Which Are Better Written, Movies or Television?

Wow. I feel like we just had our “golden moment,” the viewers are murmuring sympathetically and applauding our resolution, and we’re still only in the first act! Who knew that underneath all that bluster and bravado you’d turn out to be so … cuddly?

The studio audience, that’s who.

I’m glad to hear life is treating you so well. You paint an enviable picture, frolicking with your daughter and wife in the prettiest city on the left coast. I’ve got good news, too: I’m getting married next month to a wonderful woman named Jill Arthur. And, in a bizarre life-imitates-TV twist, her parents have taken the place next door to Jill to help us out (they normally reside in Rancho Mirage, but her father works in L.A. as a record producer). When her dad–who, fortunately, is the sweetest man in the world–pops over for a cup of coffee, why, you can practically hear the invisible audience bust out in a round of recognition applause.

All this may be more than you wanted to know about my personal life, but since we’re getting to know each other I thought I’d share. And another thing: I could understand that you might take umbrage at my accusing you of being a self-hating Jew–if I’d done any such thing. (Are you Jewish? Who knew?) I merely meant to get the ball rolling on that ancient question: Which came first, the comedy writer, or the person hating himself for being a comedy writer?

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. You were right to nail me for claiming that TV comedy is in a golden age by referencing three off-the-air programs. The truth is, we’ve probably just passedthrough a golden age, though there are still several strong finishers. Frasier, King of the Hill, Sex and the City, and Friends are all smartly written. The more interesting comedy of the last few years, though, has turned up on cable in hybrid forms: Beavis and Butt-head, South Park, and HBO’s rarely seen Mr. Show, a brilliant ensemble fantasia, which is bidding fair to become the ‘90s Monty Python.

But it’s really more the hour-long form that is now in the ascendant. TV drama has never been stronger, with clever, richly detailed, and stylistically inventive shows like The Sopranos,ER, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, the lamentably canceled Homicide, and The X-Files. All of which are better than a dismayingly high percentage of films. You may disagree (in fact, I wish you would, so we could liven up this debate), but I think there’s more vibrancy to these programs, when they’re firing on all cylinders, than in almost any other area of our culture. Think about it. Popular music has lost itself in confusion, with only rap and girlpower pop still remaining relevant. Literature is in retreat, with the fiction world divided between self-regarding and largely unread “serious” writing and the artistic graveyard known as mass market. (Aside from Tom Wolfe, is there a truly important writer who manages to evoke capital-A American themes on a grand scale without making you cringe?) As for cinema, the avant-garde has been co-opted by snickering adolescents like Todd Solondz–whose smugly immature Happiness is what passes for dangerous these days–while Hollywood churns out megabudget thrill rides like The Mummy and Phantom Menace, which barely even glance in the direction of storytelling. There are strong films being made–my personal favorite directors are Almodóvar, Woody Allen, and Zhang Yimou–but they are far more the exception than the rule. We’re a long way from cinema’s last golden age, the 1970s.

In fact, I wonder whether we might not try to understand today’s television by borrowing the artistic paradigm of ‘70s cinema. If I read my Peter Biskind correctly, that halcyon period started with Easy Rider; the studios had lost their way after the upheavals (cultural as well as institutional) of the 1960s. Awestruck by the youth market, and uncertain of themselves, they ceded artistic control to a new generation of directors–Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, and that overgrown ‘60s rebel Robert Altman–who unleashed a flood of personal, relevant, challenging movies (The Godfather, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Nashville) that spoke to a nation even as they spoke for a generation. Well, today, TV too is in flux. The network monolith has shattered. There are more divergent offerings, from a wider range of writers, than ever before. Auteur television is at hand. Even middling efforts like Sports Night or Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be described in terms of personal vision and creative integrity. And, happily, the main reason for all the ferment is that the folks running the system are more confused than ever before.

Of course, it must be repeated that most TV is still crap–blah, blah, blah. And the newly unveiled fall lineup is a joke, overrun with teen melodramas as executives once again go whoring after the latest hot thing, this time the surprise success of the WB, the only “web” to show any growth the past two seasons. But there are still enough encouraging signs to take hope.

A case in point: The Sopranos. Have you seen this show? I caught a couple of episodes, and one in particular–in which the mafioso anti-hero played to perfection by James Gandolfini drives his daughter through Maine to look at colleges, then pauses to rub out an old rival–was simply the best hour of filmmaking, on the big or little screen, that I’ve seen in a long time. The series’s creator, David Chase, updates the gangster genre, bringing to it a baggy naturalism without losing the form’s inherent glamour. Now compare that to the Billy Crystal-Robert De Niro comedy Analyze This. I’m not the first to note the discrepancy between the two. Analyze This is an overlong, fitfully funny sketch, with barely more depth than your average Saturday Night Live bit (and memorable mostly for the brio of De Niro’s self-mocking performance). Whereas The Sopranos is a subtle, penetrating, blackly comic suspense with more convincingly real characters than any mafia movie outside of GoodFellas. Which one is the true “TV show”?

Do you agree? Will you respond, or will you continue to D Klein?