Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why I Like TV Better than Movies

One of the downsides of working in a profession where you have to read a lot, all the time, is that recreational reading tends to fall by the wayside. After a day of grading papers -- even really good papers -- the last thing I want to do is look at more text. And so, several years back, Gary and I hit on a new form of relaxation: watching TV series on DVD.

I should add here that when we started doing this, we didn't own an actual television. We watched the DVDs on Gary's computer. Back then, the only TV we'd ever owned was one of those tiny beach TVs; I'd won it in some raffle at a temp agency where I was working in the 1980s, but the only time we took it out of its box was when Gary wanted to watch the NBA finals in 1994. This meant that even though we've never been TV people, we too -- along with most of the rest of the country -- got to watch OJ's slow-speed car chase. How weird is that?

Last year we splurged on a 42" plasma screen, but we still don't watch TV in the conventional sense. We don't have cable; we just use the plasma as a giant DVD player. When we explained this to the salesman who sold us the set, he looked at us as if we'd just landed from Mars.

The plasma's mostly for Gary, who's completely obsessed with movies and manages his Netflix queue the way other people monitor the stock market. Gary watches movies every day -- either in a theater or at home -- and adores both fine films and really schlocky ones ("good bad movies," as he calls them). I, on the other hand, have found my appetite for feature films steadily decreasing over the years, especially since so many movies I've gone into with high hopes have so thoroughly disappointed me. I come out of most movies thinking, or saying to Gary, "They spent umpty-ump million dollars on that piece of garbage? Did anyone connected with this project have a brain? Did anyone notice that the story makes absolutely no sense? Did anybody think about how much food and medicine those umpty-ump million dollars could have bought for people who need them?"

So I'm now very picky about what I'll watch. In particular, I won't see anything scary or too violent, because there's more than enough fear and violence in the real world. Gary, on the other hand, revels in cheesy action flicks and chainsaw-style horrorfests.

But, I've discovered, I adore good TV shows, even gory or scary ones. We started with Buffy and moved on to Oz, ER, Scrubs, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, Firefly, and, of course, Battlestar Galactica. These are just the shows we really enjoy; I won't list all the ones we've started watching and have given up on after a few episodes because the stories were just too ridiculous. (Grey's Anatomy is probably the most egregious of that group.) There are other shows we're ambivalent about but have watched through an entire season or two anyway: Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Smallville.

At some point, I sat down to figure out why I loved TV shows so much, even though I'm increasingly lukewarm towards movies. The answer has to do with the episodic nature of TV. Movies are the visual equivalent of short stories; TV series are multi-chapter novels, giving the viewer more of a chance to get immersed in the world and familiar with the characters. There's just more going on, so they're more interesting in narrative terms. Also, TV is more forgiving of weak patches than film is (just as novels are more forgiving than short fiction). Even the best TV shows we watch have an occasional weak episode, but that's okay, because we have faith that the story will get back on track. A few weak episodes damage a TV show less than a few weak scenes damage a movie.

In other words, I enjoy TV shows for the same reasons many people enjoy daytime soaps or those multi-volume Tolclone fantasy sagas ("Volume 27 of the Dragonbarf Chronicles!"): I've become invested in characters and situations and want to stay with them for as long as I can. My reading tastes run to standalone novels, but my viewing tastes are the polar opposite.

We've now been watching TV series since March 2002, when we got our first disc of Buffy. We've learned to recognize actors from one series when they pop up in another. We've become quite adept at predicting plot outcomes, especially in weaker episodes. Remember the ER episode where Mark Greene's doing ambulance ridealongs with the annoyingly chatty female paramedic who keeps telling stories about her son, whose photo is taped to the dashboard of the rig? "That kid is so dead," I told Gary about five minutes into the episode. "That's why she keeps going on about him."

And indeed he was. "You called that one," Gary said approvingly.

One of my quirks as a writer, though, is a kind of chameleon effect where if I absorb many examples of a certain kind of story, my own narratives start to come to me in that form. And so an unexpected (and not entirely welcome) side-effect of watching so much TV is that I now have my very own TV series running through my brain.

