By now you've heard the news, if you haven't already articulated the meme yourself. War's over: The movies lost, and TV won. For both the writers and the fans of good storytelling, the action used to be at the multiplex on Friday and Saturday night, and now it's in your living room on Sundays.
I mean, really: If you're over 25 years old, can you think of a single feature release in the past couple of years that has galvanized your attention and made you care, fiercely and consistently (in an OMG, I can't wait for the next episode way) as a season of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad? Sub in your own recent small screen addiction of choice, be it The Walking Dead or Downton Abbey, et al (I'm in the "Killing, you cheated on me last year, and you're dead to me now" camp, but you may be more forgiving), and now quick: Name me the movie that excited your passions that intensely.
The Artist? AH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA...
The industry/cultural reasons for this have been chewed over in print and online so extensively that I won't waste your shortened attention span with the details, except to highlight one that doesn't always get its due emphasis: It's the characters, stupid.
Yes, cultural juggernaut The Hunger Games does have over-25 appeal, and despite its absymal direction and meh screenwriting, has finally delivered unto us if not the, at least a 21st Century Heroine We've Been Waiting For. But in its characterization work, as in its storytelling craft, Games is a plastic Sears Roebuck guitar next to Game of Throne's Stradivarius. And need we invoke the obvious two word argument ender, The Wire?
Of course it's a function of time and space. It's exceedingly difficult to approach the level of depth and complexity of character in a feature's two hours that you can achieve in a whole season of hour-long episodes. But there's a basic difference in sensibility at stake. The big screen has become our culture's colisseum, where nuances of personality aren't exactly the main event. The little screen has exuberantly taken on just such nuance, and succeeded in capturing the culture's hearts and minds.
[Note: SPOILAGE ahead.] Mad Men has been careening all over the place this season, which only makes it all the more watchable. Last week's Gothic weirdness had Don Draper's murder victim under his bed (When they cut to daughter Sally under Grandma's couch, my wife said, "God, everyone's under the bed," and I said, "Yeah, including the shark!" but fortunately, said murder was only a dream sequence, so no actual sharks were jumped). Last night was slapstick comedy.
When Laine rolled up his sleeves and prepared to duke it out with Pete Campbell in the Sterling Cooper Pryce conference room, Roger said, "I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?" To which most of us fans undoubtedly replied, "Are you f--king kidding me? Get in line!" By the way, good season setup misdirect, Mr. Weiner, since we were fully expecting Pete to come to figurative blows with Roger, not Laine.
Pete Campbell is a supporting character in this ensemble, yet in an episode that deepened the story line of even lesser supporting player Ken Cosgrove, we experienced the equivalent of a John Cheever novella in the depiction of Pete's rise and fall. We don't "like" but we certainly understand Pete by now, in all his many layers; as a quietly tragic shadow Don who will never be Don, he's a more fully realized character than the protagonists of most major studio releases in recent memory.
Kudos to actor Vincent Kartheiser, who's brought all kinds of shading to snivelly Pete over the years, but it's the writing, obviously, that has kept us so thoroughly absorbed in the machinations of such people who - had we met them briefly in real life - we probably wouldn't even want to know.
Putting us in the shoes of the Other has always been a primary pursuit and profound pleasure of good writing. This past Sunday night, whether you were with Mad, Games, the new (and extremely promising) Girls, and/or all of the above, you got to revel in that pleasure. And here's the thing. I had to go to Imdb to double-check the writing credit of that Mad Men episode afterwards, but yes, it was that Frank Pierson - the guy who wrote the big screen movie classic Dog Day Afternoon.
Where else would a writer that good be working today? It's not even really a question.