It’s certainly no surprise to anyone who regularly watches television that many of the shows currently airing may be some of, if not the best the medium has ever produced. Given the quality of programs like Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, Mad Men and Breaking Bad – just to name a few – the debate of which medium (film or television) has the better writing was bound to attract some high-profile supporters.
While this certainly isn’t the first salvo in the debate, the fact that acclaimed writer and producer of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter, believes television frequently bests Hollywood’s feature films in the storytelling department may cause the argument to heat up considerably.
“Back in the 1970s, the Academy Award nominees and huge box office hits were things like The French Connection, Midnight Cowboy or The Graduate – really interesting character studies. Now, the big box office successes are superhero stories. It seems there’s a lowest common denominator mentality, in terms of movies that are almost purely visual, that anyone can understand anywhere in the world. Good robot, bad robot: they fight. You don’t need to know anything apart from that. And then we can make toys that look like that robot – and sell those toys or video games.”
Now, Winter feels that television, particularly the programs on cable, have largely taken up the mantle of providing the kind of content one has to invest some time and effort in to reap the rewards of the story. Because the HBO television model has fewer or “almost no restrictions” for its writers, Winter believes they are capable of developing a more thought-provoking product than most blockbuster films or even pre-1990s television.
Because, according to Winter, television before then was largely beholden to the advertising model. He says television storytelling consisted of: “We caught the murderer, we solved this crime – and you should buy this soap.”
In praising present day television writing, Winter again touches on the idea that freeing up writers to cover any subject allows them to craft a higher quality product – one that people are definitely responding to:
“And there clearly is an audience out there, of people who want to be engaged, who are willing to pay attention, and follow a story that requires a little effort. In Boardwalk Empire, for instance, that freedom means tackling an ultimate taboo like incest, or letting a gangster storyline play out to its logical conclusion of killing a lead character. Sometimes that leaves people feeling very ill at ease – but for me that’s the only way to tell a story.”
It’s clear that Winter’s comments are critical of the typical Hollywood blockbuster (and, more specifically, an incredibly successful film franchise that starts with T and ends in ransformers), while at the same lamenting the loss of what he calls “character studies” as dominant figures at the box-office. Perhaps acknowledging that similarly shallow programming exists on television (yes, even cable) would have helped bolster his argument, and better assuage the anger of those who will no doubt take offense to his criticisms, but then the effect may have been lost.
Most telling in Winter’s comments, though, is that despite films such as The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 or X2: X-Men United – all of which garnered significant praise – a stigma still exists amongst some that films of this nature will never achieve a level of artistry reserved for classic drama. Certainly, the debate on this topic will continue.
For his part, Winter plans to stay busy in television, and with HBO. In addition to season 3 of Boardwalk Empire, he and Martin Scorsese will collaborate with Mick Jagger on a new series set around the recording industry in the ’70s.
Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire premieres this fall on HBO.