Recently, Dustin Hoffman said in an interview with The Independent that “right now television is the best that it’s ever been, and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been — in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.”
Now, although this idea had been bouncing around much of the internet and in popular discussion for quite a while, it hadn’t really been discussed too much by the traditional media outlets until very recently. And with Hoffman, one of Hollywood’s greatest living actors, siding with the idea that TV has overtaken film in some regards, it looks as if more people within the film industry are beginning to take notice of the increased quality of television programming.
However, is this definitely the case? Has the once great medium of storytelling that was cinema been overtaken by television?
Firstly, let’s assume that Hoffman and many others are correct and TV has picked up the mantle of being the best medium for visual media and storytelling. There is little doubt that in the last decade there have been dozens of excellent dramas. Breaking Bad, Fargo, Mad Men and The Wire are merely just the best known of these which have managed to attract massive global audiences. There have been some brilliantly inventive comedy shows like Community, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Bojack Horseman, and there have even been forays into the kind of territory once only occupied by films. Daredevil, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones all have blockbuster level budgets and have wowed audiences with some of their set pieces and action sequences.
Now the question is are these shows the equals of the movies that fall into the same genres in terms of storytelling and/or entertainment? I would say that there have been several great dramas in the past few years which have gained critical and financial success which show that despite the strength of television drama it will probably never overtake their big-screen counterparts. The Social Network, Drive, 12 Years A Slave, Prisoners, Whiplash and Birdman and many more films prove that dramatic films are alive and well. However, I would be willing to accept that there is a possibility that the general quality of comedy is higher on television than in films. You could argue that films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Silver Linings Playbook count as comedies and maybe they do but they have too many dramatic elements for my liking. Quality comedies like the Jump Street films are few and far between nowadays as the genre is now dominated by films which mistake crudity and/or stupidity for comedy.
One could also argue that action based TV shows also seem more impressive because of the sorry state of action films right now. The action sequences in Daredevil, Game of Thrones and True Detective only seem so impressive because most action films, apart from a few exceptions like The Raid, are lacking in real grit or half decent action direction. When TV directors and writers are taking more chances in their action sequences it immediately raises them above the PG-13, one man army films like Taken 2/3, Three Days to Kill and The November Man.
However, all this truly shows is how far television has come in recent years, not how far films have fallen. Most of these problems have been present for years, it just hadn’t been so apparent because there was nothing to compare it to. Also, there are many genres where television isn’t even coming close to the film industry. There hasn’t been a truly brilliant Sci-Fi series since Battlestar Galactica, Utopia did come close though. And in this time we’ve had Inception, Looper, District 9, Edge of Tomorrow, Moon, Interstellar and Gravity which goes to prove that the best science fiction can still be found in the cinema.
In a similar vein, the invention of the “Cinematic Universe” and the resurgence of many franchises associated with “nerd culture” the movie industry has developed a new concept which could be seen as similar with the episodic nature of television. Every few months or so there is a new installment in what could be seen as a larger Marvel series, it’s like a really irregular miniseries.
Similarly, with the rise to prominence of subscription services the so-called “binge watch” has turned TV series into very long films. I watched the entire first series of True Detective in one sitting and it may have been several hours long but it worked as a single cohesive narrative. True Detective is also a good place to start with another point. Cary Fukunaga directed the entire first series which is almost unprecedented in television dramas. Fukunaga had already directed feature films but chose to take what many would consider to be a backwards move by directing a TV series. However, many even higher profile names like David Fincher with House of Cards have become creatively involved with TV series in recent years. TV series can also now hold onto big name actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the case of Sherlock because it is no longer considered the lesser medium in a creative sense.
All of this could lead to one saying that the two are arguably now equal because they have been brought closer together in terms of creativity. There are also closer technical similarities with the majority of films being shot digitally like TV series. This has led to films arguably losing their own distinct visual identity as fewer and fewer filmmakers continue to use film. Tarantino has vehemently tried to preserve film because he despises how films are beginning to look like TV shows. The negative effects of this aside the fact that films now no longer have their own distinct beauty has led to TV shows looking and feeling not more expensive but less cheap in comparison to their cinema counterparts.
However, all of these points completely discount one fact. When anyone says films are worse than they used to be they are usually referring to films from western countries. This is completely discounting films from much of Europe, Asia, South and Central America and even Africa. Just in the last couple of years films like Two Days, One Night, Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Hunt, Leviathan, Ida, The Wind Rises, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Babadook have all shown you don’t have to be western or in Hollywood to produce a brilliant film. It is this consistent, international quality of film that makes it stand above television in the end. Whereas TV has come to the fore in America and Britain as almost equal to cinema, across the rest of the world cinema is still king.