Somehow, in my years of heralding scripted TV as the signature storytelling medium of the moment, as the contemporary answer to serialized Victorian novels, and, when I’m particularly fired up, as the miraculous and magical cure for anything and everything, I forgot all about movies.
You know movies, those things that usually start and end on the same day, unless you’re a teenager, in which case your stories will be given Marvel-ous sequels and prequels every year until the Ice Age returns, until the dark knight rises, until justice dawns, or until you turn 21, whichever comes first.
I’m a TV lover through and through, particularly since the advent of cable and streaming. OK, I didn’t completely forget about movies; every year, I’ve made sure to fit in the Oscar nominees, the film adaptations of books I’ve enjoyed, and the indies that have captured my curiosity. But generally speaking, when it comes time to sit down and commit to viewing choices, I go with my shows. In the moment, in front of the flat-screen, I feel as if I’d rather stay current with ongoing stories, stay in the conversation around them, than detour into a movie.
Plus, like many people I know, I’m always wary when it comes to taking on the two hours that a movie requires — even though I usually wind up watching more than three hours in TV episodes when all is said and done. I’ve got a touch of commitment-phobia in theory, if not in reality.
But over the holiday week, with plenty of time and a pile of Oscar-consideration DVDs sitting by the TV, I decided to watch only movies. No episodes of anything, just standalone films. I was curious to see how the shift would feel, if I experienced anything different taking in big bites and putting my many regular and upcoming shows on hold. My roster wasn’t too shabby; it included “The Florida Project,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Lady Bird,” “Wonderstruck,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Dunkirk,” and “The Post.”
And I have to say, my week at the movies was both wonderful and quite different from my usual weeks at the HD hearth. That wasn’t just because it was a change for me, a TV critic, although I’m sure that played a role.
It seems obvious, but watching only movies, I felt more like I do when I’m reading short stories. The movies were, like short stories, focused on a single ending, with everything before that ending building up in some way to it. “The Florida Project” is an example, as the mundane doings of the poor characters living in a motel near Disney World accumulate, leading to a heartbreaking conclusion. After the movie’s end, after the next-day thoughts — “Call Me By Your Name” was particularly unshakeable — I moved on to another story, another world.
The movies were sharper-edged, more obviously sculpted, than TV series — because of their relative brevity. The beginnings, middles, and ends were all clearer, unlike TV shows, which trundle forth with less direction and, in most cases, more characters and subplots.
Watching TV episodes is more like reading a long book broken up into sections and chapters. Each episode has at least one climax — and network shows usually have more, since the scripts have been devised to peak before a commercial and inspire the viewer to return. You’re not jumping from world to world; you’re diving deeper and deeper, ideally, into one elaborate world. The viewer satisfaction comes in sticking with a show and watching it develop, rather than the satisfaction of a getting a fast denouement.
Before a TV series finale, often many years on, the viewer has gone from crest to crest, each one feeding into the next in a long series of ups and downs and all-arounds. You don’t feel the same sense of closure when the hour or half-hour is done; at best, you feel piqued, eager for more. In the case of a series such as “Shameless,” I continue to enjoy that irresolution, that hunger for more.
So which is better? Good thing we don’t have to choose.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.