie actors than the next Spielburg or Scorsese, unless of course we’re talking about their projects for the box. Indeed, it’s not just movie actors who are snuffling around TV studios. Directors are also tilting their lenses towards the small screen. Shane Meadows, who wrote and directed This Is England, sequelled it not with another film, but an excellent four-part TV series (This is England ’86). By opting to make a miniseries, Meadows gave himself the space to explore more characters from his massive ensemble cast. The quality didn’t dip just because he had more time to fill.

In the US, more and more movie directors are crossing over to cable (HBO, Showtime, etc), where they enjoy the freedom to pursue edgy stories with lots of swearing. Only, because it’s telly, they have anywhere between six and 24 hours to layer characters and develop plot. Okay, so sometimes they only stick around for the initial stages (like Scorsese with Boardwalk Empire). But at least now Hollywood’s a-list is more likely to boast about their involvement with TV than apologise for it.

So which other movie thoroughbreds can we expect to see switching over to TV? Kate Winslet stars on Sky Altantic's Mildred Pierce on June 25, while Bill Pullman is the new baddie in Torchwood: Miracle Day. Similary in America, Superbad director Greg Mottola will, next year, take charge of the HBO pilot for Aaron Sorkin's newsroom show, More as the Story Develops. And this September, US viewers will meet HBO's horse racing series, Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman and directed by Michael Mann. Once upon a time, Dustin Hoffman would have needed to be a very bad boy indeed to end up on a cable TV show. Now, if anything, it’s a reward.

How do you think TV shows compare to films nowadays? Is the gap narrowing, or do TV execs need to do more?

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  • Lance_Corporal Jun 23, 2011

    Well you get over a 100 channels for 40 dollars a month, as opposed to 8 dollars for 2 hours at the theater. Proportionally you're getting way more content. TV has loads of good shows to watch on nearly every channel. Even MTV has an hour long drama. While doing TV isn't as profitable as a movie, it's also less of a risk in the long run. I think TV has the potential to surpass movies with more content and better timelyness, only the Networks have to try hard in making and promoting great shows instead of cancelling or replaceing them with terrible ones.

  • TrevPlatt Jun 22, 2011

    I used to be a film junkie in the '90s, every Christmas my list would be topped with the lastest from Hollywoods big screens. In the last 3 years or so I usually have 5 or 6 TV shows on the list before the first movie sneeks in. And I know why. Character development. You just can't get grow to love the characters you watch in a 2 hour film (unless they spawn sequels like The Matrix or Rocky). But even in terms of plot, production, acting etc, TV shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and (hopefully) Falling Skies have shown that they can compete with the big screen. Add character development to the mix and I think TV is already better than movies, if only networks could cure themself of the plague that is known as "reality" TV.

  • the_ricksta Jun 22, 2011

    I've loved films and tolerated TV for decades but I must say, altho I still love the silver screen, I am addicted to the quality, gritty dramas that are on TV. I actually think that the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have been forerunners in this regard- usually around the 6 episode mark and the depth of character development and acting quality has been superb.
    Now the U.S. seems to have caught on and we see the birth of SKY Atlantic with big names and excellent plot and writing quality. I think 24 and LOST were definitely big players in showing how epically huge a TV show can be.
    I've just finished the first 10 episodes of Game of Thrones. Incredible. Each show has me gagging for more. It's incredibly immersive.
    My only gripe is the obligatory sex that's seems to be thrown in now- Sparticus then Camelot and again with GoT. It's just not needed. the episodes that feature less of it are much more engaging. Anyways- think that's more than my 2 pennies worth :)

  • drlowdon Jun 21, 2011

    Everything about TV shows has improved over the last 15-20 years. Scripts are better, actors are better and with channels loke HBO more and more risks are being taking. Of course not everything always works out but I now find it difficult to get into films when you only have 10-15 minutes to get to know the characters before the major events in the story take place.