This is ridiculous. I know nothing about the very technical aspects of writing for TV. I don't want to write for TV; my one brush with Hollywood (when Flying in Place was optioned by Columbia Pictures) left me thoroughly cynical about anything to do with the TV or movie industries, and I'm far too much of a control freak to hand my ideas over to strangers. Even if I did want to write for TV, it's not like I'd have the time.

When I first told Gary about this, he said, "Well, you could write the story as a novel." But it's not coming to me as a novel. It's coming to me as a TV show, complete with specific actors, character arcs, music, quirky visual details, yada yada. Yesterday Gary and I were listening to a song and he said, "This would be perfect for your soundtrack." Oh, dear.

I started making notes on this puppy a year ago. I now have about twenty pages of notes, which isn't very many, but on the other hand, the story and characters have stubbornly refused to fade into the background. I keep thinking about them. For the time being, I've decided that this is a harmless form of fanfic, a way to invent juicy roles for my favorite underutilized actors (Paul Ben-Victor, Clea DuVall) and pass time in doctors' waiting rooms.

If the idea's still stubbornly nagging at me after I've finished the ED sonnet cycle and the fourth novel (currently sitting in very fragmentary first draft on my file cabinet), then maybe I'll try to do something with it.

And on that note, back to proofreading Shelter galleys!


  1. You wrote: "A few weak episodes damage a TV show less than a few weak scenes damage a movie."

    The director Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not)defined a good move as "three great scenes, no bad ones."

  2. Netfilx is great - except that if you watch over a certain magic number a month - suddenly Netflix gets very slow sending the next one or two.

    I was Netflixing BSG until a co-worker found out and now she loans me her box sets of the seasons (we're on season 2.5 now). Eventually Weeds will show up, and somewhere along the way we got sidetracked off Six Feet Under, and then ohh very exciting for me (my wife suffers through them) a few anime series.

    My wife and I used to be big movie fans until kiddos, then we discovered Netflix. Now when people ask us what movies we've seen we both go blank because there's too many in our heads.

    The other thing I noticed is that watching whole series/seasons at a time is that now it's really hard to watch regular TV episodes because you have to wait for the next episode.

    But what started the Netflix craze for us was the huge selection of GLBT movies. Not that there's anything wrong with "straight" movies but well it's nice seeing yourself reflected back at you.

    Sorry for the jumble :-)

  3. Hi, JSD! All jumbles welcome! :-)

    What are your favorite GLBT movies? After Brokeback Mountain (which we loved) a friend of mine ranted about how gay characters still have to suffer tragic endings, and Gary and I started trying to think of happy GLBT movies.

    The list we came up with was:

    My Beautiful Laundrette
    Happy, Texas
    La Cage Aux Folles
    Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
    Desert Hearts

    Gary liked Latter Days, Breakfast on Pluto, and But I'm a Cheerleader, although I haven't seen those yet. We also haven't seen Transamerica, although we wanted to (that will end up being a NetFlix rental). It got great reviews.

  4. Interesting and fun subject, Susan! How many movies does Gary keep in his queue? I've got Pirates 2 coming today. The queue was up to 75+ back before September. Now it is down to 31.

    I like both a good movie and a good TV series. Seeing movies is a treat because I get to sit and do an entire story in one sitting...kind of like a can't-put-it-down book but with cool moving pictures. TV is for the not to be missed shows and a break for when I have gotten enough stuff done that I've earned a reward. Top 3 favorite movies that I've watched till I know the scripts are The American President, Practical Magic, and Twister. Favorite TV series, now defunct I think, is Charmed, followed by Numbers and NCIS because I love the actors/characters. Heck...I grew up on David McCallum.

    I catch why you are reluctant to write a play for TV but I bet you'd be good at it. Do you feel the same way about writing plays for theatre?

    I'm still waiting for The Charmings to come out on DVD. I went to college with the guy who played the Prince.

  5. I went to college with David Duchovny of X Files fame, although we didn't know each other. Also, John Travolta dropped out of my high school. These are my two brushes with fame.

    You asked about plays. I wrote some in high school, and enjoyed them (I like writing dialog), and they seem a little less intimidating than writing for the screen. My shameful secret, though, is that I don't enjoy theater very much: for some reason, I find it much more difficult to suspend my disbelief in that genre than in others, although intellectually I know that drama's no more contrived than any other art form. I enjoy reading plays more than I do watching them.

