How TV got better than film 

Television dramas and films beat cinema at its own game

"I have come to reclaim Rome for my people!" is one of the chest-thumping lines from Gladiator, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in March. Exactly one week later, that line was quoted by mobster Ralphie Cifaretto on an episode of HBO's The Sopranos, the best show on TV by critical and popular consensus. Gladiator's heroic Russell Crowe says the line and lends gravity to an ornate but thin sword-and-sandals epic. "The Sopranos'" edgy Joe Pantoliano says the line and then stages an intoxicated gladiatorial fight in the back room of a strip club. Erratic Ralphie's pseudo-Roman posturing indicates depths of character -- misplaced Italian-American pride, a career criminal's reckless instability, fantasy life carried too far -- that Gladiator's glossy surfaces can't even hint at.

The scene also sounds like the kind of moment when television is claiming equality, and maybe even supremacy, over movies as pop narratives. For decades, conventional wisdom maintained that cinema offers the rich themes, the realistic characters and the artful storytelling, while television is hopelessly compromised and a pale shadow. But 2001 may be the second straight year during which the best of television has been more bold, substantive and relevant than the best of film.

This isn't to say that TV is no longer dominated by trivial mediocrity, as one look at the innumerable "reality" shows or past-their-prime sitcoms proves otherwise. And it's not that no good English-language films are being released. (But how many times can one be expected to see Memento?) Film and television have inherent differences as media, but if one's having a bumper crop and the other's stricken by a blight, why not compare apples and oranges?

In terms of providing sheer spectacle, television has an inherent handicap compared to the big screen. But when the most lavish films Hollywood has to offer are as empty as Pearl Harbor, The Mummy Returns and last year's The Patriot, the advantage looks less significant every day. And TV can poach on cinema's epic territory: In September, Home Box Office debuts Band of Brothers, a megabudget miniseries about the Allied Invasion of Europe, produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as a kind of spin-off of Saving Private Ryan.

TV can fare better, though, by focusing on quality writing and stories about grown-up ideas. While Hollywood is hooked on indistinguishable teen romances, horror films and gross-out comedies, HBO has been matching Pulitzer Prize-winning plays with A-list talent. The film of Margaret Edson's Wit, adapted by director Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, was a special prize winner at the Berlin Film Festival and is as good as any theatrical release this year. Aug. 11 sees the debut of Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends, with Norman Jewison directing Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear.

It's old news that cable series like Showtime's "Queer as Folk" and HBO's "The Sopranos," "Oz" and "Six Feet Under" can have explicit sex, profanity or violence frequently restricted to R-rated movies. But while audiences might check out these shows for the titillation factor, they'll stay for the quality of the writing and the richness of the life experience conveyed. "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" would be brilliant family dramas even if they didn't take place, respectively, in the Mafia and the "death care industry."

Former Mariettan Alan Ball created "Six Feet Under," which far more closely resembles his Oscar-winning script for American Beauty than his sitcom work for Brett Butler and Cybill Shepherd. While TV's development process traditionally involves watering down original ideas for mass consumption, HBO urged Ball to go to extremes. Reportedly an HBO vice president of original programming, wanting the pilot to be edgier, asked Ball, "Could you make it more fucked up?"

"Six Feet Under" also reveals how television increasingly draws on the vocabulary of film. Shows like "ER" and "The West Wing" now routinely use steadicams, but episodic programs frequently lack the time or money to set up complicated shots and montages permitted in film. "Six Feet Under," especially in its pilot, employs a richness of color cinematography and use of long shots and close-ups that seem entirely cinematic.

Narrative innovations aren't just an HBO thing. Earlier this year "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" episode "The Body" (to be rebroadcast July 4) gave viewers an uncomfortably intimate look at the main character's response to the death of her mother. The episode's four acts took place in real time, with several long, unbroken takes, pregnant silences and no music. This also offers an example of how TV show creators, who rarely have a tradition of directing episodes, are thinking more like film auteurs. "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon writes and directs pivotal episodes like "The Body" and an upcoming, risky- sounding musical episode for the show's new season.

The greatest resource on television today are creators who think outside the idiot box and have the leeway to not only more closely emulate movies, but to exploit television's innate strengths as well. Many of TV's best programs are showing greater confidence in providing extended, drawn-out storylines. Each season of "Buffy" or "The Sopranos" tends to unfold like a long, Dickensian novel, making the two hours of a motion picture seem like a short story by comparison.

A weekly series can address more kinds of current events with a faster turnaround time. Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic offered plenty of documentary-style data about the drug war, but Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing features an equivalent amount of information every week. Sorkin, who writes virtually all of The West Wing's scripts, has even made ripples inside the Beltway by giving attention to policy wonk concerns over problems with the national census and the Mercator projection map.

One of the biggest issues of the 1990s was the debate over private life vs. public sphere prompted by the Clinton scandals, culminating with his impeachment. Films that considered Clintonism and similar disgraces, like Oscar nominees Primary Colors and The Contender, had strong casts and good intentions, but they couldn't see past the sex to the larger implications about politics. Sorkin himself took a light-hearted, forgettable look at this kind of material with his script for The American President.

But by leaving sex out of the equation, "The West Wing" has offered the most nuanced depiction yet of an Oval Office facing scandal. During May Sweeps, the show's White House officials learned that Martin Sheen's President Bartlett has multiple sclerosis -- and that his and the First Lady's efforts to keep it secret could qualify as a criminal conspiracy. Sheen's Bartlett is nothing like Bill Clinton, but this story has revealed more about the siege mentality faced by a White House staff, the insatiability of the news cycle, the strains on political loyalty and the pressures to make errors of judgment than any movie. And the ramifications will continue to be explored when the show returns this fall.

It's far from certain that the wave of the future is one-hour dramas (a term that seems inadequate given their frequent success with humor). Sometimes quality series have trouble finding homes. In part of "The Sopranos" behind-the-scenes lore, all of the broadcast networks rejected David Chase's pilot until HBO finally picked it up. And UPN showed its faith in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" by agreeing to pay $2.3 million an episode when the show's contract renegotiations with the WB broke down.

But not all the doors are open. "Twin Peaks" creator David Lynch developed an L.A. noir pilot called Mulholland Drive for ABC, which ultimately rejected it. Lynch may get the last laugh, as he retooled Drive as a feature film and with it tied for Best Director at this year's Cannes Film Festival. That Mulholland Drive prevailed as a movie suggests that the current quality of TV may be less a creative renaissance than a fortunate fluke.

Masterminds like David Chase, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball and a handful of others have not only proven themselves the creative peers of most working filmmakers, they deliver the goods and inspire water cooler debates in ways that movies have neglected. Sooner or later film will bounce back, while the commercial pressures to dumb down TV programming may swamp the medium's best shows. Tune in while they last -- you won't miss much at the movie theater.



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