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.
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.