Impish as usual, Armond White’s latest dual review (a common device with him, in which two recent releases are presented as “dueling” for the soul of American pop culture) contrasts Steven Soderbergh’s alleged swan song, Side Effects, with Walter Hill’s latest, Bullet to the Head (which, given Hill’s age and its box office, might turn out to be his big screen swan song as well). What stood out to me in the review was this sentence:
Soderbergh’s Traffic, Erin Brokovich and Magic Mike belong to an era of cynical banality while Hill’s sharp, inventive technique seen in The Warriors, Geronimo and Undisputed went unappreciated (and underground in TV projects like Deadwood and Broken Trail).
Most film critics now pay lip service to the notion that television series have progressed to the point of being on par in quality with the average feature film. White is one of the old school holdouts who frequently peppers his reviews with sleights against TV in the form of pejorative references: if he thinks a film looks like crap, he’ll say it uses “TV aesthetics” or something along those lines. Of anybody working in his field, White is unquestionably the most candid about his prejudices. He thinks cinema is where it’s at, television is not, and that’s that. For this (among many, many other things), he takes a lot of flack. Justifiably so.
Yet I think it’s true that, while most folks would readily acknowledge TV’s ascendancy over the course of the last fifteen years or so, its newfound mantle as a viable medium for sophisticated art is not yet cemented. For one thing, there are very few shows that have attained what you might call canonical status. Even “classic” shows are usually framed in the context of their time, both in terms of the storytelling conventions adopted, but also budgets and available technology. The lexicon of cinema is very well documented by superb critics and widely accepted as a form of high art. The lexicon of TV, while almost as well documented, is not accepted as a form of high art, and there are very few critics who have made their names doing TV criticism. In most respects, TV criticism is from a fan perspective, rather than a critical perspective. There are many shows considered to be “favorites,” but very few considered to be “greats.”
This is evident in the non-presence of TV references in most film criticism up to the present. While shows like The Wire and The Sopranos are oft-cited as examples of shows that created benchmarks of quality — and thus are often represented in reviews of crime stories — it is not apparent precisely why those shows are benchmarks. At least, not in the context of the reviews in which they appear. Ben Affleck’s The Town invited comparisons to The Wire when it came out, but few critics teased those out. The Evening Standard and The Guardian were content simply to name-drop the series. The World Socialist Web Site asserted that the film didn’t have the show’s depth. Not that comparisons to films like The Departed or Heat are less relevant, but apart from both being crime genre and both fuzzing the moral/ethical line between cops and criminals, what are the relevant points of comparison between The Town and The Wire? Are there similar characters? Plotlines? Techniques? Even on a thematic level, do The Town and The Wire even overlap in their perspectives on the whole cop/criminal dichotomy?
This is typical of how film critics grapple with the relationship between TV and cinema. It is as if critics are aware that there is such a thing as TV; they are familiar with some several programs that they watch, or about which they’ve heard from friends, colleagues, or the buzz in the critical ether; they’ve noted the uptick in production values and aesthetic rigor in TV programming. Yet they don’t really know precisely how to merge the two worlds. So you often find TV references dangling just above the surface of film criticism, serving the purpose of telegraphing that the critics are pop culture savvy, without bothering to engage in any meaningful way with that hemisphere of the culture that keeps millions glued to their TV screens every night.
If I may inch out a little further on this limb before a chipmunk’s sneeze knocks me off, allow me to suggest that this is evidence of a prejudice that critics still harbor about television. Not just critics: us, too. I don’t doubt for a minute that most of us, if we’re honest, would acknowledge that the standards we have for TV shows are a bit lower than the standards we hold for cinema. And not just because of the vast differences still intrinsic to the two media. It’s because that’s simply how the culture views them. For all our protestations and bluster, it is my distinct impression that TV is regarded as the lesser medium. To be crude: cinema is for art; TV is for entertainment.
We all know that it isn’t that simple, though; we know it isn’t entirely true. Even a staunch TV-phobe like White is occasionally confronted by the limits of his prejudice. His Zero Dark Thirty review compares the film to ”the bland procedural manner TV viewers favor,” suggesting that it’s not so much a case that there are bland procedurals on TV, but that it is the people who like to watch TV that favor bland procedurals. In his review of Silver Linings, he says, “TV shows like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and The New Normal turn everyday eccentricity banal.” Skim White’s reviews for yourself. Chances are, every time you find a reference to television, it is in the context of implying its erosion of good taste and standards. Yet when it comes to Walter Hill’s forays into TV Land, all of a sudden TV is “underground.” Banal, bland television gains a potentially subversive edge when the right person uses it. A medium utilized nearly four hours a day by almost all Americans is, by this formulation, veritably avant-garde.
As easy as it is to nitpick the consistency of White’s peccadilloes, in this instance, I think he’s fairly representative of his profession. There are dozens and dozens of TV critics out there who have been doing amazing stuff with their criticism (Alyssa Rosenberg does exceptional TV criticism, for instance), but film still gets the lion’s share of the physical ink, and it still occupies the place of pride in the hierarchy of artistic pop cultural pursuits. Just because this is the way things are does not mean that TV is “underground.” On the contrary. What would be useful, however, would be for film critics to start integrating TV into their discussion a little more proactively. Nobody knows for certain how technology will evolve, but it looks likely that TV and film are going to overlap a lot more in the future, so getting ahead of that curve would be a smart idea for film critics who don’t want to specialize themselves into irrelevance. The first step would be to recognize television’s potential and to start sifting through how much of that potential has been historically realized. Many critics have already begun doing this. I hope White and his kind come in from the cold sooner rather than later. ☕