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Movies vs. Television

TV critic Brad Oswald squares off with movie critic Randall King on which is better

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You couldn't exactly call it an age-old debate, given the relatively brief histories of the entertainment sources involved. But it's an argument that has been going on for a couple of decades, at least, and the intensity of the discussion seems to increase with every passing season:

In the current pop-culture environment, which is the superior medium: movies or TV?

Well, if you were looking for two people who could get into a verbal sparring session over the big-screen/small-screen standoff without any chance of actually settling the issue, you might want to pick a professional TV watcher and a guy who gets paid to go to the movies.

Here's what happened when we asked Free Press TV critic Brad Oswald and Free Press movie critic Randall King to consider the television-vs.-movies question:



It was just a couple of weeks ago, during the Emmy Awards telecast, and it was one of those moments that reinforced a long-held view -- that television is, and has been for several years now, better than movies.

Kevin Costner -- actor, producer, director, Oscar winner -- accepting an Emmy for his work in the highly rated cable mini-series Hatfields vs. McCoys. In his speech, Costner talked about how much he loves being an actor; what he didn't say, but probably should have, is that for most actors, television is the place to be if they're interested in portraying interesting characters in well-written dramas and comedies.

Look at the quality of TV series writing these days, across a wide range of genres: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Walking Dead, Dexter, True Blood, Weeds, Sons of Anarchy, Justified. Those shows are premium-cable offerings, but there's also top-quality main-network fare such as Modern Family, The Good Wife, The Big Bang Theory and Glee, as well as well-made PBS shows like Downton Abbey, Sherlock and the just-arrived Call the Midwife.

TV's the place to be.



While I prefer the movie-going experience over the TV watching experience, I cannot deny the obvious: There is some excellent television out there.

Indeed, there is no point denying there are some things television currently does better than movies, especially in the field of comedy. Satire, for example: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, some of the political stuff on Saturday Night Live. The romantic-comedy movie is at some kind of all-time low, while TV shows, say New Girl and Parks and Recreation, are still capable of producing a giggly combination of romantic and the absurd. Within those fields, I admit, you win. This year.

And yet, I prefer movies. Movies require commitment and action. TV is watched passively. You go to the movies while in active courtship. You watch TV when you're in a settled, tired relationship where at the most, you may be required to put on some sweatpants and pop a beer.

Following along that line: even the best TV programming goes into decline. Two of the network shows you mentioned, Glee and The Big Bang Theory, have already jumped the shark, have they not?

And what of movie stars in decline, such as Kevin Costner? They go to TV, of course.



Oh, please. It's not just Costner, who I'll grant is on the down side of his career. Consider the roster of big-screen stars who have crossed over to TV in recent years: Glenn Close (Damages), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Anjelica Huston (Smash), Jessica Lange (American Horror Story), Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Nick Nolte (Luck), Holly Hunter (Saving Grace), Ashley Judd (Missing), Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), Laura Dern (Enlightened), Laura Linney (The Big C), Maria Bello (Prime Suspect) -- and that's just movie stars who've chosen to appear in series. There's also numerous feature-film actors, from Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen in Hemingway and Gellhorn to Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce, who've decided that the best available script at a certain moment in their careers was for a TV movie or mini-series.

If the actors who make movies and TV shows think the small screen is the place to be, it's kind of hard to argue.



When you look at the big picture, movies endure better. Movies link back to the past. You can watch inventive, and innovative movies such as Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca from more than 70 years ago and they still feel fresh.

Some of the "classic" TV shows of the '70s have not aged well. Compare that to "classic" television such as, say, I Love Lucy, currently broadcast daily on Joy TV. That was a show that had its share of classic bits, no question. But you have to slog through hours of obnoxious behaviour and shameless mugging to find them. (By the way, has anyone ever noticed what an awful person the character of Lucy Ricardo is? What a whining, wheedling, needy, aggressive, shameless self-promoter! How did Ricky put up with her?)

Try and sit through shows broadcast in 1972, such as The Mod Squad, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In or The Brady Bunch ... without squirming. Take a sampling of movies from 1972: The Godfather, Cabaret, Deliverance. They're still brilliant. Only Deliverance will make you squirm, and that's for dramatically appropriate reasons.

Television is more subject to the whims of pop culture and is more easily stale-dated as a result.



I'll repeat something I've said often and have written in my TV reviews as recently as a week ago: the golden age of TV is right now. There's more great television being produced at the moment than at any other time in history. It might be true that an evening spent watching retro-TV offerings like The Brady Bunch or Sanford and Son might induce a few cringes, but a weekend spent marathon-viewing a full season box set of The Wire or The Sopranos or Justified will expose you to some the greatest long-form screen storytelling you'll ever find. And that'll be as true 20 years from now as it is this weekend.

And then, of course, there's the experience of watching these great shows in the comfort and blissful silence of your own home. With so many homes now equipped with HD-ready large-size TV screens, complete with surround sound and perhaps even 3D capability, why would you go to the multiplex to listen to rude moviegoers talking and texting behind you when you can enjoy a full cinematic experience at home?



Yes, I see your point. Who needs to go out when you can stay in? There is something appealing about the sedentary lifestyle one usually equates with television-watching.

They probably debated the same thing in the '50s. Why go out to a movie about a Blob when you could stay home and be a Blob?

By the way, the talking and texting thing, I can say as a regular moviegoer, is not as bad as some people think. Over the past 10 years, I think I've only been put out by one knucklehead who insisted on answering his cellphone during a movie. I've certainly sat through more pre-show admonitions against texting than I've encountered actual texting.

And by the way, from whence do these bad habits come? I point the finger at some of the more idiotic TV watchers who assume all entertainment should be consumed while interacting with others. I personally noticed that the whole problem of movie theatre talkers became a problem after the wide availability of VCRs.

Coincidence? I think not.

And for every episode of quality television you can name, there is dreck on an unprecedented scale. It's also known as reality TV, the worst possible middle ground between documentary and scripted entertainment. There's only one Justified (a series I especially admire. Why? Because it has the smarts and production values of a first-class movie). But there are multiple iterations of Real Housewives, spreading through the broadcast landscape like some kind of invasive species of cultural kudzu vine.

And seriously, can you really sell me on the superiority of television while Here Comes Honey Boo Boo exists?

On the revolting subject of kiddie beauty pageants, I can watch Little Miss Sunshine, which has some interesting and funny things to say about the phenomenon, but I couldn't watch a minute of Toddlers and Tiaras without getting terminally creeped out.



I fully concede that there's no defending Honey Boo Boo, or Jersey Shore or Toddlers and Tiaras or even Hillbilly Handfishing, for that matter. But the beauty of television in the 21st century is that you don't have to watch them. Change the channel; check the convenient onscreen menu and you'll find something great that's actually worth watching. If you plunk down 12 bucks and walk into a theatre that's showing Battleship or That's My Boy, your money's gone and you're stuck with the mess that's up on the screen.








See? Problem solved.

(Or is it? Feel free to weigh in on the comment section of this story at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 G1

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