TV channels the big screen

Television Critic

First it was the Oscars. Following a broadcast in which the host and presenters openly mocked the low box office numbers of best picture nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the number of those up for the award this year would be doubled. If 10 films were nominated, presumably one or two of them would have a fan base that extended past, say, La Brea Avenue.

A few weeks later, in a similar effort to draw more viewers to their show, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decided that certain Emmy winners should receive their awards and make their (edited) speeches off-stage. That way precious broadcast minutes that might be wasted watching writers and producers struggle to the stage could be used to acknowledge popular shows that weren't nominated.

Call it the "Mad Men" Effect. Yeah, sure the AMC period drama with its gazillion nominations is good, but what about "CSI?" What about "The Bachelor"? According to the folks at CBS, which will carry the Emmys this year, their many fans deserve to feel part of the telecast too.

In the end, the television academy and the network recanted; pressured by outraged members, and the Writers Guild, last week they reversed their decision to "time-shift" certain awards. Even so, let us pause for a moment and consider what this sort of conversation implies -- the medium that was once considered low-brow by definition now has to cope with criticism that it's gotten too snooty.

Forget red states and blue, the battle shaping America right now is the one between quantity and quality, between popularity and worth. (Which, of course, are not always mutually exclusive.) Newspapers scurry to compete with TMZ and news breaks on Twitter, bestsellers lists are sub-divided into Fiction and Mass Market Fiction, but nowhere is the tension more visible than on our personal and public screens.

In the good old days, things seemed simpler -- film was smart, television was dumb. Television would rot your brains, make your children fat, ruin your family by filling the sacrosanct dinner hour with "Happy Days" reruns. No one thought of criticizing the "Narnia" or "Harry Potter" franchises for luring kids into the dark and having them sit, popcorn and soda in hand, in front of a screen for three-plus hours.

No, sir, that's film, and film is good for you. It's a public experience (even if the social intercourse is limited to telling the people in front of you to turn off their cellphones) rather than the preferred activity of shut-ins, an event rather than a capitulation. Even the language is different -- you watch television, but you go to the movies.

Nowadays, that kind of snobbery is hard to sustain. Film festival entrants are available via pay channels while trailers for TV shows show up at the Cineplex. Original programming fills home theater screens with Oscar-winning actors duking it out for Emmys, plus behind-the-scenes names like Jerry Bruckheimer and Anthony Minghella, while on the big screen a spate of sophomoric comedies feel closer to traditional sitcoms than most of what's on television. (Would a laugh track have saved "The Ugly Truth," do you think?)

Last year's "Bernard and Doris" premiered on HBO, but it could just as easily have appeared at your local art house. Hindsight is 20/20, but "Watchmen" would have probably done better as a miniseries on Syfy or Fox.

Part of this is a function of those channels formerly known as cable, part of it's because midlevel films don't exist anymore and screen actresses would like to work even when crippled by the infirmities of turning 40. But there's also a war-makes-strange-bedfellows alliance afoot.

As Hulu and Netflix and live-streaming sites threaten to storm the field like anti-Beckham hecklers, film and television, those traditional sparring partners, are now circling back to back. Bourne, meet "Burn Notice" and pass the ammunition. Film and television have always had a symbiotic relationship, sharing stories like siblings pillaging each other's closets. Hit movies such as "MASH" and "Crash" spawn television shows and vice versa with similarly mixed results ("Star Trek" versus "Land of the Lost"). This fall, we will see the CW's very "Twilight"-ish "Vampire Diaries," ABC's "Eastwick" (as in "The Witches of") and the CBS version of "Knocked Up" ("Accidentally on Purpose").

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Effects-driven

But things have moved far beyond adaptation. Now even the most episodic procedural can feel cinematic. Forget all the A-list stars headlining in your living room, the whole tonality of TV has changed, and not just because of HD. "The Unit" was written by David Mamet. The pilot of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" shared cinematographer Seamus McGarvey with "Atonement." "Defying Gravity" may not be the greatest show debuting this year, but its production values are fabulous. "Bones" and "Fringe" have computer graphics that are just as much fun as those in "Iron Man" and any network drama worth its salt has its own soundtrack album.

