Which Are Better Written, Movies or Television?

You’ve got a tough assignment, buckaroo. Defending television as literate isn’t as easy as, for example, defending Dana Plato as happy-go-lucky. But I see by your credentials you’re making a living in the TV game, so I figure on a daily basis you probably manufacture for yourself tiny explanations as to why your achievements are not only lucrative but meaningful. Maybe even literate, if the right female is eavesdropping on your pre-coital musings. Now, however, you’re about to be explaining it to millions. Well, dozens.

Let’s start the interactive conversational ball rolling, Asa, with a glimpse at your and my little corner of television–the half-hour form. The situation comedy is the only thing about our society that’s undergone no changes in the past half century. Except for a few cosmetic differences (one features a goofy neighbor who has no hair, the other features a goofy neighbor who has a lot of hair), I Love Lucy is Seinfeld. Go down the list. Jack Benny is Frasier. Etc. Etc. This is one reason the early series such as The Honeymooners still seem so fresh. The form has never moved on. In fact, the cultural and commercial dominance of the half-hour truffle stems from the quasi-nostalgic, warm-bath feel of the thing: Life moving way too fast for you? Why not simply flick on the tube and feel that connectedness with your ancestors, friends, neighbors, and–who knows?–maybe even your own kids. None of this is to be confused with literate.

So we see, Ira, that situation comedies can achieve a lot without even bothering to be original or funny, let alone literate. But they must be predictable, ending each episode with the main bunch intact. Of course, some comedies are mildly more amusing than others, that I’ll grant you, even though you haven’t had a chance to make that claim. You will. And you’ll tell me some comedies are more daring–one will make do without a laugh track, another lets a character die, a few grace us with sermonettes on abortion, cancer, alcoholism, you-name-it. Hey, there’s even been an entire TV series about Down’s syndrome. But literate? Please, Al, I’m begging you to respond to me with a couple of snippets of whatever pingpong TV dialogue in your cash-drenched opinion qualifies as literate. Literal, no question. Almost every moment of television is literal. Don’t send me that. I’ve got plenty of examples of my own.

Just proffer me a selection of those TV bons mots from Mad About You or The Simpsons or whatever that rank with Shaw, Chekhov (not the one from Star Trek), Voltaire. And after you cough up a few dollops of television that you’ll feebly call “classic,” what about all the rest? The billions of hours of delightful entrances, cute exits, cold opens, buttons, tags, and act breaks that help humanity understand itself and move civilization toward the light?

No, Isaac, the purpose of a TV show is to hook the consumer from commercial to commercial. Week to week. Movies, on the other hand, are able to be original and occasionally are. They can say and do anything, go anywhere. They have the sucker’s money already. Even if they offend him and he leaves the theater, odds are he won’t ask for his dough back. And if he’s horribly hurt and enraged by what he’s witnessed on the big screen, and he and hordes of like-minded wimps swear off movies forever? Well, that’s another producer’s problem.

All of which, Eli, is why you’re best off simply not responding to my thesis. Quit our debate now, and I’ll respect you for at least having a shred of intellectual honesty. And believe me, Slate will survive. But if you continue on with this exchange you’ll almost certainly turn yourself into the laughingstock of whatever sliver of civilization reads this cyber-rag.

And that won’t be funny.