Which Are Better Written, Movies or Television?

I must say you’ve convinced me–our dialogue is getting somewhere. You’ve gone from utterly dismissing the creative potential of television to claiming that it could “leave the viewer as drenched and soul-satisfied” as “the best movies ever made.” I’d take that as a tribute to my powers of persuasion, but I suspect it has more to do with your having seen that standout episode where Tinky Winky drops the tubby custard and the gang falls to pieces. Of course, in the same breath you assert that such “ass-knocking” TV cannot exist in today’s world, but you refrain from saying why. I would love to hear your theory.

I couldn’t agree more that television is capable of great things. But I think that what you call “the fiscal and visual limitations” can tend to narrow the range of the experience so that it seldom attains the richness of great filmmaking (to me the one great exception would be the pilot to Twin Peaks, the only show worth owning on laserdisc). It’s the difference between painting and black-and-white photography–granted, another absurd comparison. It’s not that TV is to be judged by lower, Special Olympian standards, it’s that the palette is inevitably wider in film. With fewer aesthetic tools available, writing weighs more in the balance.

I think you make an excellent point about the “intimacy” of the TV-watching experience. There’s something almost disturbing about the degree of connectedness we develop with television characters. And it’s not only the fictional ones. Consider the loyalty inspired by Walter Cronkite, Oprah Winfrey, Ronald Reagan–TV characters one and all. Years of intense exposure to folks who appear in our living rooms, often more vividly than the ones we deal with in our “real lives,” create a singularly deep connection. It’s TV’s greatest asset–and it’s greatest liability.

That’s what I was trying to say when I semi-seriously suggested the “term limits” idea. Obviously, good shows should go on for as long as they are creatively (not to mention commercially) viable. But many shows deteriorate after a certain point precisely because the audience forms so powerful a bond with the characters. Once viewers have a fix on a character, they refuse to allow them to change. And characters that don’t evolve turn into ciphers. A great show like M.A.S.H. overcame that problem by replacing its cast, rotating in new characters to freshen the premise. So did Cheers. But for so many other shows, a limit is reached long before they go off the air. It’s too bad there’s no tradition in American television of bowing out gracefully, the way they do in Britain. Would Fawlty Towers be as highly regarded (granted, mostly by TV geeks and historians, but still) if it had flogged its premise to death for several years, instead of executing 13 pitch-perfect episodes, then stepping back into the wings? As great as M.A.S.H was, didn’t it eventually become absurd that the show lasted twice as long as the war it was depicting?

I’m impressed that we’ve managed to have this many exchanges and neither of us has brought up Ally McBeal or David Kelley. My opinion: Ally is a show that arrived in a completely realized state, did something fresh (and clearly struck a chord), and now must go away fast. As for David Kelley, the speed and relative quality of his prodigious output give TV writing a bad name. How are we supposed to make a case that it’s anything more than hack work when this guy churns out several hours of broadcast-worthy material each week? In my opinion, he’s more a marvel of nature than a truly great writer, however. He doesn’t rank with masters like Larry Gelbart, James L. Brooks, Larry David, or Zwick & Hershkovitz. Do you agree?

So … I have a cub-reporter question for you. I hope you won’t think me nosy, or accuse me of changing the topic if I ask it. What position did you play? Every writing staff I’ve been on seems to force people into certain roles–the Joke Man, the Story Man, the Woman, the Fast Draft Team–and I’m wondering where you fit into this strange subculture. I often think making a career as a screen- or TV writer is like trying to be a professional ballplayer: The careers are short, you need to hit it big when you’re young, you’re quickly pigeon-holed by whatever position you played last. And every year there’s a mad frenzy of shuffling–like the winter college draft–as writers get flung around and picked over by shows looking to slap together some new combination of players in specific positions.

Can you tell staffing season is starting to get to me?