    Tastes in art are very mysterious. I love watching dance, for instance, but it completely bores Gary.

  6. Lee asked: How many movies does Gary keep in his (Netflix) queue?


    Shameless self-promotion: Gary occasionally reviews sexually-themed films for Clean Sheets, where his review of Bertolucci's The Dreamers is currently up as an Editors' Pick:

  7. Ed. Note: In this particular case, "sexually themed" means "really explicit" (both the film and the review). If that kind of thing embarrasses you, consider yourselves forewarned. I get a range of readers here, so I thought I should say something!

  8. Way interesting post Susan! In many cases I agree completely-- for example, compare the Joan of Arc TV miniseries starring Leelee Sobieski with the Joan or Arc movie starring Milla Jovovich. Can't remember what possessed me to watch them one after the other, but it's a pretty clear illustration of exactly what you're talking about.

    What about adaptations of novels, though? There must have been a TV version of Sense and Sensibility that wasn't as good as the Emma Thompson movie from the mid-90s, which I love, but on the other hand no movie version of I, Claudius could ever match the Derek Jacobi miniseries. (I don't think such a movie has ever been made, but I do vaguely recall that one may have been attempted and abandoned.)

    Could part of it be that it's much easier to predict which TV series are going to be good, though, at a much lower investment of time and often money?

  9. Hi, Claire!

    I haven't seen the specific examples you're talking about, so I can't speak to those. And in any given case, either the TV or the series might be better anyway, depending on the production values of either one.

    But also, there's a difference between "miniseries" and the kind of open-ended series I've been talking about: all shows come to an end eventually, but most of them last longer than a miniseries would.

    I don't think either form's inherently "better:" it's an apple-and-oranges case of which you prefer. Gary's mostly a movie person; I'm mostly a TV series person. That doesn't make either of us right, and certainly doesn't mean that both of us don't frequently enjoy the other form. It's a matter of which we find more satisfying on a gut level.

    The BSG miniseries is brilliant, and works as a standalone movie in its own right, but I find the series as a whole much more satisfying. Likewise, although Serenity's a terrific movie, I like the Firefly series better, just because there's more of it. Buffy the series is better than Buffy the movie, though, because the Buffy movie's, well, just not a very good movie. Even if it were, I suspect I'd prefer the series, though (well, if they left off Season Seven!).

    Now I'm wondering how Gary would weigh in on the movie-vs.-series question for Firefly and BSG. Gar? Care to comment?

  10. If I could only keep one, I'd keep the series Firefly and give up feature film Serenity, even though it's a top-flight SF film, especially thematically. It's a question of scale. Joss Whedon works best in an intimate atmosphere with an ensemble cast dealing with problems at a personal level, which is why Season 4 of Buffy was weak, bringing in this big quasi-military organization, when generally Buffy and the Scoobies battled a baddie and a few of his select minions on their own.

    Serenity felt forced by movie expectations to move back and paint a bigger picture, to become more epic than intimate. The series was more evocative; even the SFX were better. I sometimes think that the literallness of all-powerful CGI coupled with mega-budgets has reduced creativity and lessened the need to appeal to the viewer's imagination. And it was too actiony, though not as bad as the latest Bond movie and Pirates 2, where I wanted to scream, "Could we have some story, please?"

    BSG does an amazing job of balancing the epic and the intimate while not over-doing the action sequences which rely on short, evocative glimpses, rather than long, tedious literalism. I think it's the best example of the synthesis of series and film into a new medium. It could be thought of as a series of fims, starting with the miniseries. There are the "to be continued" episode joins, for example.

    What was the question?

  11. Gary said: 395...(snip)...occasionally reviews sexually-themed films for Clean Sheets

    395?! LOL Gheesh Gary, and I thought I was bad. Do you ever hope to actually see them all?

    Yes, I've been to Clean Sheets, read one of your reviews, and watched the film. My taste in explicit films is strange. It's hard to script around that kind of thing so I don't think many really good ones ever get made, never mind getting to the theaters. There are exceptions of course...I'm thinking of one that came out in '74, it actually had a follow up film made....Emmanuelle.

