Why Narrative TV is Superior to Film

Hello Interwebs! I like narrative TV better than movies. That might seem a bit weird to say, considering I’m a filmmaker, but I make no apologies. Don’t get me wrong: I love the theatrical experience, and a good movie is hard to beat, but I believe Television/ Streamed shows to be the superior storytelling format. Maybe you agree with me, or maybe you don’t, but read on and at least hear me out…   

Since its inception, TV has often been considered inferior to film. It was the trashy, low-brow cousin to (*in awe of the very word*) cinema: that bold medium for expressive artistry and high-quality entertainment. Not that most narrative film is even particularly intelligent or inventive, but film snobs still turn their nose up at TV. This opinion began to shift 20 years ago with the age of prestige TV, ushered in by such shows as The Sopranos and The Wire (both from HBO). And those shows are undoubtedly awesome, so it’s no wonder TV started getting a better reputation. But even these acclaimed series were afraid to be considered “Television” because of TV’s perceived shortcomings. There actually used to be a slogan that went “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” I find that slogan pretentious and dismissive, but I also think it’s brilliant marketing. 

The Sopranos. It’s not TV (at least, HBO doesn’t want you to think it is)

HBO definitely changed the game. I’m not contesting that. Their shows pushed the limits of TV in the late 90s and helped bring the medium up to its potential. But, strange as it is to say: the point of TV is not some arbitrary level of quality, but rather general consistency. I believe people watch TV because it’s comforting. I’ll delve more into this idea momentarily. For right now I just want to note that any long-running series contains dozens of hours of memorable characters, storylines, locations, comedy and drama. That’s very important to remember when arguing why TV is better than film.

Let’s compare two of the longest running franchises in entertainment (each of them started in the early 1960s): if you’re a fan of the 007 films, there are currently 24 movies to watch, totaling around 50 hours of content; if you’re a fan of Doctor Who, there’s 37 Seasons and over 400 hours of content! Yeah, there’s a lot of garbage in those 400 hours, but there’s also a lot of classics (I should know; I’ve watched most of it). The point is: if you’re a fan of Doctor Who, there’s far more of it to go around than James Bond, even though the two series started around the same time. Films, by their nature will never let you spend as much time in their worlds as TV shows do.

Now, going back to my earlier point about “comfort”: I believe the sheer amount of time TV shows allow you to invest (if you choose) creates a relationship between you and your favourite shows that most films only dream of forming. Even if you only watch the “best” episodes of any long-running series, you’re still probably putting more hours in to that world than most film series, and getting good quality stories too. But if you watch absolutely everything a show has to offer, you’re making yourself part of the TV world. You become familiar with the nuances of characters as if they were people you knew in real life; you pick up on running gags and get to feel like you’re part of the jokes; and you feel strongly about what happens in the stories (whether they’re perfect or awful).

The Doctors. There’s a lot of em’. I like #4

Time investment isn’t everything though. I mean, people become invested in movie worlds too. Great movies can hook their audience and build an intricate world within a couple of hours (Fellowship of the Ring is a solid example). Where TV excels, however, is in providing a variety of situations for characters to overcome within said world.

In any movie, there’s usually one core problem to solve, and maybe a few minor ones for subplots. But in TV, characters solve dozens of new problems EVERY YEAR till the show ends. Sometimes shows have a core problem that will play out over the course of a season, but generally every episode has its own challenges for characters. Therein lies the appeal: the characters, tone and lore all remain the same from episode to episode, but you get to see beloved characters overcome new obstacles every week. We see them adapt, grow and change from their circumstances over the course of years and learn from a variety of mistakes/ scenarios (as opposed to witnessing one life-changing scenario, as often happens in movies). As a bonus of long-form storytelling: shows are more streamlined in their plots because we only need to be introduced to the main cast once (usually early on) and can focus on plot from there.

Of course there are huge life-altering moments for TV characters (just like in movies), but I’d argue they hit a lot harder on the emotions because the world of TV is often more stable than the world of movies. Serious shake-ups in status quo are a lot more noticeable on the small screen and can have serious ramifications on stories for years to come. In movies, that shake-up usually happens within the first half hour, leaving you little time to get acquainted with the world before the adventure. Basically, films see ordinary worlds get upended as a rule, and TV shows try to maintain them as a rule.

Branching off my above points on time-investment– I believe that a viewer’s constant familiarity with the ordinary world in TV leads them to be more protectful of that world and its inhabitants and, therefore, more easily upset/ relieved in emotional situations. And, depending on how much emotional payoff matters to you, this seemingly arbitrary divide of narrative values can make all the difference.

If Breaking Bad was a movie, Walter would go full-on Heisenberg after the first hour…

Some people reading might want to stop me and argue that what I’m saying doesn’t matter because they’re just looking for “good stories well told”. I am too. A great stand-alone movie is an amazing thing! And certainly not every story needs more than a couple hours to be told (I’m looking at you Netflix originals…).

But I think even casual film fans notice that mainstream entertainment has become very much franchise oriented. It’s becoming a lot harder to find decently-budgeted English language films that aren’t part of some long-running story or intellectual property. Frankly, studios are looking to buy as many IP’s as they can afford, then milk them for all they’re worth until they don’t make money anymore. And if serialized entertainment is the dominant form in pop culture (which it currently is), then film vs TV is hardly a contest. TV has been playing that game since their very beginning! Film franchises like the MCU just steal the formulas which TV has utilized for decades and make it seem like something original. Well, it’s not. The MCU is basically a TV show told in 2 hour episodes.

