Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Rise of Televison

For most of its history, television has been considered the step-child of movies. They are very close mediums in that they both are built on the concept of motion pictures. But for years that was where the similarity ended. Television, for much of its history, has ben the repository of entertainment fluff, like variety shows, sitcoms, and soap operas. Cinema has always been considered a step above TV in the realm of moving pictures, and cinema has been an art form that is today considered every bit as important as opera or the fine arts.

Does cinema still hold sway over television 10 years into the 21st century? is television still a lesser version of the movies that we all spend billions at the box office to see?

While television in the 21st century is still full of time-filling nonsense, in recent years there have been many programs that have broken out and achieved greater prominence as art. The Sopranos on HBO may be the first successful television show that deserves a cinema-like appreciation. While the show's draw were the gangsters who commited heinous acts of violence, they were balanced  with a focus the psychological exploration of what it meant to be a modern American family. It delved into subtleties that have rarely been seen in television, and are only matched by the likes of films such as Citizen Kane.

Once The Sopranos reached the peaks of television success, executives salivated at finding the next Sopranos. This meant they were willing to take risks, willing to push the envelope even further than The Sopranos did. Soon, shows such as The Shield, The Wire, and Mad Men delved even deeper into the psyche of modern America and posed serious questions on marriage, violence, and politics rarely seen on the proverbial "boob tube".

The first wave of these shows was primarily on cable. The rise of DVD allowed easier access to programs from HBO and Showtime. It was easy to enjoy shows like HBO's Rome or Carnivale even if we didn't have a subscription to cable. DVRs have further made it possible to catch these shows after they are broadcast, heightening cable's popularity like never before.

The old guard broadcast networks have recently followed suit with programs like Lost30 Rock, and The Office. The traditional networks reliance on advertising, however, have not allowed them to get quite as psychologiclally "dark" or as in depth as cable. Networks still produce 20-24 episode seasons, causing writers of network television to have to stretch out complicated story arcs instead of being as focused as they are in a 13 episode cable program. Networks also rely more on ratings than cable, since network ad rates are the all-important factor in broadcast network television.

Films, on the other hand, seem to be trending downward in complexity. With few exceptions, films in the modern day trend toward the easy storyline, the big explosions, or the dirty joke. Television was always considered the place for cheap laughs and sub-par drama. While television still has its share of absurd programing like Big Brother, Two and a Half Men, and the many simplified procedural dramas like CSI, the multiplexes seem to fill more and more with pap like Transformers and 2012. Like TV sitcoms of the past, cinema has even cornered a market in the ridiculous humor category with low-brow hits like The Hangover.

The point isn't that television is better than films. What is really happening is that television has, at times, managed to rise to the quality of cinema and even surpassed it. While it seems to be easier and easier to find complex artistic programing on television, it becomes more and more difficult to find it at the cineplex. Movies from 2009 like Precious, Moon, and The Hurt Locker were more difficult to find than ever at your local mall, and were often times only found in big city art house cinemas or in limited engagements in regional theaters. Today these movies seen more and more often on DVD in the home. People are expecting more from their TV and less from their cinema, and this is quickly changing how we all view the moving picture.

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