Is ‘Breaking Bad’ proof that modern TV is better than film?

Is TV better than film? The answer is clearly yes if reactions to the “Breaking Bad” finale are any indication. The AMC drama won its first Emmy for Best Drama Series in September and dominated the media during its last eight weeks on the air. Compare that to “Argo,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture earlier this year. In 10 or 20 years, will more people still be talking about “Argo” or “Breaking Bad”? Is anyone still talking about “Argo” even now?

The swan song for TV’s most famous drug dealer is just the latest of many examples from the last decade that prove that TV has become a far more powerful cultural force than film. In its final season it broke ratings records on a weekly basis, right through to its finale, which drew 10.3 million viewers overall, including 6.7 million in the coveted 18-49 demographic – numbers that would make any broadcast network swoon. Walter White’s “Tread lightly” became a catchphrase literally overnight, joining “I am the one who knocks” and Jesse Pinkman’s repeated refrain of “Bitch!” among instantly recognizable quotes from the series. When was the last time a film generated that level of sustained excitement from critics, industry, and audiences alike?

For that matter, consider the entire slate of Best Drama Series Emmy-winners from the last decade, including “The West Wing,” “The Sopranos,” “24,” “Lost,” “Mad Men,” and “Homeland.” Besides “The Lord of the Rings,” how many Oscar-winners for Best Picture in that time have been as widely discussed and embraced, or entered the cultural lexicon as readily? How many Oscar-winning performances have become as iconic as Emmy-winners James Gandolfini and Edie Falco as Tony and Carmela Soprano, or Bryan Cranston as Walter White? Those characters are familiar even to many of those who have never watched their shows, so fully have they been absorbed into our collective pop culture consciousness. Now try, off the top of your head, to remember the name of Jean Dujardin‘s Oscar-winning role in “The Artist.”

Series television has at least one inherent advantage over film: the ability to tell stories over time and thus develop not only the relationships on-screen but a relationship with the audience as well; Walter White’s fate was meaningful to viewers not just because of the quality of writing, directing, and acting, but also because of the six years we invested in him, as opposed to film, where characters are usually confined within a 2-hour running time.

Additionally, serialized stories have gained popularity, and cable television has expanded the boundaries of style and content to the point where television is often indistinguishable from film in terms of the quality of production, while allowing greater depth of character. With the playing field leveled in that way, TV has developed a cultural and artistic influence over the last 10-15 years that film hasn’t matched.

But that long-form storytelling also used to be a significant disadvantage: a viewer wanting to catch up on classic films could conceivably watch several in one day, while the time commitment required to watch even one classic TV series may be far more prohibitive. But even that challenge has been mitigated in recent years thanks to the cable model of programming (usually 10-13 episodes per season, instead of 22-24) as well as the advent of DVD and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, which have made it far easier to catch up on previous episodes; “Breaking Bad,” for instance, most likely enjoyed its remarkable ratings gains because viewers watched the preceding episodes during the off-season.

RELATED: Poll: What ‘Breaking Bad’ episode can WIN Bryan Cranston an Emmy next year?

RELATED: ‘Breaking Bad’ finale: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

RELATED: Poll: Is ‘Breaking Bad’ ridiculously overrated? Or genius?

But long-form storytelling isn’t the only benefit of television. Consider that Steven Soderbergh, a prominent, popular Oscar-winner, struggled to find a studio interested in bankrolling a movie starring the likes of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Eventually HBO said yes, and subsequently walked away with a bushel of Emmys. In a film industry increasingly focused on sequels, superheroes, and brand recognition, original adult dramas have been pushed to the back of the line and many of Hollywood’s most prominent actors, writers, and directors have jumped on the TV bandwagon, from Jessica Lange (“American Horror Story“) and Melissa Leo (“Treme,” “Louie“) to David Fincher (“House of Cards“) and Martin Scorsese (“Boardwalk Empire“).

HBO markets itself with the tagline “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” to distinguish itself from other networks. But in a post-“Sopranos,” post-“Breaking Bad” era, that sentiment may be outdated. These days, the tagline “It’s TV” might even more greatly signify the quality of content therein.

6 thoughts on “Is ‘Breaking Bad’ proof that modern TV is better than film?

  1. Fantastic work, Daniel. The point Matt made in the post-Emmys chat about the Emmys doing a really great job with their Drama Series picks has really stuck with me over the last few days, so it’s nice seeing that given further emphasis in the “TV vs. Movie” debate.

  2. Many great points. I think another major issue with Oscar winners obtaining the same cultural significance as Emmy winners, is that Oscars rarely nominate films that reach into the zeitgeist. The Avengers only managed to come up with ONE nomination despite its ridiculous box office and uber popularity and good reviews. Movie buffs may pay more attention to critical darlings, but they arent the ones that become pop culture sensations or that the average movie goer cares about.

  3. Why are you looking at this issue through the prism of awards? The Emmys are often right in rewarding great shows (The West Wing, The Sopranos, Lost, 24, Mad Men, Homeland, Breaking Bad) and nominating other great shows. The Oscars are very bad when it comes to winners and reasonably good when it comes to nominees. I mean, things There Will be Blood and Tree of Life and Inglorious Basterds are still being talked about and will continue to be talked about for years to come. They didn’t win BP, but they’ve still made their mark. Inception, Dark Knight, Mulholland Dr, The Master, Social Network, the “before” movies, Brokeback Mountain. They’re all much better than 95% of television. yes Breaking Bad was a brilliant show. Better than some of the best films ever made, but that is one series. TV is not better than film. Not yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *