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Getting Real: The Movies' Abdication of Reality

jack_solomon
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As I am teaching classes in both popular culture and the theory of literary realism this semester, I was struck by the headline in a Los Angeles Times blog by Steven Zeitchik entitled, “Is television really the new cinema? Or is that just something TV people like to say?” Zeitchik’s piece addresses the ongoing competition between television and cinema writers as to which medium is the better storyteller. While conceding that in the light of this summer’s movie offerings television may indeed be offering better narratives with better developed characters, Zeitchick still holds that in the long term it is cinema that bears the most potential for good drama and comedy. In an “industry” town like Los Angeles such debates have a certain relevance, but I'm not really interested in the competitive aspects of the matter. Rather, I am intrigued by the fact that cinema, which has long been held to be a “higher” art form than television, seems to be slipping. I find it particularly interesting that Zeitchik, in his defense of recent movies, mentions fantasies like Avatar and The Dark Knight as effective competition for such acclaimed cable series as Mad Men.  My interest is not in judging which tell the better stories ( an aesthetic, not a semiotic, judgment) but in the appearance that television—at least cable television—is offering adult realism to its audiences while cinema seems stuck on fantasy. Consider some of the most respected television programs to emerge in the recent revival of scripted TV: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under. Then consider some of the biggest events in the movies in recent years: The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter (and sequels), Avatar, Batman: The Dark Knight, Spiderman (and sequels), Inception, Twilight (and sequels). While television is tackling messy issues that are of relevance to an adult audience, cinema seems to have gone over almost entirely to fantasy and action/adventure (along with a host of “chick flick” formulaic romances).  Given cinema’s supposedly greater freedom compared to television (due to its independence from commercial sponsors) to explore challenging subjects, this is a striking reversal of emphasis. It’s not that TV isn’t filled with fantasy or that cinema isn’t producing stories in the tradition of realism anymore, but it does appear that current TV, especially cable TV, is making greater efforts in the direction of realism than the movies are. The question is, why? First let’s make use of what Charles Sanders Peirce called “abduction”: that is, the search for the most likely explanation or answer to a question. My abductive inference here is that the rise of realism on cable TV, even as the cinema is awash in fantasy of one kind or another, can ultimately be tied to the different financing structures of the two media. That is, cable television, with its pre-existing subscriber audience, can rely on a revenue stream that is already pretty much guaranteed, while movie production, with its all-or-none investment structure, has no such security. What’s more, a TV series, with its pilot-driven production schedule, can always pull back if it looks like the concept is going to be a flop. Losses may be incurred, but not at the scale of a feature film with its ever-increasing demands for high cost special effects and pricey stars. Given such risks, movie makers these days are going with fairly sure things, following tested formulae (fantasy, romance, action adventure) with already bought-in audiences (Spiderman 17 anyone?). Cable, with less to lose per program, is taking risks because it can afford to, not because it is a nobler or higher art form. Commercial television, though, with its advertising-dictated requirements, has been less bold, leaving it to cable to appeal to mature viewers with challenging programs featuring dramatic realism. In short, it’s all about money, which is not at all surprising given the consumer capitalist environment in which both television programs and movies are produced. As long as movie audiences continue to reward high budget, special effects–laden fantasy fare, that is what they are going to get, leaving the creative risk taking to cable producers who can still afford to tackle the serious, albeit hedged, stories.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.