As I watched John Hamm, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, and their fearless leader Matthew Weiner take the stage just minutes ago to receive their Emmy for Best Drama Series, I realized that I could never again believe that television is an inferior medium to film. Of course, I’m sure this has been true since before I was born, but this year cemented it for me because, strangely, this was not the best year for either medium. As I compare this year’s Academy Award winners and nominees to this year’s Emmy winners and nominees (and given that it’s awards night in Hollywood, I think that’s only fitting) on a year that was not particularly game changing for either medium (shh, I’ll get to Avatar in a second!), I’m seeing more and more that when it comes to those qualities that film and television share, television may have actually bested film this year.
I promised to mention Avatar, which won a handful of technical awards at the Oscars, and was, in one way, game changing for the film-making industry. Yes, it did prove that 3D can work as an organic quality of a film, not a cheap gimmick. But when it comes to Avatar‘s other qualities, especially the much lauded and discussed “environmental theme”, I think television has it beat. Lost – a show that that has been praised, panned, and everything in between – may not have ended very satisfactorily or clearly, but over its 6 years, it did more with the theme of the healing power of nature upon the human body and soul than Avatar, Pocahontas, Fern Gully, and Dances with Wolves combined (I do adore you, though, Kevin Kostner). Further, it was just more straight-up melodramatic, geeky, sci-fi fun than Avatar was. James Cameron reportedly wants to beat Star Wars and Star Trek at their own game. But Lost is already several touchdowns ahead, James.
But all that is a bit silly. Perhaps television is doing well with the comic-con-going-nerd-dom, but surely film still reigns when it comes to serious drama. Let’s compare winners again: this year in film saw the Hurt Locker, Precious, and Crazy Heart top the list of the grittily realistic and dramatically angst ridden. But with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Pacific looming large at the Emmy’s, how could we deny these shows their place beside the three films when it comes to acting, directing, writing, cinematography, not to mention beauty, verve, and wit?
And speaking of wit, how could we forget comedy – can it be that television has seen better written, better acted, better conceived, and just flat out funnier comedy than film has seen for a decade or two, or three? I did laugh, and pretty hard, at The Hangover. I even chuckled a little at Land of the Lost. But Glee, one of the less funny comedy series of the year, gave me, at least, more laughs and even more memorable characters than the Hangover. And with shows like Modern Family (congrats, guys!), and Bored to Death on the air, I almost feel bad for film. Judd Apatow, one of the bright hopes for film comedy in recent years, got his start (and did his best work?) in television with Freaks and Geeks, the momentum of which even still propels fine comedic actors like James Franco through middling comedy films like Pineapple Express (I’m sure the Spider Man money doesn’t hurt, either). Further, Apatow-ites and their imitators (think guys like Jason Seigel, Zack Galafianakis, and Danny McBride, not to mention Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin) are finding funnier, more stable, and more interesting roles in television, even as their faces adorn the nation’s movie theaters.
It’s true that films still do some things TV can’t, or at least hasn’t yet. The mystery and puzzle of Inception would fizzle in a TV series – just look at some of the “unanswered questions” that Lost fans still grumble about, or the only tentatively interesting, question-filled “thriller” Rubicon, which I fear will not have the staying power of its sister AMC shows. Also, film has Pixar. That’s all that really needs to be said about that. Still, when it comes to acting, directing, and especially the exploration of theme, character, and humor, television is here to stay as a medium as full of high art, mediocre trash, and everything in between as film has ever been. There’s more to say, but I gotta go – Mad Men‘s on soon.