Why TV is better than the movies

February 24, 2009

A number of years ago, a colleague and I debated in print about the relative merits of TV vs. movies. At the time, I was a movie chauvinist and believed that anything TV did well, it did accidentally. But, after splitting my time during the last five years between reviewing movies and TV, I’ve undergone a conversion.


I’m here to say that, as it stands, TV turns out more solid and consistent entertainment every week than the Hollywood movie studios put out between January and October most years.


In any given week, I see between two and six movies – and I’m lucky if there’s one that I’m willing to recommend to other people. Or even one every two or three weeks.


But, in any given week, there’s a minimum of one series a night – and often more – that I make an appointment to watch.


Not that the networks figure much in this equation. For the most part, the four majors (five if you count the CW – but who does, really?) are TV’s answer to the major movie studios: purveyors of product, which fills the time between the commercials.


Sure, they come up with the occasional mind-tweaker (“Lost,” “Life,” “The Mentalist”) or solid comedy (“30 Rock,” “The Office.” “The Big Bang Theory”). Mostly, however, they’re focused on assembly-line fare, from the endless “CSI” and “Law & Order” iterations to sitcoms such as “Kath & Kim” and – OMG, is “According to Jim” really still on the air? Or “Ghost Whisperer”?


And that’s not to mention the contagious (and apparently incurable) virus of reality TV, which has permanently polluted the airwaves in a way that will never go away.


Yet TV has quantity on its side. There are so many hours in a day and so many networks looking to fill them that strong, engaging fare seems to be on the rise. Apparently some networks finally decided, hey, maybe we can draw an audience with programming that doesn’t insult viewers’ intelligence. It’s no more of a risk than something stupid.


I’m not just talking about the uncensored series on pay-cable networks like HBO, Showtime and Starz, though there are several on each of those networks that qualify: from classic shows like “The Sopranos,” “Sleeper Cell” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” to current offerings such as “Weeds,” “Big Love,” “Brotherhood” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”


But the most compelling TV seems to be on cable networks like AMC, TNT and FX. FX, indeed, may be the most exciting network that’s not a pay-cable entry: “Rescue Me,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Damages.” It’s impossible to calculate how much those shows help improve my mood and my faith in the creative impulse each week, just by being on.


Indeed, my list of outstanding TV is too long to go into, so let’s just talk about two series that are returning in the next week that absolutely raise the bar every time they hit the air: TNT’s “Saving Grace” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”


“Saving Grace,” which resumes its second season next Monday, stars Holly Hunter as Grace Hanadarko, a police detective in Oklahoma City. She’s a perpetual adolescent, given to cigarettes, booze and promiscuous sex – but she’s also a hard-nosed cop with a heart. She’s not in obvious trouble personally; she’s a good aunt to the son of her sister who died in the Timothy McVeigh bombing in 1995 (a tragedy that colors this show in a way that reminds us that 9/11 wasn’t the first major terrorist bombing on American soil) and she seems to enjoy life to the max.


But all the boozing and indiscriminate sex is a symptom of something. She needs help – which arrives in the form of Earl (Leon Rippy), her “last-chance angel.” He is an actual angel with wings, in the form of a redneck who chews tobacco. He appears to her one night when, while driving drunk, she hits a pedestrian and prays for help. Now Earl is a regular part of her life, trying to impart a less selfish viewpoint to a woman who is defiantly her own person and unconcerned, say, about the morality of sleeping with married men.


Hunter is a dynamic actress, whip-smart, fast, funny but with an emotional honesty that can sear you. This is a cop show that’s about solving crimes while coping with the insoluble personal knots of daily life. Hunter creates a character of startling contrasts and firm opinions. She’s tough, rough and sexy but still painted into moral corners by Earl, who never lets her off the hook.


Yes, I know – mention angels and people start thinking “Touched by an Angel” or “Highway to Heaven,” TV shows that seem to place syrupy emotions above dramatic quality. But “Saving Grace” offers the very real possibility that Grace doesn’t want redemption or forgiveness. And that keeps the tension – and the humor – sharp-edged.


There’s a lot of dark humor on TV – it’s hard to get much darker than some of the wit on “Rescue Me,” on which Denis Leary has succeeded James Gandolfini as TV’s most complexly fascinating anti-hero. But “Breaking Bad,” which returns for its second season on March 8, comes incredibly close.


I mean, really, how much darker can you get than this show? Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, an underpaid high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who’s got a teen-age son with cerebral palsy – and a wife who is unexpectedly pregnant with a kid they can’t really afford. Walter works a second job at a car wash to make ends meet – until he discovers he’s dying of lung cancer.


Talk about a set-up that screams comedy.


But wait – it gets better. Desperate to find a way to secure his family’s finances, he connects with a former student, a waste-oid named Jesse (Aaron Paul), a methamphetamine dealer whose nickname is Captain Cook. Walter, a chemistry whiz, figures out how to make pure meth, and he and Jesse start to deal. Which immediately puts them at odds with the local drug cartels – and, potentially, with Walter’s brother-in-law, a bullet-headed DEA agent.


“Breaking Bad,” created by “X Files” alumnus Vince Gilligan, is the edgiest show out there right now. It kicks off its second season with a trio of episodes that achieve incredible levels of tension and suspense – even as they’re punctuated with huge, unexpected laughs. Cranston is one of the most fearless actors working, totally without vanity, finding the mixture of courage, desperation and thrill-seeker in a mild-mannered man who had reconciled himself to a life of disappointment – and now has to carve out another way.


There’s never a movie released each week that packs the same sense of surprise and compulsive viewability contained in each hour of this series.




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