Going back to studios and their precious IP’s: I feel like serialized franchises are more at home on TV than in films (which I think are generally better as stand-alone properties). Take Star Wars for example: when I was growing up, each new Star Wars film stood alone, yet added to an overarching story. You could watch Empire, Return of the Jedi, Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, or Revenge of the Sith without seeing A New Hope or any of the others listed above– but your experience would be so much better for watching the whole story.

One reason I feel like the story for the new trilogy fell flat is because Disney didn’t know whether it wanted 3 self-contained movies with one overarching plot, or one plot broken up into 3 movies. Yes, those are different things… So what’s the problem exactly? Ultimately, it seems like Episodes 7, 8 and 9 are supposed to be one big story which flows from one installment to the next (a serial narrative), but one of the films is trying to be stand-alone while the other two are trying to be serialized (which might work if the outlier wasn’t the middle installment). There’s no consistency between movies, yet each film’s plot relies too strongly on the other entries to create solid stand-alone stories. It’s the absolute worst of both worlds (stand-alone and serialized entertainment).

Disney couldn’t decide what style of story it wanted, yet still rushed ahead and made the movies anyway. Other movie studios are doing the same with most of the franchises you see in theatres. Long story short: everybody’s trying to tap into TV’s appeal, but they’re doing it poorly and, to make matters worse, they’re also losing what made movies unique to TV in the first place: relatively short and impactful self-contained narratives which tell a cohesive story. In other words, not every movie needs to start a cinematic universe… 

The highest budget show of all time

I’m very glad that Disney greenlit The Mandalorian, because they were essentially trying to make a TV show out of the Star Wars franchise anyway. By cutting out the pretense of making movies and simply doing a darn show, they managed to GET IT RIGHT. Now the world of Star Wars allows for new self-contained stories every week AND maintain an overarching plot. Best of all, there was consistency in characters, settings and lore. One season into the show and I like almost everything about it more than the sequels. This is a narrative that knows what it wants to be and sticks to its guns (you might say that weapons are its religion). Best of all– we’ve only gotten one year out of this series! Who knows how long The Mandalorian will run? Even if the rest of the series sucks, it’s still bound to be more cohesive than most modern film franchises.

Traditionally, the main barrier TV has faced compared to film is budget. The biggest of movies were allowed epic sequences and massive set-pieces while even the biggest TV shows had to play around a comparatively small budget. However, this problem has slowly dwindled in the last 20 years as TV became more and more ambitious. Going back to The Mandalorian (the new season is coming out this month, so it’s top of mind right now)– Season 1 was made on a budget of $100 million. Add up the time, that’s around 4 hours of content for that much money. 

The Force Awakens, meanwhile, had a budget of $300 million, and that was only 2 hours! But really, what did we get for so much more money? A couple giant battles? A lot of special effects? Some big setpieces? TFA had lots of large and flashy things, but The Mandalorian managed to thrill its audience in 8 lovely doses of content for a third the price. Imagine what TM could do with a $300 million dollar budget! The point: now that narrative TV budgets have caught up to average film budgets, the medium might overtake movies as the dominant form of entertainment. TV has shown time and again that it can provide us just as much, if not more, quality content than film for less.

“This is the way” long-form stories should be told

BRANCHING NOTE: I don’t want to dedicate a whole paragraph to this, but TV and film have seen a tonne of overlap in talent in the last few decades. Actors, writers and directors happily work in both mediums and have found much success doing so. In other words: if you’re thinking films are more elite than high-profile TV, then you’re wrong (though you’d probably be right about TV in general).

Another huge advantage of TV over movies is the possibility of course correction over time. A film is a one-and-done deal. If the film gets screwed up somehow, the studios don’t often get a second chance to make it right (#ReleasetheSnydercut). TV is an evolving process. Even if a show films an entire season at once and can’t change anything about their content, fan criticism following the season’s release can help creators improve the following year.

Before wrapping up, I pose a question: how do you feel when a favourite show ends vs when a favourite movie ends? A good movie might make us cry, or feel joy, or give us nightmares or bring about some other strong emotion– but those emotions often dissipate. If I want to feel them again, I’ll just watch the movie again. I don’t know about you but, for me, TV finales not only cause emotion– they cause a feeling of emptiness. Once you’ve invested years of loyalty to a show, and that show ends, you might feel like some part of your life is missing afterwards. And even though you can rewatch the show again, it feels more like reminiscing than anything else.

That all might sound like a bad thing to some people; To me, such feelings are a sign of caring deeply. There’s been shows whose conclusions/ cancellations still cause me grief to this day (#BringbackDaredevil), but I rarely clamour for sequels to movies I enjoyed. Movies are supposed to be a satisfying package you can watch without needing more; TV is only better for continuing (until it hits the point where enough is enough. That’s a discussion for another day though).

Unfortunately, there’s a lot I didn’t cover on this topic. There’s probably a bunch of arguments people will throw at me I could have defended in advance, but I’m choosing not to for the sake of time. So, in conclusion, between TV and film, Television is the superior medium for narrative storytelling. There is far more content; the experience of watching is emotionally comfortable/ rewarding; long-form stories encourage viewer investment; and a couple dozen medium-big stories on a manageable budget is easily comparable to one massive story on a huge budget (if pulled off well).

Do you prefer TV or movies? Why? I’d love to hear your opinions. Also, if you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Be sure to like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time.

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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