Throughout his essay, Charles McGrath acknowledges, or hints at, the shortcomings of film. He suggests that many of film’s foibles are television’s fortes.
He argues that in the present-day realm of film, content is constrained by commercialist aims. Whereas writers, producers, and others involved in the creative process of filmmaking have begun to tend to abstain from confronting pressing issues, seeking to quench mass audiences’ thirst and in turn satisfy sycophant-rewarding studio honchos with net profits, the behind-the-scenes ambience of television is more liberating, allowing those in the field to take risks and espouse “social seriousness” (244). Shows like Law and Order are better suited to incorporate current events than their big-screen opponents. What is more, they can do so in a regimented, incremental fashion, providing for more continuous leakage of social commentary into and mulling over of big ideas in viewers’ minds.
McGrath also alleges that television proves more faithful to reality than film. Due to its serialized nature, it admirably traces character movement over time—not for one hundred and twenty or so minutes, but for entire seasons’ lengths. Moreover, television can include moments that in films fall victim to the chopping block—or, rather, the editing room—as they are deemed unessential to the dramatic/thematic arcs at hand and therefore unaffordable. In television, however, these moments are sifted through each episode, delivering a “slice of life,” a verisimilitude unique to the medium. Due to the range of fictional situations in which small-screen actors portray their characters, which, according to McGrath, allows them to project their personas not only through action but through reaction, the players can more smoothly slip into their roles.
Now that I have attempted to explicate some of McGrath’s points, I would like to say that I cannot help but sense a hint of bias beneath his subtle jabs at the silver screen. He seems to bolster television, the very purpose of his essay as implied in the title, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” by straining to unearth unsubstantiated flaws in film (emphasis mine). Many of his contrasts between television and film seem to rely on gross generalizations of the spheres’ respective products. He selectively draws upon specific television genres (e.g. police procedurals, medical dramas) to support the notion that television is more pertinent to our world than film. I realize that reality television is an easy target, and, personally, I would rather defend the genre than poke fun at it, but McGrath’s assertions undeniably beg the question, “Does an atmosphere of ‘social seriousness’ pervade even programming by Mark Burnett?” (Granted, McGrath’s essay was published in 1995, before the bubbling surge of everything but the kitchen sink in the reality television market.) And can McGrath deny that for every comic-book-adapted blockbuster shot out from the Marvel rocket-launcher, there is a low-budget Oscar contender singed together, reel by reel, in the fiery depths of Miramax or the Weinstein Company? I am all in favor of defending the validity of television, as is evident in my enrollment in this course, but do we have to take film down to bring television up? (And are Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis really the best examples to cite when claiming that film performances lack effortlessness?)