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Mad Men: Why TV is Better than Cinema

by Paul Brown
2 December 2010 3 Comments

With CGI, blue-screen, 3D and a whole host of other gimmicks, the silver screen is being outgunned by its smaller sibling where it really counts; the writing. But should we be surprised?

Farewell Don, Peggy, Roger, Pete and Joan. Especially Joan. This week’s Mad Men season four finale means we’ll have to wait the best part of a year for our next wallow in the glamour and drama of 60s Madison Avenue. And that’s tough, because Mad Men is a show that completely absorbs its viewers, the kind of show that makes sitting on the sofa in front of the telly seem like pretty much the best thing in the world.

Over the last ten years or so, TV has given us some of the best entertainment that’s ever been beamed into eyeholes, including The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and more. TV has never been better, while cinema screens are increasingly clogged with pan-circling cack.

The arrival of The Sopranos in 1999 heralded this TV revolution. Think of the first season episode, College, in which Tony takes daughter Meadow on a road trip to check out a new school and ends up having to ‘deal with’ an FBI informant. It’s a brilliant episode, like a 50-minute, self-contained film noir. The Sopranos proved that TV could be just as good as any anything shown at the movies. And quite often it could be a whole lot better.

Moneybags cable TV networks, the rise of the DVD box set, innumerate torrent sites and the fact that most of us have acquired massive tellies have all helped drive this rise. But, despite traditionally being choked with low-budget formulaic cobblers, TV had a previously hidden advantage over movies that a new generation of writers and producer began to exploit. Put simply, with a TV show you don’t have to cram everything into 90 minutes.

The best example of this is probably The Wire, a novelistic story that just couldn’t have worked as a movie. The sprawling cast of characters and intricate plotlines required room to breathe, and got it over five seasons and 60 episodes. It truly is all in the game.

TV has never been better, while cinema screens are increasingly clogged with pan-circling cack.

Similarly, Mad Men benefits from the space that TV affords it. In some episodes it seems that almost nothing happens, other than that you’ve spent 50 minutes in the company of the characters, learning about them, watching them develop. It’s effective and addictive. The best TV can be far more immersive than the majority of movies.

Much is made of cinema’s communal experience, but sitting in a scruffy room surrounded by hundreds of people yapping, eating, fidgeting and Twittering isn’t always fun. It’s not cheap, either. For the price of two cinema tickets you can buy a complete TV show on DVD. But the real problem is that the vast majority of movies aren’t any good.

How many genuinely great movies have been released this year? I’ll give you Toy Story 3. Inception? It’s flawed, but pretty good. Other than those two? I’m struggling. TV, meanwhile, has given us Mad Men season 4, Breaking Bad season 3, Entourage season 7, The Pacific, and the first seasons of Treme (pronounced Truh-mey if you want to know your onions) and Boardwalk Empire. That’s four hours of quality movies versus 50-plus hours of quality TV. Television is taking over.

Boardwalk Empire, which will air in the UK on the new Sky Atlantic channel, has Martin Scorsese as Executive Producer (who also directed the pilot). As more cash and resources are diverted from movies into TV it’s inevitable that more of cinema’s big guns will make the jump to your living room.

There’s still a place for great movies, of course, there just aren’t enough of them being made. Cinema is heading steadfastly down the 3D blockbuster route, all sequels and exploding robots. While TV is producing more and more top quality, well written, brilliantly acted, intelligent and worthwhile shows.

So I’m saying, right here, right now, Mad Men is better than movies. Having said that, I’ll still go to the cinema this weekend. Prove me wrong, Will Ferrell, I’m off to see Megamind…

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Robert 11:49 pm, 2-Dec-2010

I can't go to the cinema. Nobody knows how to fucking well behave themselves any more.

Sam 2:09 pm, 5-Dec-2010

Maybe watch less American cinema?

Dan 8:22 pm, 1-Feb-2011

the thing is they Do not put the effort in because they know people will still go. What happens if you put the television on and the programme is crap? You turn over. Convert that to the cinema and you could leave. You will not get a refund though!

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