    Firefly was good, the network should have kept it. I watched the extras and decided I liked the priest but didn't like the actor who played him. Serenity's up next in my queue. Guess I need to add BSG too.

  12. My current top three favorite GLBT movies are decidedly lesbian: Bound,
    Imagine You and Me.

    Two of those three were written by straight men (go figure); btw: Bound was written by the brothers who wrote the Matrix; if you listen to the director's commentary they talk about having removed some of the sex scenes because they were worried about offending their lesbian audience - "What?!?!". I keep hoping they'll release a Director's cut and put those scenes back in.

    I enjoy most movies so I'll list one's you haven't:
    It's in the Water (has a happy-sad ending)
    Fine Art (is very tragic - do not watch if feeling blue)
    Soldier's Girl
    There's quite a few good foreign GBLT movies like All About My Mother, Tipping the Velvet, My Mother Likes Women.

    Transamerica wasn't bad, we were just disappointed with the story itself.

    We've found that, in general, the gay movies tend to be better written/better plot then the lesbian movies, which drives my wife and I nutty. One day maybe I'll write the great american
    lesbian movie script :-)

  13. In my armchair opinion, i think the difference right now between TV and movies is that movies now tend to have really huge budgets (remember when Titanic was considered ridiculous? I'm pretty sure studios blow past $100 million fairly regularly now) and are thus less willing to take risks because they want to recoup their investment and make a profit. Which, unfortunately, gives us fairly bland "crowd pleasing" movies that are anything but, although they're very pretty. TV, on the other hand, still has constraints on budget, on SFX, and on our expectations. We don't expect TV shows to be big crazy visual masterpieces; we don't expect big-budget actors (and don't judge shows based on who's starring in them like we do movies). Plus, there are 8000 TV channels, meaning that networks are both willing to give different shows a shot and we're also able to skip the dreck and still find something good out there.

    So i think TV has the freedom to be more adventurous and daring, and to allow writers and directors and producers to take chances without worrying that they'll tank the whole project. As you put it, a show can withstand a weak episode much better than a movie can withstand weak scenes.

    And finally, i like a lot of the shows you listed (and am ambivalent towards the ones you're ambivalent towards). I highly recommend getting Supernatural from Netflix. It's definitely the sort of show you should start from the beginning on. It's well-written and does a really good job of setting several plots in motion and managing them really well. There's no "ooh, big mystery" dangled in front of you that never gets answered, unlike some shows. *cough* Lost *cough* (; Anyway, they do a good job with pacing and with wrapping up subplots and introducing new ones. (*Much* better than Smallville's "what happened in last episode stays in last episode" way of doing things.) I'm a huge fan.

    Okay. Enough rambling now. (;

  14. Ursa,

    I agree with you about the financial factors (this is also why Hollywood's making so many sequels, and so many remakes of films that were great the first time around).

    On another note, I like your blog! Thanks for linking to mine; I've now linked to yours.

  15. Oh yeah--the sequels and the remakes. For the most part, ick.

    Thanks for linking to me!1 Nice ta meetcha. (:

  16. The largest difference between Television and Film is the amount of control the writer has over the end product. In movies, due to narrative time constraints, it is often a huge disadvantage to have the original writer too deeply involved. The writer has already made difficult edits, why make them edit more when you can hire a good script doctor to achieve the director's vision. Film is, as Sarris argued somewhat overstatedly, a Director's art.

    Television, on the other hand, is dominated by the writers' vision (plural because most shows have multiple writers) due to the short amount of time alloted to production. One must pretty much go with what the writer wrote or else not have anything as alternative. Writer/creator power is increased even more when the writer has a strong series bible, like Whedon and Minear usually do. A well developed bible leads to narrative consistancy for the whole series.

    As for my Netflix...452, with everything from The Quiet Earth and Mystic River to Ice Princess and Ride with the Devil.

  17. Thanks for your perspective, Christian. You certainly know more about this than I do! And it's nice to hear that writers have more power in TV than in film. Yet another reason for me to prefer the former!

  18. Gary said: 395
    Christian said: 452
    Lee, shaking her head in awe, is wondering: What is the record for a Netflix queue? I'm dreaming of the day when I will have time to have 3 or 4 at home again. (g)



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.