Have Television Shows Surpassed Movies in the Pop Culture Landscape?
In today's edition of the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott surveys the wreckage of a summer of bad movies (my eyes still burn from Eat, Pray, Love) and wonders if "any of the movies surfacing this fall [will] provoke the kind of conversation that television series routinely do, breaking beyond niches into something larger." Well, hopefully! But in his lament of the lameness of the film industry, isn't Scott giving the television industry a bit too much credit?
This bad summer movie season, in what seems to be one of the best television years ever, reinforces a suspicion that has been brewing for some time. Television, a business with its own troubles, is nonetheless able to inspire loyal devotion among viewers, to sustain virtual water-cooler rehashes on dozens of Web sites and to hold a fun-house mirror up to reality as movies rarely do.
Look back over the past decade. How many films have approached the moral complexity and sociological density of The Sopranos or The Wire? Engaged recent American history with the verve and insight of Mad Men? Turned indeterminacy and ambiguity into high entertainment with the conviction of Lost? Addressed modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of Modern Family? Look at Glee, and then try to think of any big-screen teen comedy or musical -- or, for that matter, movie set in Ohio -- that manages to be so madly satirical with so little mean-spiritedness.
Well then. There's something inherently flawed with that initial premise because Scott seems to be forgetting about plenty of recent, comparable movies; didn't The Kids Are All Right address "modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of Modern Family," only moreso? Isn't there an apt comparison to be made between Inception and Lost, two twisty sci-fi genre amalgams that sparked fervent discussion and debate?
In that same regard, Scott's argument -- which was first suggested by Steven Zeitchik in the LA Times -- ignores the very many terrible television shows currently clogging the airwaves. For every Mad Men, there's a Hellcats; for every Lost, there's a FlashForward. Just look at the upcoming fall premiere schedule: How many of those shows -- cough, Outsourced -- will even be on the air in 2011, let alone producing gripping television?
So has TV landed atop the cultural mountain? Not really. But maybe Scott's entire article is reverse psychology designed to make film producers think they're lagging behind their television rivals, and thus force them to create an even better product. In which case: Yes, movies stink.