Misael and I sometimes debate the relative artistic merits of film vs. television. Lots of different analogies are possible in these discussions (e.g. film as short story, television (think The Wire, etc.) as novel), none perfect. In the end though, I think this exercise is a little like arguing the relative merits of dance and architecture; each is a distinct artform that deserves to be judged on its own merits.
Or maybe it makes more sense to say that each is a family of different artforms. Shows like Murder She Wrote have very little to do with shows like Lost, and few things are as open-ended as a feature film (I note Gummo without further comment). Nonetheless the argument that film is inherently an inferior artform (because (1) a television series is not conceived as a single artistic statement, as every film is, and (2) however deconstructed and contemporary, every episode of every television show must be stand-alone satisfying to a certain degree) has obvious appeal, on its face. And “sometimes you’re in the mood for bubble gum” is sort of like damning TV with faint praise.
But so I’ve been watching 24 lately (I’m on season 3). Structurally, the show is fascinating: each season is 24 episodes, each of which is part of one intense 24 hour period in the life of the California anti-terrorism unit. The show runs in real-time, while juggling numerous interconnected story lines. The politics of the show are sometimes questionable, but the achievement of crafting the stories is staggering.
Yet what’s most impressive about 24 is something else. The Ramones claimed that their idea was to take the peak moment of pop music — the most energetic dizzying crescent — and create music that was about extending that moment for an entire song. Somewhat analogously, 24 takes the most intense moments of spy movies (Bond), and attempts to stretch them into an entire season. The idea is that the tension does not let up — indeed, does not even ease — for the entire 24-hour season (this is best experienced, as much modern TV is, by watching the entire season on DVD over a short period of time (in fact, a season of 24 could arguably be best experienced in an actual 24 hour period, watching time synchronized to the fictional time)). This is odd, since even a Bond movie has peaceful and romantic interludes between sequences of action. Here are 24 hours of unrelenting tension.
I’m not making a case for 24. I’m making the case that despite the illusion that film is a more free-form artform, in reality television has the ability to do certain things that cannot be done in any other way.