And there are good reasons for that. For one thing, when we talk about television, we are almost always only talking about American television. Maybe we’ll include a few British shows, but rarely do we grapple with foreign-language efforts, the way serious moviegoers have been doing for decades. And while the source of most cinematic creativity in the United States has for the last few decades probably come from independent filmmakers, there is not really any such thing as independent television. (The medium, for the most part, just doesn’t work that way.) So while the best movies come from an intimidating diversity of sources, and present a similarly wide range of aesthetic approaches and aims, the best TV shows tend to come from three or four American cable networks and frequently follow a familiar model. (It’s like The Godfather, only in modern-day New Jersey—or in the advertising world, or the New Mexico meth market, or in Hollywood …)
Take today’s Emmy nominations, which, though there were, as always, a few surprises and snubs, generally rewarded the prestige dramas—House of Cards, American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland—that most people regard as the best stuff on TV. Compare that to any year’s Oscar nominations, which encompass multiple filmmaking styles and span the studio and indie world and still rarely scratch the surface of what critics and serious moviegoers consider the best of the year. Or just consider the wild range of movies on view in a critics’ poll of the best 2013 movies so far, from Before Midnight to Upstream Color to Spring Breakers (and that’s just the top three—and we’re still months away from Oscar season).
It may be true that, for much of the year, you can’t find good movies just by driving to the multiplex, while there’s often something good waiting on your DVR. And that people aren’t talking enough about the really good films that get released—sometimes on only a handful of screens—throughout the calendar year. But the proper solution to this problem, if you’re a critic, is not to tell people to just watch TV instead. It’s to tell us which new movies are worth our attention, and where they can be found. It’s to make the conversation about the art that matters the most.
After all, the most consistent refrain from TV-is-better pieces is: Everyone is talking about that great, culture-dominating TV show, and nobody talks about the movies anymore. (Bruce Fretts’ “simple reason” no. 5: “TV is more fun to talk about.”) In Vanity Fair, James Wolcott—who finds the TV-is-better argument so nice he’s made it twice—says “the new movie that everybody’s talking about is being talked about by a shrinking number of everybodies.” Gavin Polone opens his piece for Vulture by noting that in one day he heard three random strangers talking about Breaking Bad. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott asks, “Will any of the movies surfacing this fall provoke the kind of conversation that television series routinely do, breaking beyond niches into something larger?”
In fact, plenty of recent movies have inspired a great deal of cultural conversation. (Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, and Lincoln come quickly to mind.) But more importantly, when it comes to the real artistic merit of what we’re watching, the volume of such conversations is neither here nor there. You know what people talk about even more than Breaking Bad? Sports. I can discuss football, baseball, and basketball with huge numbers of people from all walks of life. But that doesn’t make the last Red Sox–Yankees tilt a work of art (especially not lately).
What bothers me most about the TV-is-better line, finally, is that TV could be better. As this year’s many Emmy nominations for Netflix series helps to demonstrate, we now watch a lot of “television” and “movies” in the same way: at home, on big TV screens and little computers. Behind the Candelabra, which got 15 Emmy nominations, is an HBO presentation in the States—and a movie overseas, where it is playing on the big screen. The gap between these two media is closing—and there’s no reason, theoretically speaking, that the adventurous approaches to visual storytelling that we see in certain movies couldn’t come to TV, too. We could all start watching more foreign-language shows—I hear Borgen is great—and more independently produced Web series, which get better all the time. We could, in other words, eventually have a television landscape that is as artistically rich and varied as the movies are right now. And that would be a true golden age.