Which Are Better Written, Movies or Television?

OK, I quit.

Actually, despite your gratuitous personal assault, I’ll meet your challenge. But I must admit, you took me by surprise by going negative so quickly, Mr. Klein. I guess all those years keeping your guard up in nasty comedy writers’ rooms has taught you to hide behind a sharp offense. Here’s a thought: We’re not competing to get jokes in the script here. There’s no reason to abandon civility before we’ve even begun our discussion. You’ll excuse me if I try not to match your level of vitriol. After all, what would our sponsors think?

I find it curious that you heap so much bile on the same sitcom form that made you rich and (relatively) famous. Why so alienated from the flock all of a sudden? Your first salvo is filled with accusations that better describe yourself than me. “Cash-drenched”? “Pre-coital musings”? Sounds like someone’s got a guilty conscience, Mr. Klein. Maybe after so many years drawing lucre from the joke mines of TV you’ve forgotten that for some of us this can still be a fun, a spontaneous, even occasionally a fulfilling way to make a living. And for someone like myself, still grinding it out in the comedy trenches, feeling the anxious bite of staffing season–well, all I can say is I wish I had your existential problems.

It’s jarring, and more than a little depressing, to watch you set about indiscriminately to destroy half-hour TV. Your own career contradicts your argument. As a co-creator of The Larry Sanders Show, one of the sharpest satires of recent years in any medium, you of all people must know that true originality is not only possible, it’s occasionally achieved. Yes, even in a sitcom. As the co-author of the underrated Bakersfield, P.D. and the head writer of the overrated but groundbreaking Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, you showed that something redemptive could be derived from hackneyed genres when the writing is invested with a biting, skewed wit and a sense of stylistic mischief. It’s not merely a matter of “making do without a laugh track,” as you so snidely dismiss your own best work. And it’s really of no great consequence that the format has undergone “no changes in the past half century” (though, surely, that is a rhetorical flourish designed to belittle the craft in which you’ve toiled most of your adult life). You dared me to find a sample of “literate” TV comedy writing. I could do worse than quote from your own best shows. It doesn’t have to be in iambic pentameter to be well written.

Perhaps in a future response you could address yourself to the nearly universal tendency of TV comedy writers to hate themselves. You seem to be an expert. Does it precede or flow from the work? Why should we be any more ashamed of what we do than the average journalist, screenwriter, lawyer, doctor? It can’t simply be guilt over the money. Too many TV writers hate themselves long before they make it big. I’d love to hear your theories on that one, Mr. Klein.

Anyway, here I’ve rattled on and done what I vowed not to do, dwelling on the personal. Instead, let’s start over and acknowledge that the question at hand is sort of ridiculous. “Which is better written?” Please. There’s so much terribly written TV and film clogging up our culture that I rather think someone at Slate Central is setting us up to look like fools. We can agree, no doubt, that most TV shows and movies suck, some are good, and occasionally one gets through that can actually bear the mantle of art. As for your use of the term “literate,” I’m confused. If by “literate” you mean to ask, “Are they literature?”–well, of course not. They’re TV shows and movies. It’s as absurd to contrast an episode of The Simpsons with Voltaire as it is to compare a Beatles song to a symphony by Brahms. The real question is “Are they works of art?” And the answer, I would say, is that they are, on their own terms.

Instead of debating which medium is more “literate,” or “better written,” why don’t we ask which one is currently more creatively robust? Allowing for countless hours of junk, the despicable explosion of local news and many other epiphenomena of TV programming, I think the winner, by a crooked nose, is television. (You give the game away with your incredibly faint praise of film. And why again the obsession with cash?) Since the late ‘70s, when I came of age as a viewer, TV has shown steady growth, in its variety of offerings, as a vehicle for subversive or socially relevant satire. A lot of this, of course, is due to the advent of cable channels like HBO, where shows are not designed merely “to hook the consumer from commercial to commercial” but actually to shake up their expectations.

The Hollywood film, on the other hand, is in terrible decline. Since the Age of the Blockbuster began (circa Star Wars IV 20 years ago), film has descended into an ever more numbing reliance on spectacle and sensation, jettisoning character development with ever more profligate abandon, turning movies into amusement-park rides. Films cost too much and are too fearfully dependent on recouping their costs to pay much attention to art these days. The foreign film is all but dead, except for cloying, self-congratulatory pap like Life Is Beautiful. Even the vaunted independent scene is awash in cliches: stylized violence, the pat exploitation of social taboos, eccentricity as a substitute for character. Can you really disagree that film is in a bad way?

This discrepancy can best be seen in the area of comedy. While TV recently experienced a golden age (with exceptional shows like Seinfeld, Larry Sanders, and Roseanne), comedy on the big screen has been relegated to a ghetto of high-concept drivel. There’s the buddy adventure, the teen sex romp, the romantic fairy tale–utterly anemic formula pictures that rarely if ever make you laugh, except in embarrassment. Rarely is a big-screen, big-budget comedy as funny or as artistically successful on its own terms as a 20-minute episode of The Simpsons. This is not to say that an episode of Mad About You is better than, say, Shakespeare in Love, but simply that there have been more talented voices breaking through the din on TV this past decade than in our moribund national cinema.

So there. And I didn’t even have to resort to name-calling.