Film and TV

Is Being a Couch Potato Now a Compliment?

I have always considered myself something of a movie buff. My father is a cinephile, and I was raised on a healthy dose of the classics and indie films. I went to school with a concentration in film, so I am even learned in the subject. If you describe something to me as "Fellinian," I actually know what you are talking about. Let's put it this way, I care about the Academy Awards for the movies not just the clothes. But it dawned on me the other day: I haven't seen any of the nominated movies from last year! I still haven't seen Silver Linings Playbook, and I think I am OK with that.

What have I been doing while not immersing myself in the world of film? It's not that I am doing something more productive with my life or maybe I have been; I have watched hours upon hours of television.

Lately, this affliction has me wondering if any of my movie-loving brethren have found themselves in the same boat and if this bothers them. Is television stealing a certain class of movie audiences and should we be feeling guilty about it? I don't.

I don't want to use the term "television's golden age" because it is completely played out at this point, but for lack of a buzzier phrase, I'll just remark that television has been doing something right and people are taking notice. Blogs upon blogs feel the need to comment on the state of television, recaps of popular shows are standard fare, and the "blockbuster television show" gets just as much news coverage, if not more, than the current blockbuster movie. More than 8 million people watched a Youtube video of reactions to people watching the "Red Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones because it was highly covered by the media -- fewer than 6 million people watched the actual episode.

For a very long time people who watched a lot of television were given the very negative designation of a "couch potato." Back in the '80s and '90s this type of mass consumption was mocked. Some of you may remember the couch potato stuffed toy of the late 1980s; it was really ugly and fat and so were you if you sat on your ass all day staring at the screen. PSAs warned us against too much television; sociologists studied the horrible affects the medium had on us, and for a long time saying that you "watch too much TV" was seen as a low-brow way to spend your time.

That stigma is all but gone. Television has become less of a mindless activity and is once again a form of art. The reasons are many and if you follow television's timeline, it's actually quite similar to that of film's.

Film spent a long time as the poor-man's form of entertainment. Movies were cheap and easy to watch with lots of singing and dancing to keep things light. There were moments of greatness in film, some in this country but mostly in Europe where the medium was studied. But it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the cinema took on a new meaning. Film had stiff competition with television, the new passive entertainment du jour, and to compete the movies had to adapt. Films became more reflective of social issues, characters more defined, editing styles improved and stories central. This is when all of the movies we consider "greats" came out, The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Exorcist, The Graduate, Easy Rider and so on. At the time film was about 70 years old, not all that ancient in terms of an art.

Television is right now hitting the 70-year old mark and the parallels are great. In the past decade television has faced a struggle named the Internet. With this invention, people want things faster, now-er, cheaper (free!) and they want to be able to make these things all on their own. And so television has had to basically do the opposite of all that, and its staunch opposition to faster and cheaper has made it slower and more expensive and ultimately better.

If everyone and their mom can make a video and put it up on Youtube, television has defied this by getting real actors. Various big name actors have said that they never pictured themselves doing anything on the small screen and yet now they welcome the opportunity as this where the real "acting" is. We no longer have to go to the movie theater to see actors acting, just turn on your television set and you'll find the Kevin Spaceys, the Glen Closes, the Kevin Bacons and the Diane Krugers. You needn't go to the latest art film for award-winning writing. Put on an episode of Breaking Bad or The Wire and you would be hard-pressed to find better writing in any film. This goes for directing too. Top directors have turned to the small screen just as quickly as actors have. Netflix greenlit House of Cards partially due to director David Fincher's attachment to the project. Costumes, editing, photography, unique auteur stylization, all of this you can now get from your boob tube.

There's something more to it. Television is that much more manageable than film. With streaming comes an expediency that movies still don't have. And in our on the go society, television also has time on its side. It is much easier to commit yourself to an hour-long television drama (which is about 48 minutes) than to a three-hour movie; movies just keep getting longer!

And then there's the whole idea of character development. Each week we become more and more invested in the characters and the actors; directors and writers have time to develop little quirks and catch phrases. The reason the "Red Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones was so shocking was because the people who died were our heroes and, moreover, our friends. I cannot remember the last time a movie got such an overwhelming reaction.

Of course none of this is to say that movies are dead; that would be crazy. There is something beautiful and remarkable about a flawless three-act story; television arcs tend to stray from the formula, slowing down too much in the beginning and then having to play catch up towards a season's end. Films know when to get in and get out; because TV has supplementary time, much of it is wasted.

But priorities of filmmakers are being pushed in a certain direction where television producers have a different agenda. We've come to a place in television where the viewer demands a good product rather than a flash in the pan. Blockbusters come and go like yesterday's trash; television needs to have staying power.

So do I feel bad that I still haven't seen Silver Linings Playbook? Of course! I am dying to see it and have been since it came out in the theater last year. It's embarrassing. But do I feel bad that rather than watching it I've already taken in the first three seasons of Justified this summer and it's only June? No. That show and many of the others that I've "wasted" my time watching are extraordinary works of art, and I guess you can call me a couch potato if you think that's still suitable.

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Abby Koenig
Contact: Abby Koenig