Which Are Better Written, Movies or Television?

It’s a nice technique you have, overstating my case so that you can debunk it. I don’t believe I claimed that series television has regularly attained artistic greatness. I just think there’s been improvement relative to, say, a decade ago, and that the disarray among network executives and the fracturing of the audience could create an opening for more idiosyncratic and original shows to sneak on. And you’re right: I wouldn’t compare The Sopranos to The Godfather. But that’s because I thought our assignment was to determine what is currently the better-written medium, not what is, on some absolute scale of value, the artistically superior work. Apples and oranges, my friend.

So let’s agree that there are few experiences to be had in front of the tube (short of, say, a presidential assassination or a low-speed Bronco chase) that rival the full frontal impact of The Godfather, or Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern. Those are transcendent works of art that cannot be matched by the resources available to a television show (I don’t care how many inches tall or wide your set is). But aren’t we supposed to be discussing relative writing health? TV dramas like Law & Order (which I agree has been slumping) don’t have to be rated on a par with the masterpieces of ‘70s cinema for us to say that they represent progress. And if David Cross and Bob Oedenkirk (the creators of Mr. Show) don’t qualify as auteurs (that ridiculous, loaded term!), then I don’t know who would.

I’m beginning to feel we’re going in circles here. I point out the bright spots in TV and criticize all but a few good movies; you turn that around and make me out as a perverse Pollyanna. I trot out supposedly sophisticated films that I think failed–The Love Letter and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were two failures I saw last week; you mock the very idea of TV art. (You want to mock something else? I loved The Matrix, which I thought had just the right dose of pseudo-significance to gussy up all that imaginatively staged action.) Our cyberchat is deteriorating into repetition and anecdotal irrelevance. Without departing the field completely (though I am intrigued by those miraculous Knicks and would love to hear if you think San Antonio can be stopped), I wonder whether we might not change the terms of our discussion?

Question: What would you write if you could write anything? Is there some kind of show you’d like to try on TV, and if so, what’s stopping you? Is blissing out in front of Teletubbies and counting those green WGA envelopes sufficient?

Question: Don’t you think TV would be better served by a system of term limits? Even the great shows overstay their welcome and decline creatively, so henceforth let no show go past a fifth season. I know all about the economics of deficit financing, syndication, etc., but can’t we find a way to produce cheaper, better shows without keeping them on the air way past their prime?

Question: Writers in TV are always bragging about how it is a “writers’ medium,” as if shows could succeed without strong performers (not the same thing as good actors), producers with a clear vision, etc. Do you think it’s true? Or is “writers’ medium” just another way of saying, “There are aesthetic limitations, which allow the written word to stand out”?

I hope you spark to one of these inquiries, or have some others of your own, because we need to re-energize this debate. Otherwise, we’ll be reduced to statistically sampling film and TV ad nauseam to figure out which has a higher or lower percentage of junk. And I for one will nod off quicker than Drew Barrymore’s mother on parent-teacher day.