James Wolcott loses me in the first line of his much-discussed Variety Fair piece “Prime Time’s Graduation,” which is pretty impressive, as far as those things go. “After I fell out of love with movies,” he writes, and I’ve checked out already — even more so with the parenthetical that follows: “(new movies, that is — classic Hollywood I still adulate)”. Oh goody, he’s one of those, one of the overbearing boors who insists nothing worthwhile has come out of Hollywood since Jaws, or Ben-Hur, or (if you’re a real, Bogdanovich-style purist) since the takeover of the talkies. But no, it’s worse: Mr. Wolcott is one of these inexplicable “TV is better than movies” people, and because he’s writing for one of the few remaining major glossies (to-do: write my “movies are better than magazines” piece), we now have to have this whole cultural conversation about whether television has, in fact, “surpassed” the motion picture.
Make no mistake — this is, as many have said before, an era of terrific television, perhaps a new Golden Age. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Louie, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Dexter, Community, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Walking Dead, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Eastbound and Down, It’s Always Sunny; the lists are easy to make, and impressive, particularly if then stopping to figure in shows that have wrapped up over the past decade or so (The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Veronica Mars, and so on). And there’s no denying that there’s been an abundance of garbage on movie screens across the country, or that there’s more of the same to come.
But the inverse is true as well, a fact that Wolcott badly wants to ignore. He writes: “Margaret, Bellflower, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Future, Shame, Take Shelter — these are quality titles (so I assume, I haven’t seen most of them, I shall Netflix them in the fullness of time)…” Wait, whoa. Stop right there. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to decry the form as dead if you haven’t seen that short sampling (and there were more) of smart, challenging, great films from last year — you just don’t. What’s more, to do so with such a cavalier shrug makes Wolcott no better than “the one pill present (there’s always at least one), who takes pride in declaiming that he or she never watches television” he jeers at earlier in that very same paragraph. The hypocrisy on display is, I’m sorry, astonishing.
There are points being made by Wolcott and those who have engaged in the argument which are worth raising and contemplating: the storytelling freedom of television’s long runs (if your brainy show doesn’t get cancelled, of course), the emphasis on writing, the comparative health of complex roles for women. But to collect those virtues into an argument of third grade level “my dad can beat up your dad” artistic competition is absurd reductivism. Yes, there are terrible movies being released, every single week, and going to see them can be a nightmare. You know where else there’s a lot of rubbish? On television — a fact that Wolcott strenuously ignores in a 2100-word piece that never once includes the phrases “reality TV” or “CSI.” And here’s the other thing: there’s a lot of terrible music, and a lot of bullshit art, and a lot of crap books. The job of a truly engaged viewer (and critic) is to sift through the rubble and find the gems — not to look at the rubble and petulantly give up.
But that’s just my take on the matter. What about you? Do we have to choose? Is it even a choice? And if it is, which way do you lean?