The Tellie Sage: Why TV is better than Film


I remember a time when my pretentious high school English teacher professed that he hadn’t any interest in film. Apparently it was an inferior medium (much less art form) to literature, therefore unworthy of his scholarly time.

Know-it-alls have always presumed the superiority of books to films. They ‘theorize’ cinema knows nothing of character development and theme, at least compared to 4000 rich pages of Dostoevsky. Heck you probably know someone (or are/were that someone) who always boasted the book as better than the movie—and as if it’s a thought-provoking / original statement.

Nowadays, the “media-savvy” intellectual agrees to acknowledge the difference between books and movies and to even concede the merits of both. Sure they sometimes resort to the copout “apples and oranges” excuse when asked to pinpoint the stronger of the two medium’s artistic output, but at least it’s a start.

But a line is drawn with TV. To scholars, intellectuals, socialists, film buffs and nerd-geeks alike, there is a common consensus that TV is bad-news-bear, brain rot for the socially, creatively and responsibly challenged. You’ve heard it all before. TV is cyanide for the kids and a colossal waste of your hard-earned (or “nonexistent”) spare time. It’s nothing but destructive guilty pleasure: shameless, tasteless, pointless. These are the same kind of people that say they don’t enough time for TV when you mention you’re excited for the next episode of Survivor. They’re too busy smoking pot and/or playing World of Warcraft and want to make their life seem more important by making you feel like a lazy piece of shit. Even the non-intellectual nerdy-types (who don’t read, unless it’s Tolkien, Harry Potter or DnD-equivalent of RL Stine) that can enjoy the pleasures of a solid Hollywood film blockbuster or a rerun of Simpson’s will not give TV credit. TV just can’t compare to film and lit.

Well it’s time to set the record straight.

Entertainment and culture have evolved: TV has grown better than film.

I guess I should insert some qualifiers. This assumes an artistic situation where both TV and film have equal budget to spend and where TBS programming of either butchered recuts of Miss Congeniality or quality original programming starring Mariel Hemingway don’t count, TV has the potential for an edge over film.

So without further ado, here are 3 bug reasons TV is better than film:

Cliffhangers beat Sequels

When’s the last time you got as excited for a movie sequel (i.e. Miss Congeniality 2, Be Cool) as you did for the next cliffhanger resolution to any episode of Desperate Housewives, Lost or 24? Sure I’m as excited as you to see Gracie Heart go undercover as a drag queen in Las Vegas to rescue the kidnapped Miss Rhode Island, but couldn’t that wait until home video? What if theatrical releases were only viewable on Sunday nights, when Desperate is on at 9, 10 central? What if ABC was finally airing a new episode to follow up the shocking outing of Andrew Van De Kamp? That’s what I thought. It’s common sense for the couch potato, but TV storylines are by their basest nature on-going and motivated. Sequels are made, because, for the most part, they make money.

But is it fair to only compare TV to sequels, the critical bane of the cinophile?

In TV, we get to know the characters.

By extension of the ongoing storylines TV has the freedom to give its viewers far more time getting acquainted with its core characters than even the best of films could hope to achieve. Even with a solid script, movies offer a two-hour slice of their character’s lives. Sure, with clever storytelling, filmmakers can cram a whole lifetime into this small window of time (Howard Hughes in the Aviator, for example) or focus on the only real juicy part worth telegraphing (Max in Collateral or Stu in Phone Booth) but the audience can’t help but feel gypped, that they are getting the whole picture. But films are about compelling moments in compelling stories, right? Well whoever said there are only so many stories to tell obviously knew that it’s the individual lives that make familiar storylines persuasive and that compelling characters are not limited to the number of gripping stories they can produce. Desperate Housewives may recycle the same old dirty laundry soap operatic plots we all loved and hated in Dallas and weekly updates of pretty much every daytime rag, but it’s getting to see adorable klutz Susan Mayer and sexpot Edie Brit sling the mud that gives the same old plotlines higher elevation.

Grand Plots are all the more Epic

Nothing makes a war more gritty and prolonged than a continuous serial exploitation on TV. Take the conflict of the century in Sunnydale that brewed and erupted in Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This was a season about a war with unimaginable vampire evil (which couldn’t get much cheesier) and yet it somehow managed to convey the grand scope of a dark climax, and the urgency but time-consuming nature of wartime actions like mobilization and training. Even Star Trek: Voyager’s longwinded journey home from the Delta Quadrant raised the stakes by allowing us to experience the weight of being trapped away from home for hours of time instead of a couple. And remember what one tense day can feel like on 24? Jack Bauer’s 24-episode exposés on terrorist scares are not only riveting action television, but they’re like getting 12 movies for the price of one. Now imagine each pair of episodes were given the budget of your average Hollywood stinker. If television could cause heart attacks by the sheer intensity factor …

These are just a few of the reasons why television is, at least in theory, a better medium than film for producing compelling characters and fascinating plotlines. Budgetary constraints used to restrict television to pedestrian storytelling, while simple 2-shots, reversals and close-ups limited the scope of the action. Now camera technology is allowing TV to freely exploit cinematic techniques, so the limits are gone.

Maybe one day high school English teachers will be citing their poignant references from classic episodes of Desperate Housewives.