In this ‘golden age of television’, it’s easy to dismiss movies as ‘brainless CGI-fests aimed at thirteen year olds’ by comparison to the intelligent attraction of the ‘idiot box’. But here at Script Society, we don’t make such rage-baiting statements — they’re two different mediums, of course they’re going to be different! So, instead, I’m just going to pit one medium against the other in a Batman v Superman style battle. Think of me as Wonder Woman, if you’re brave enough.
Television is a special medium.
Unlike a movie franchise (well, most of them — Fast & Furious excluded), television shows have the ability to reset themselves at the end of every episode with no trouble whatsoever. Sitcoms; procedurals; scripted reality shows about fake real housewives that don’t own the houses they live in. These shows are able to tell stories and yet treat them as ‘droplets’ in an infinite pool. It doesn’t matter if the CSI guy and his sunglasses manage to solve the murder one week; the next, there’ll be a whole other case and he’ll forget the one he just did.
So, let’s look at three shows that made the difficult leap from the infinite pool of television to the largely uncleaned hot tub of movies we love so much — The Simpsons; The X-Files and The Muppets — and try to learn something about the differences.
The Simpsons/The Simpsons Movie — Comedy
Make no mistake, the first nine (or ten, depending on who you talk to) seasons of The Simpsons contain some of the sharpest satirical writing ever presented on television, and 90% of it still holds up almost 30 years later! So the news that America’s most worryingly jaundiced family would be exploding onto movie screens (especially during the infamously harsh decline of the show’s quality) made fans very nervous.
Thankfully, they had nothing to worry about.
The first thing to remember about The Simpsons is that the show lives in something that Matt Groening calls an ‘elastic reality’. Character IQs change; Springfield’s laws of physics vary; and sometimes previous events are remembered or honored only to be discarded for the show to reset in the next episode. This elastic reality is a huge blessing to the show the same way as it is for The Muppet Show (which we’ll get to). It opens up a big shiny door that allows the writers to go as big and funny as they want without any fear of having to refer back to it later. That couldn’t happen in Scandal or The West Wing.
The Simpsons Movie, however, basically existed in its own world. But let’s talk censorship. The Simpsons has a rare clause in their contract that prevents network interference, though they still have to deal with censors (my favorite: “Although it is only a dream please do not show Homer holding a sign that reads: Kill My Boy.”). Of course, the MPAA is much more lax on their standards. In The Simpsons Movie, characters curse — frequently — and one character is shown nude! Movies presumably get away with more because it’s not as widely accessible as TV. People had to pay for movies, they didn’t have to pay for TV.
THE X-FILES/THE X-FILES(: FIGHT THE FUTURE) — Sci-fi Drama
As the longest running science fiction show in American television history, The X-Files has been a pop cultural phenomenon for over two decades. The decision to make a movie, mid-way through the show’s initial run, came from creator Chris Carter’s desire to explore the mythology within the show on a larger scale.
The X-Files show primarily functions as a procedural, with the majority of episodes exploring ‘monster of the week’ stand-alone episodes. This is off-set by episodes furthering the series-long arc about a government conspiracy covering up paranormal events. This is something that seems to have died out in modern television drama — shows like House of Cards, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are entirely serialised, essentially demanding every audience member to follow from the beginning or risk being out of the loop. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think the reason The X-Files lasted so long (and continues to do so) is that a casual viewer can tune in anytime.
The movie, however, attempted to ‘explore’ the mythology of the world while still being accessible to casual viewers or the uninitiated. This confuses me, and apparently confused the writers. The X-Files movie was two things at once: an overly complex, near-incomprehensible blockbuster for the non-fans; and a slightly bigger episode for fans of the show.
Therein lies the biggest separation between the mediums: TV benefits from internal mythology and longevity, rewarding long-term viewers; Cinema benefits from complete accessibility to every kind of audience, anytime.
THE MUPPET SHOW/THE MUPPET MOVIE — Variety Show
I love the Muppets. I love the Muppets so much, I cried openly in the theater during the opening minute of both new movies. I feel no shame about that (maybe a little). The Muppets are perfect family entertainment: intelligent absurdist comedy for the adults; slapstick comedy for the kids, all presented in the guise of a variety ensemble. Of course, they’ve continued their careers primarily in the world of cinema — an incredible feat for a variety show.
The Muppet Show is a beast unlike any other — an old-school song-and-dance variety show with puppets that also delves into the backstage antics of the show. If you’ve never seen it, you must. It’s basically 30 Rock (my favorite show ever, in case you didn’t know) with puppets. To this day, it’s one of the most chaotic, intelligent things I’ve seen in comedy since Duck Soup. But it’s also a kind of comedy that can only work on the fast-paced medium of television. The Muppet Show took great pride in mocking itself, and show business conventions as a whole. It was made for people that watched TV, by people that watched TV.
The Muppet Movie, by comparison, is a slower production. Sharing the Muppet sensibility of Mel Brooks-esque absurdism and meta humor, The Muppet Movie reinvented the characters for the world of the big screen. Henson and his team used the cinematic format to do things television could not: allowing the muppets to act with their full bodies onscreen (utilizing VFX unavailable on a television budget); filming on location across America; and using every single Muppet made at that point — 137 puppeteers working 250 puppets at one time. The Muppet Movie (and all movies that followed) embraced the format by rising to the technical opportunities, doing ‘bigger’ ideas in ways only possible in cinema.
TV VS MOVIES: DAWN OF JUSTICE
Television and movies have a lot in common — they’re both shown on screens, they both tell stories, and both have mothers named Martha. But like an Amazonian heroine, I’m just going to dive in for no apparent reason to bring this to an end. Movies are bigger, more elaborate, self-contained and more technically impressive; TV is more intimate, allowing writers to tell longer stories in a faster way (that’s a weird sentence).
Let me be clear: neither one is better than the other. It all depends on what story the writer wants to tell. Fast & Furious 7 could never be a TV show — the logic just wouldn’t hold up! And likewise, a show like CSI would be a generic, uninteresting movie starring Tom Selleck or a bearded Dennis Rodman. But in their respective mediums, the stories work.
The writer must know which medium works better for their story.
Especially in the modern entertainment world, where heavily serialised shows like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones could totally be turned into movies with a bit of editing. It’s not worth gambling on the structure of your work.
It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights,
It’s time for me to cry now at The Muppet Show tonight.