In other words, though there's still plenty of less-than-stellar television airing, the good stuff has never been so good. Which is why television finds itself facing a splintering between mass-market and art house once confined to cinema.

As Exhibit A of the new state of things is "Mad Men," the season premiere of which just happens to air tonight and it's a doozy. Analyzing the show's cultural footprint -- the magazine covers, the awards, the ad campaign -- one would assume that "Mad Men" was a mega-hit. Which it is, by AMC standards. But compared with most network shows, "Mad Men's" 1.5 million average audience is chicken feed; the success of "Mad Men" has been defined almost entirely by its critical reception.

People who write about television, who give out awards for television, who think and talk about television, love "Mad Men." Love it. Partly because it is smart, gorgeous and sexy and partly because it is proof positive that TV can do everything film can do, and once a week for a full season.

Jon Hamm's sleek-haired, square-jawed Don Draper squints through an artful squiggle of cigarette smoke at the golden head of wife Betty (January Jones) and nostalgia swells, for Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, for Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, for all those beloved films in which men wore hats and women wore gloves and the removal of each could be more seductive and meaningful than any hard-R sex scene. With its perfectly stylized sets, awash in lights and shadows so rich they could be filtered through a half-full highball glass, "Mad Men" seems at times like a treasure trove of undiscovered film, unearthed from some studio vault.

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'Mad' ambitions

So it was alarming, and significant, that creator Matthew Weiner, a dominating force of this year's Emmys -- he's got four of the five bids for outstanding writing for a drama -- was one of those nominees that CBS, and the academy, was ready to banish to a "time-shifted" win. "Mad Men" is emblematic of the divide between good and popular, as boutique a television show as "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Reader" were films. No one has a word to say against it; the question is, what exactly are we supposed to do with it?

Writing in September's Esquire, Matthew Belloni made the wildly optimistic prediction that "Mad Men" is the future of TV, that NBC's decision to kill its 10 p.m. slot by filling it with Jay Leno will send even the most die-hard Leno fans scrambling for the remote. In their desperate clicking, they will discover shows like "Mad Men" (even if it is on Sundays) and FX's "Rescue Me," resulting in more shows of such quality being greenlighted.

From his mouth to God's ears, the blockbuster/Oscar-bait model is not ideal either. Most of the good stuff in life falls somewhere between the hugely popular and the precious and television is no different. In a world ruled by "American Idol" and "Mad Men," what will happen to the mid-list? As anarchist Emma Goldman certainly would have said if she were a television critic: If I can't watch "Bones," I don't want to be part of your revolution.

Right about now, someone, probably my editor, will be saying something like: "Oh, for goodness' sake, what does it matter when in a few years we'll all be watching everything on cellphones implanted in the palms of our hands?" Please. Sure, we will be watching more and more things on our cellphones and our laptops, but: A) it still has to be good stuff or we won't watch, and B) TVs and movie houses aren't going anywhere.

Film still offers a full-body immersion, the utter escape into other worlds that TV cannot match and TV is the village storyteller sitting on our hearths spinning yarns both intimate and fantastic, so close to our eyes and ears we feel part of the process. Maybe we should all just relax.

Instead of trying to lump things into separate categories of "awards-worthy" and "profitable," or "intellectually enriching" and "guilty pleasure," or even film and television, why not accept that it's all part of the same entertainment landscape. Sure it's shifting beneath our feet, but so what? "Mad Men" is great, and so is "The Amazing Race." The screens proliferate, the borders blur but in the end, fewer boxes means fewer places to hide, and that keeps everyone a bit more honest.

As for the low Emmy ratings last year, I think we'd be better off blaming the hosts than the nominees. Neil Patrick Harris is both smart and popular, so this year things should be just fine.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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