The 5 Best Movies About Television

Film and television have always had a tenuous relationship. Back in the day, television was supposed to kill off the movies; apparently, the movies have never forgotten that threat. The movie world seems to subscribe to the approach best articulated in Reservoir Dogs: “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.”

Still, the movie business shamelessly stripmines television for ideas, and certainly appreciates TV’s promotional power, too. After all, the point of cranking up the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten for this year's Academy Awards was a way to amp up the excitement for this Sunday's Oscar broadcast... and to generate more advertising bucks, more DVD sales, and maybe even a few more tickets sold at the multiplex. You know those TV viewers—they can’t handle the Coen Brothers, but give them the Rob Lowe and Snow White, and Titanic and Leonardo DiCaprio, and maybe even District 9 for best picture, and they’ll tune in.

It’s all a bit like the Seth Rogen-James Franco user-dealer relationship in Pineapple Express. Yeah, the movies and television can hang out a bit. But they’re not really friends. Until there’s a crisis.

This ambivalence has extended to how the movies portray television, which is usually presented as invariably manipulative, shallow, and concerned more with appearances than with substance. As opposed to such high-art cinema as, say, Valentines Day.

But despite everything, the movies sometimes get TV right. And in this Academy Award season we’re here to honor the best movies about television. While we are proud supporters of grade inflation, we draw the line at the inflation of awards-show contenders.

So with our apologies to Anchorman and Galaxy Quest diehards, here are our five nominees for an award we're calling the Lonesome Larry. The honor is named after "Lonesome" Larry Rhodes, the hobo-turned-megalomaniacal-TV-star that Andy Griffith played in the 1957 film A Face In The Crowd. Let’s just say he was no Andy Taylor.

Broadcast News (1988)
An inside look at the operations of a network news show as it struggles with the growing emphasis placed on entertainment over journalism values. Great performances by William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and Holly Hunter—plus a deadpan cameo by Jack Nicholson.

Network (1976)
These days it sounds almost like a documentary. But in its time, this Sidney Lumet-directed movie was a sharp satire about a soon-to-be fired anchorman named Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who announces that he'll commit suicide on the air. Beale's “mad prophet” shtick leads to massive ratings, but he runs into problems when his rants threaten an impending corporate takeover of the network.

Quiz Show (1994)
Directed by Robert Redford, Quiz Show examined the quiz show scandals that rocked television in the 1950s. Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Van Doren, a WASP from a prominent intellectual family who is fed answers to help him dethrone the reigning champ, Herbert Stempel (John Turturro). Stempel is sweaty and fidgety and decidedly ethnic, and his ongoing success is starting to hurt the show’s ratings. It's a great look at early TV and a time of lost innocence in America.

The Truman Show (1998)
Peter Weir’s film starring Jim Carrey earned plenty of accolades when it was released. But it has gained even more cred in recent years, as the premise of a character owned by a corporation and unknowingly living his entire life as a television show no longer seems so far-fetched. Back then, The Real World and its ilk were novelties, not a dominant prime-time genre.

Tootsie (1982)
With acclaimed films such as The Insider and Good Night and Good Luck, the movies have historically been much more interested in television news than entertainment shows. But in addition to its look at the world of struggling New York actors, Sydney Pollack’s Oscar-winner took us into the world of soap operas. And while it’s hard to single out just one Dustin Hoffman performance, his turn here is possibly his best.

And the Lonesome Larry goes to: NETWORK. Folks, this is the Citizen Kane of the movies-about-television genre. And may I use the term prescient? As I sit here, 34 years after Network's release, does the line, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sound at all familiar to viewers of cable news networks?

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