The big difference between movies and TV is this: Every movie, whether a serious drama or a silly comedy, should be about the most important three days (or hours, or months) in a character’s life. TV can’t do that. Movies have to build towards a big climax that changes everything. TV has to have a series of little climaxes that change nothing. Movies plots are linear, steadily building as one person’s problem escalates and escalates, until that person has to change to face their problem, and is changed forever. TV has to meander around a bit until it ends up where it began.
This used to be seen as proof that movies were inherently more weighty than TV, but that view is now beginning to change. Even the great dramas of the ‘80s, “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere”, failed to convince many critics that TV was an equally serious artform, but the great shows of the last fifteen years, especially “The Sopranos”, “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” have finally gotten more critics to take TV seriously. These shows are often called “groundbreaking” and “cinematic”, but they don’t really break the mold: Like Ralph Kramden or Lucy Ricardo, the lead characters on these shows don’t really change that much, and whenever they do change it’s not for long. What makes these shows great is that they bring new depth and meaning to the standard TV model. They dare to make the case that change is a fantasy that can only exist in darkened theaters. On TV, in the harsh light of our living rooms, we have to admit that most catharses are phony.
Tony Soprano kept experiencing these mini-epiphanies that seemed to solve his problems, without making any real progress. He thought he was becoming a better man, a better husband, a better mobster, a better psychiatric patient, etc., but it never actually happened. Just like any other TV show, each new season of “The Sopranos” would find Tony back in the same situation, facing the same problems. And that, David Chase implied, was the point.
In reality, your life doesn’t turn a corner due to one intense experience. It may lead you to an epiphany, and you may be sure that you’ll never be the same… …but you’re wrong. You’re going to wake up the next morning with all the same personal failings. Movies sell us on the idea of “personal growth” but TV tells us that change is a myth, which may just be the more profound idea.
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