It's official, according to Entertainment Weekly's Mark Harris: television is better than movies now. We're in the middle of a summer of by-the-numbers movies, while TV is blazing new trails. Too bad science fiction rules the movies instead of TV.
Apparently this is the worst summer for movie box office in ages, according to Harris' article - which came out before The Karate Kid became a surprise hit, so there's that. The Memorial Day weekend box office was the lowest it's been since 1993, and everybody agrees there's a slump. (Sadly, Harris' article isn't online, so I can't link to it.)
It's also been a summer in which most of the big movies felt, as Harris says, like nobody really had a story they needed to tell. (Even Splice's detractors would admit it's an original film. And thank goodness, Inception is on its way.) But generally, it's really true that this feels like the most blah summer for movies in years. Even though we're finally seeing films that didn't suffer from the writers' strike, that doesn't seem to mean that the new batch of films actually had scripts or anything.
Meanwhile, it's hard to dispute that television has become the more revolutionary medium in recent years, thanks to shows like Glee, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, True Blood, Dexter and so on. But this is a hard message for genre fans to hear, at a time when the failure rate for science fiction and fantasy shows seems even higher than normal. And it's hard not to notice that the standard list of ground-breaking, innovative shows usually only includes a couple of genre shows - while any list of the biggest movies of the past few years will be dominated by science fiction films.
We've talked about this problem before. But if Harris is right, and television is becoming the popular medium that blazes new trails while movies run in circles, then where does that leave science fiction?
Is science fiction uniquely suited to blockbuster movies, because it's a genre that lends itself to explosions and rampant breasts? And conversely, is the Hollywood version of science fiction too action-oriented ever to spawn more quirky, arty shows like Mad Men or Glee?
It's clearly not true, at least not entirely, since shows like Battlestar Galactica, Lost and True Blood have all become critical hits by challenging audiences with a healthy dose of weirdness and complex character development. (And I'd also mention Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as another recent show that was every bit as ambitious and arty, in its own way, as those other shows, and deserves to be on those lists.) The wave of experimental television has clearly included some genre offerings — and of those, Lost was a huge hit and BSG and True Blood have gotten great ratings for cable shows.
Still, it's interesting — genre fare may actually have done better on television when TV shows were basically the same thing, every week. With many shows, each episode wasn't just a standalone story, it was more or less the same story, with a few tweaks, week in and week out. In any given episode of The Incredible Hulk, David Banner goes to a new town, meets someone in trouble, gets involved in their problems, and changes into the Hulk exactly twice at key moments in the storyline. You know what you're going to get, because the formula was predictable.
In other words, back in the day, every episode of a science fiction or fantasy show was like a mini-movie.
And maybe the thing that's making television more ambitious, and a denser experience for audiences, is harder to do with genre shows because it's asking too much of viewers. We can handle genre elements within the predictable formula of the self-contained story — but if you're going to tell us a long, twisty story where every installment just takes you further into the world of the characters, then that's asking enough, right there. You can't expect the average viewer to deal with long-running narrative complexity and grapple with aliens or time travel. Or maybe the model of the long-running serialized drama doesn't work with genre elements, because the mythos becomes too confusing for the average person. (Lost is definitely a counter-example to that idea, except that the mythos came on fairly slowly in the second and third seasons.)
Or maybe it's just a particularly brain-dead summer in the movie business, and we've gotten lucky with an abnormally large crop of smart television shows lately. What do you think?