In a recent Newsweek, the magazine conducted a roundtable discussion of select Oscar contenders. Among them was Woody Harrelson and Morgan Freeman. I remember Harrelson from his breakout role in Cheers. In the long-running TV show, he played a bartender by the same name.
At one point, Newsweek turned to Harrelson and asked him about the residue of TV fame: “Woody, your first big role was playing a character named Woody on Cheers. Were you frustrated that people couldn’t separate the real you and the onscreen you?”
Before Harrelson could answer, Freeman chimed in: “Television is notorious for that.” This coming from a veteran movie star.
Freeman’s observation is one that McLuhan predicted. McLuhan cited TV stars who’d experienced the same thing and argued that the phenomenon was a consequence of TV’s pixilated nature. By contrast, movie stars do not experience this same confusion. Just look at TMZ or any grocery store tabloid. TV stars are rarely harassed by the paparazzi. It’s usually only movie stars.
Of this, McLuhan writes, movie buffs “wanted to see their favorites [i.e., actors] as they were in real life, not as they were in their film roles. The fans of the cool TV medium wanted to see their star in role, whereas the movie fans want the real thing.”
In other words, for movies we want to meet the actors, but for TV we want to meet the characters. I want to meet Tom Hanks himself, not Forrest Gump, but I’d rather meet Jim Halpert than John Krasinski. Why is this?
McLuhan argues that it’s because of the differences between TV and movies. TV is a cool, involving medium. Movies are a hot, distancing medium. Why? TV involves you by requiring you to connect the pixels in your brain to complete the picture (the same way you do with a constellation or a connect-the-dots picture). It’s a gestalt principle. Movies, on the other hand, are seamless images shot on film. And as such, they are a closed system, requiring no completion. Movies shun the viewer’s involvement in this way. McLuhan points out, “whereas a glossy photo the size of the TV screen would show a dozen faces in adequate detail, a dozen faces on the TV screen are only a blur.”
When I read Freeman’s comment to my girlfriend, the reason seemed perfectly clear to her. “TV stars are characters in of ongoing stories. The episodes continue week to week.” In our minds, they live their character lives between episodes. By contrast, movies are closed systems, complete stories. They are not episodic, with lives happening between episodes. Viewers do not typically supply material for the lives of movie characters. It’s all provided, it’s a complete story. There’s no “episodic gap” where we as viewers can get involved and insert our own stories about the characters’ lives between episodes we watch.
She seemed to be on to something. There seemed be a parallel. Each episode is like a TV pixel. The viewer does the work of filling in the space between each pixel, between each episode. They fill in the gap, connect the dots, complete the story. The TV medium shapes the form that TV shows ultimately take. Episodic television imitates the nature of the TV as a medium.
Of course, there are all sorts of hybrids with things like DVDs or The Simpsons Movie. But think about the bonus features that come on a DVD, or even just the menu screen: It’s interactive. Deleted scenes give the viewer an opportunity to insert them into the movie’s storyline by creating a gap and filling it in. Film commentary or behind-the-scenes footage and interviews do similar things, and involve the viewer that way. This helps movies make the jump to the small screen.
But what about movie trilogies like Indiana Jones or a series like James Bond? Of course, these were probably influenced by TV culture. But isn’t it interesting that one of the recent James Bond films picks up the story less than 20 minutes after the previous film? Movies don’t like gaps. It’s not innate to the medium. Instead, they want to fill the viewer in on what’s happened since the last film. Movies want to be seamless.
On the other end, a TV show like Lost has propelled itself to cult status by harnessing TV’s bias toward involvement. People are so involved that they gather in groups between episodes to fill in context and connect the dots. Just like the TV medium, viewers are closing the story itself. No doubt, detective plots like Law and Order are perfect for TV. They involve the reader in completing the image and also the story. Certain types of stories are best told on TV, and others are best told in movies.
This is why made-for-TV movies are generally terrible. They’re closed systems on an open platform. TV wants to involve the viewer, but movies want to keep the viewer at bay. Viewers are confused by the conflicting messages of made-for-tv movies. The medium is sending that message.
In both movies and TV, viewers like closure and continuity. But their expectations are shaped by the nature of the media. Movies provide it in a single sitting because the medium expects it. TV involves the viewer (and makes him a co-creator) in closing and continuing the storyline because the medium expects it. Movies and TV have developed their environments to meet these expectations. It’s why we don’t go to the movies to watch episodes of a movie. It’s why our couches are arranged to allow TV to contribute to the conversation.
Now if it would stop dominating the conversation and listen for a second. Maybe between pixels.