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TV channels the big screen

Whether we're watching 'Mad Men' or 'American Idol,' it's clear that television has moved into film territory, offering variety and depth that's more likely to entertain than rot your brain.

August 16, 2009|Mary McNamara | Television Critic

First it was the Oscars. Following a broadcast in which the host and presenters openly mocked the low box office numbers of best picture nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the number of those up for the award this year would be doubled. If 10 films were nominated, presumably one or two of them would have a fan base that extended past, say, La Brea Avenue.

A few weeks later, in a similar effort to draw more viewers to their show, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decided that certain Emmy winners should receive their awards and make their (edited) speeches off-stage. That way precious broadcast minutes that might be wasted watching writers and producers struggle to the stage could be used to acknowledge popular shows that weren't nominated.

Call it the "Mad Men" Effect. Yeah, sure the AMC period drama with its gazillion nominations is good, but what about "CSI?" What about "The Bachelor"? According to the folks at CBS, which will carry the Emmys this year, their many fans deserve to feel part of the telecast too.

In the end, the television academy and the network recanted; pressured by outraged members, and the Writers Guild, last week they reversed their decision to "time-shift" certain awards. Even so, let us pause for a moment and consider what this sort of conversation implies -- the medium that was once considered low-brow by definition now has to cope with criticism that it's gotten too snooty.

Forget red states and blue, the battle shaping America right now is the one between quantity and quality, between popularity and worth. (Which, of course, are not always mutually exclusive.) Newspapers scurry to compete with TMZ and news breaks on Twitter, bestsellers lists are sub-divided into Fiction and Mass Market Fiction, but nowhere is the tension more visible than on our personal and public screens.

In the good old days, things seemed simpler -- film was smart, television was dumb. Television would rot your brains, make your children fat, ruin your family by filling the sacrosanct dinner hour with "Happy Days" reruns. No one thought of criticizing the "Narnia" or "Harry Potter" franchises for luring kids into the dark and having them sit, popcorn and soda in hand, in front of a screen for three-plus hours.

No, sir, that's film, and film is good for you. It's a public experience (even if the social intercourse is limited to telling the people in front of you to turn off their cellphones) rather than the preferred activity of shut-ins, an event rather than a capitulation. Even the language is different -- you watch television, but you go to the movies.

Nowadays, that kind of snobbery is hard to sustain. Film festival entrants are available via pay channels while trailers for TV shows show up at the Cineplex. Original programming fills home theater screens with Oscar-winning actors duking it out for Emmys, plus behind-the-scenes names like Jerry Bruckheimer and Anthony Minghella, while on the big screen a spate of sophomoric comedies feel closer to traditional sitcoms than most of what's on television. (Would a laugh track have saved "The Ugly Truth," do you think?)

Last year's "Bernard and Doris" premiered on HBO, but it could just as easily have appeared at your local art house. Hindsight is 20/20, but "Watchmen" would have probably done better as a miniseries on Syfy or Fox.

Part of this is a function of those channels formerly known as cable, part of it's because midlevel films don't exist anymore and screen actresses would like to work even when crippled by the infirmities of turning 40. But there's also a war-makes-strange-bedfellows alliance afoot.

As Hulu and Netflix and live-streaming sites threaten to storm the field like anti-Beckham hecklers, film and television, those traditional sparring partners, are now circling back to back. Bourne, meet "Burn Notice" and pass the ammunition. Film and television have always had a symbiotic relationship, sharing stories like siblings pillaging each other's closets. Hit movies such as "MASH" and "Crash" spawn television shows and vice versa with similarly mixed results ("Star Trek" versus "Land of the Lost"). This fall, we will see the CW's very "Twilight"-ish "Vampire Diaries," ABC's "Eastwick" (as in "The Witches of") and the CBS version of "Knocked Up" ("Accidentally on Purpose").



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