Over the past few years the consistently high-quality output of HBO, Netflix and even the BBC has ignited a largely tedious debate about the merits of television versus cinema. This debate largely centres on the false dichotomy of television as low-art and the cinema as high-art. As though cinema was born with Ingmar Bergman and not with proto-GIFS of pretty girls falling over in the Nickelodeons of Manhattan, and as if ‘White Chicks’ had never existed. The variations of this argument rest on the shaky foundation that either television or cinema have ever been driven purely by artistic merit.
Let’s not split hairs on this point, television and cinema are money making industries and quality is a selling feature, not an end in itself. Hollywood and Bollywood are just the most obvious examples of the excesses of capitalism when transposed to art – the product placement, automatic franchise triggering and micro-marketing of stars. Even the art house is not immune. From the Nouvelle Vague to the Sex Pistols we have learned that those claiming to aggressively reject the mainstream tend tend to have their own product to sell. Television without advertising – howsoever funded – can avoid the worst manifestations of capitalism in a way that film cannot. Case in point, HBO stalwart ‘Sex and the City’ (whatever your feelings) was a groundbreaking and original show when on television. On the silver screen, I think we can all agree that it was the worst thing that ever happened. At least until there was a sequel.
The true mark of the effectiveness of any cultural form is how deeply it permeates the public psyche. If this is how we grade ‘better’, and that’s more than debatable, then the idiot box sends cinema home with its tail between its legs every time.
Both cinema and television are hugely reliant on audience expectation. This means a reliance on shorthand establishment scenes (it’s a council estate, it’s dishevelled, it’s grey, it’s raining – this is gritty), characters (a woman walks through the streets, she is alone, grubby and scantily dressed – she’s a sex worker), shots (POV of someone standing behind her, the camera lingers jerkily and uncomfortably – she turns, there’s a moment of recognition – she’s so dead, and she’s neither the first or last) and plot (the scene switches to a police station, there’s a man behind a desk, he looks moody so obviously he has internal vulnerabilities that will be caressed by the love of a good woman while he gets on with battling through the psychological maze of the serial killer and so on and so forth.)
In film, the balancing act is reshuffling the various tropes and stock situations in a way that looks new but never takes the viewer too far from comfortable ground. If there is nuance or subversion of expectation then this becomes the centrepiece of the entire narrative and the depth of the complexity is inevitably going to be limited. This comes down to a simple matter of constraints in the running time. Television is not so constrained. When it does fall into cliché, which is more regular than not, the perpetration of these tropes (which may be genuinely harmful – particularly in terms of stereotyping of marginalised people) is far more pernicious. Television lacks the event sensation of the trip to the cinema and the gradual drip-drip in the corner of the living room is far more effective at blinkering a viewer’s internal eye.
But there is an antidote to all this tenacious perpetration and it comes not only in high quality dramas (a good example would, of course, be ‘The Wire’) but also in the most maligned and despised genre of all – the soap opera. To say that the soaps are free from cliché is obviously ridiculous. In terms of predictability, the narrative arcs are only out-ranked by ‘Scooby Doo’. But in terms of character development, nothing compares to a soap. Soaps focus on supposed real people – the disenfranchised, the grotesque, the boring and the unglamorous, all in and all on prime time. These are not characters that could set the box office on fire but in the hands of television, they are not only front and centre but also allowed years of space for character development.
Take an episode of ‘EastEnders’, aired in 2009 titled ‘Pretty Baby’. Influenced by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’, the entire episode was a monologue delivered by Dorothy Branning, played by June Brown. She discussed her life, her faith, sickness, old age and deeply unattractive and deeply human traits – selfishness, self-loathing and resentment. It was excellently written and deeply sensitive to the complexity of the human condition. After twenty four years of emotional investment in a character, this is the stuff you can get away with. This could never have found a place in mainstream cinema. The audience would not tolerate a woman in her eighties rattling on about boring shit like marital duty and Jesus for half an hour. But on television, this received the highest audience share of the night.
When it comes to profoundly impacting the collective psyche, cinema cannot compare. A good film can knit its way into the cultural Zeitgeist, it may create icons, but its effects will always be superficial in comparison to even the most mediocre television. Television at its worst can perpetrate the nastiest, stupidest and most pathetic stereotypes – and don’t underestimate how harmful these can be to be to people’s lives. At it’s best, it can show the viewers the true spectrum of human experience and make you listen to an elderly woman in banal psychic pain for a half an hour and come away altered.