Nowadays when friends ask me what movies they should be seeing I find myself recommending stuff on TV more than movies. Nothing wrong with movies today — I think they are better than ever — but there’s so much that is surprising, deep and artistic in TV programming that movies actually look shallow and commercial in comparison. I’m thinking here mainly of British and American serials, mini-series and documentaries such as ‘Mad Men’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Gossip Girl’, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, ‘Collision’, ‘Earth: A Biography’, ‘The Story of India’, ‘Big Love’, ‘The L Word’ and ‘Extras’.
There’s so much box office pressure for movies to perform and deliver that few filmmakers can risk making the movies they want to, risk telling personal stories, or stories that are not rushed and formula-driven. Television on the other hand seems to have all the time in the world to leisurely unfold a story, develop characters over a long period of time, and explore themes with complexity and richness. There’s the pressure of ratings, of course, but not the big money headache of movie weekend grosses and profits.
Whether its drama or comedy or mystery, TV seems to have more edge than what’s found in popular cinema.
Intelligent television seems to have sneaked up on us. The last time I checked — some five years ago — it was mostly sit-coms and tame British mysteries. Suddenly, there’s daring and dynamic stuff, provoking audience and critics. HBO’s ‘The Wire’, a serial about cops and criminals, is being compared to the kind of expansive, rich novelistic experience only literature can offer. A serial like ‘Mad Men’, for instance, currently in its third season, is more seductive than any movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s set in the world of New York advertising during the 60s, but it isn’t insular at all. The production design, the colours, the period details are fabulous to look at (movies don’t look this intriguing) and the characters are engrossing. The performances are outstanding — a real casting coup.
If I want good comedy now, I don’t turn to some favourite movie classic anymore (like ‘A Fish Called Wanda’) to see again, but re-watch episodes of BBC’s ‘The Office’ or ‘Little Britain’ or ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (CYE). “A dizzying blur of neurotic delight” — that’s what the comic genius, Larry David, creator of ‘CYE’ has been called. David plays a clever, compassionate, sardonic comedian who finds (or puts) himself in humiliating circumstances. And so you watch, wince, and cringe. ‘CYE’s, in its seventh season now, hasn’t lost the edge of the previous seasons — if anything, it gets better with every episode.
This original HBO comedy series has now won every coveted television award out there (Emmy, Golden Globe) for outstanding comedy series, including an American Film Institute Award for Best Comedy Series of the Year. CYE is dark, fearless, misanthropic and hilarious — cringe-inducing comedy at its giddiest best. Its brilliant mix of freewheeling, improvised dialogue and tightly plotted storylines, cleverly mixes cinema verite and sitcom. Actually, it feels more like a serialised comic novel than a sitcom. I just finished watching Season Three again, where Larry David plays a part in a new film by Martin Scorsese!
As Scorsese asks for take after take, Larry complains; the director can’t believe it! In the following episodes, he foils an Alanis Morrisete concert, finds himself roped into a Christian Scientist prayer meeting where his cell phone rings, and convinces his friends to dig his mother’s grave. Even superior to TV comedy is TV stand-up. (Our television programming now is full of it, and we’ve all had a taste of it through Russell Peters on You Tube). Stand-up artists like Chris Rock, Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman are not just comics but sharp commentators on politics, relationships and everyday living.
Movies are mining TV miniseries for remake material. There was ‘Traffic’ first and now the political thriller ‘State of Play’ with Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren, which is vastly inferior to the long six-part British TV original aired in 2003. The 2009 movie crams all the plot developments of six hours into two hours, and this is where cinema loses out to TV which digs deeper to tell a story. A recent British miniseries that I recommend highly is ‘Collision’. It’s suspenseful and moving, combing a detective story with drama. (I’m sure it isn’t long before someone in Hollywood blows it up into a movie). Channel 4’s political drama, ‘Endgame’, is riveting, exposing an episode that happened at the end of apartheid in South Africa that had remained mostly hidden so far.
Two of the most engaging documentaries or non-fiction films I’ve seen recently are BBC and PBS ‘The Story of India’ with Michael Wood and ‘Earth: the Biography’. The six part series “embarks on a dazzling and exciting journey through today’s India, seeking in the present for clues to her past, and in the past for clues to her future. It’s lively, deeply researched and contemporary. ‘Earth’ is unlike any nature documentary I’ve seen. The voice-over narrative is compelling, insightful and shapes a worldview informed by what we see. It has footage of animals, forests and oceans that overwhelm you with their beauty and originality.
And, of course, Disney couldn’t leave this masterpiece alone and Disney-fied it. What they did was to take the same footage but added a cute voice-over to it and blew it up to 35mm so we could see it in theatres. Movies are poaching from television! Not just the stories but visual footage as well. Isn’t cinema the visual medium and television the chatterbox? The fantastic people behind the cameras for ‘Earth’ took years and years to film these sequences, devoting most of their lives to inhospitable places and climates to patiently capture our earth’s biography.
Mysteries. Television rules here. It’s too small scale and intimate and intricate for cinema, so the best detective mysteries and science fiction and paranormal thrillers have found a home on the small screen. ‘Prime Suspect’. What a classic. Nothing in cinema or television has come close to being as good as this British police procedural, and as DCI Jane Tennison Helen Mirren outshines even her best work in movies. David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ influenced cinema and television. The ‘No 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ is now a TV miniseries, and the decision not to make a movie out of it was wise. These extended TV episodes are better suited to film Alexander McCall Smith’s folksy, funny, gentle mystery series.
HBO’s tag line was ‘It’s not TV, its HBO’. It made sense then. But now the idiot box has grown up, and we can reverse that. So, don’t dismiss television as the idiot box even if it does continue to have idiot programmes — because some smart, creative and passionate people are using the box to redefine not just home entertainment but even what we think of as entertainment.