Denis Leary remembers the exact moment when all his notions about what television could be got blown to smithereens. It came during the first season of "The Sopranos." "It was the episode where Tony Soprano is driving Meadow to visit colleges and he runs into the snitch along the way," says Leary, the star and co-creator of FX's firefighter dramedy "Rescue Me." Tony (James Gandolfini) happens upon the turncoat, who'd been placed in witness protection, at a gas station on some leafy country road. The next day, after dropping off his daughter for a campus interview, Tony tracks down the snitch and brutally strangles him to death with a coil of wire. "I remember watching that and thinking, 'Oh, my God ... '," Leary says. "I don't think I blinked that entire episode. The show ended at 10 o'clock, and at 10:05 the phone in my apartment started ringing off the hook. That's when I thought, 'If they can do this , you can do anything in this format'."
For other people, maybe it was another moment. Maybe it was the two-hour pilot episode of "Lost," which opened with the nightmarish aftermath of a plane crash on a deserted, and deeply peculiar, tropical island. It cost ABC a small fortune--reportedly $12 million--but it proved that network TV could match the scope and storytelling electricity of a feature film. For me, my "moment" is every single episode of "The Wire," the astounding HBO series that's been labeled a crime drama but is actually a sprawling, visual novel about the decline and fall of an American city. "Our model when we started doing 'The Wire' wasn't other television shows," says David Simon, the Baltimore Sun crime reporter turned TV scribe who co-created the series. "The standard we were looking at was Balzac's Paris, or Dickens's London, or Tolstoy's Moscow. In TV, you can actually say that out loud, and then go do it."
It's dangerous to make broad generalizations about TV versus film without sounding as though you're comparing apples and tubas, but let's do it anyway: television is running circles around the movies. The Internet age has put both industries into a state of high anxiety, with everyone scrambling to figure out how money will be made in a digital future where people watch movies on their phones and surf the Web on their TVs. But while the major film studios have responded by taking shelter beneath big-tent franchises, the TV industry has gone the opposite route, welcoming anyone with an original idea. The roster of channels has ballooned into the hundreds, creating a niche universe where shows don't need to be dumbed down in order to survive (because the dummies have their own channels). DVDs, meanwhile, have upended how we watch television, transforming shows from disposable weekly units into 8-, 12-, sometimes 22-hour movies. "We get a lot of people who tell us they don't even watch the show when it airs," says Joel Surnow, co-creator of "24." "They wait for the DVD and watch it all at once."
Sure, TV still makes plenty of crap. And, yes, film is peerless when it comes to grand spectacles like "Lord of the Rings." But how many recent Hollywood comedies have been as lacerating as NBC's "The Office" or Comedy Central's taboo-blasting "Sarah Silverman Program"? (OK, "Borat"--a movie based on a character created for ... television.) The film industry is in love with serial-killer stories, but it took Showtime's "Dexter" to breathe new life into the genre. And roll your eyes if you want, but nothing out of Hollywood generates anything close to the hysteria of a single episode of "American Idol."
his is supposed to be hollywood's biggest moment of the year. It's Oscar time, in case you forgot. But anyone who actually wants to go see a movie this week will have a choice between Paramount's Eddie-Murphy-in-a-fat-suit comedy "Norbit" and Sony's comic-book adaptation "Ghost Rider," starring Nicolas Cage, which wasn't screened for critics--industry code for a movie so lousy that the best review it can hope for is no review at all. Soon it'll be summertime, and the annual march of the sequels will resume. "Spider-Man 3." "Shrek 3." The third "Pirates of the Caribbean." The fourth "Die Hard." The fifth "Harry Potter."
If that list excites you, there's probably a simple explanation: you're 12. But for everyone else, it's hard to shake the feeling that Hollywood has lost interest in us. "Whenever I see a movie that impresses me, I always wonder how it occurred. Like, how did they thread that one through the needle?" says Simon. "And inevitably, you find out it was made quietly, and for very little money." Consider this year's Oscar nominees for best picture. Only two are the products of major studios, Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," and both men are legends who've earned the right to tell their studio bosses to butt out. The other three came out of "specialty" satellites to the big studios, such as Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage. In essence, the job of quality moviemaking has been outsourced.
For decades, if film was the Four Seasons, TV was a Motel 6. You worked in television for the money, or to reboot your career, or just to hang on. Now actors like Alec Baldwin, Steve Carell and Salma Hayek go from hit movies to network-TV gigs, and no one thinks they're nuts. Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco ("Crash") went straight from the best-picture Oscar to creating "The Black Donnellys" for NBC. Steven Spielberg is doing a reality show for Fox. David Mamet-- David Mamet! --created a drama for CBS. "The people working in television right now are the Shakespeares of the medium," says Ira Glass, host of the public-radio program "This American Life," which has been turned into a jewel of a TV series on Showtime and will start airing on March 22. "That's probably a pretentious thing to say, but I also think it's true. It's true in the same way that Leonard Bernstein was figuring out what you could do with a Broadway show when he wrote 'West Side Story,' or in music when Sinatra recorded his Capitol albums."
This obviously isn't the first "golden age of television." In the 1950s, Milton Berle and "I Love Lucy" reinvented comedy. In the 1970s, Norman Lear did it again with socially conscious shows like "All in the Family." The difference now is TV is challenging movies on their own turf--narratively and visually--and winning. The best shows tell their stories slowly, carefully and with exquisite detail, putting viewers inside the experience of another person with unparalleled intimacy. This is the grand achievement of "The Sopranos," and it's why the show's final season, which begins on April 8, is a safe bet to be the cultural happening of the year. In television "the writer is king," says Carlton Cuse, an executive producer on "Lost." "We're at the top of the food chain." In the film world, the director is in charge, or the star. "It's almost impossible to write a movie with a big star and not have that person put his or her thumbprint on top of it," Cuse says.
To some, the notion of TV as a writer's Eden is more of a recruiting poster than a reality. "Nobody ever really feels all that in charge," says Jon Turtletaub, who directed Disney's hit movie "National Treasure" and created "Jericho" for CBS. "If you want control, write a book." Others believe that Hollywood's failing isn't creative, but technological. "The movie business is still caught up in how it's always been done," says Todd Wagner, co-president of 2929 Entertainment ("Good Night, and Good Luck"), which has been leaning on studios to release films on several platforms--in theaters, online and on DVD--at once. "Film is still built around a business model where they're trying to get as many people as possible to see something on the very first weekend, at very select locations, for months before it's available any other way. Television isn't doing that. The realization they've come to is, why wouldn't you put it out there?"
One reason is piracy. The studios don't make many films, so they need to wring out every last penny. But there's another reason they're so reluctant to sell "Shrek 3" DVDs at Wal-Mart on opening day: image. Hollywood is determined to protect the "specialness" of movies, and if you can get them any time, anywhere, how special can they be? "There's always going to be that excitement where you think, 'Oh, I made a movie! And it's gonna be at a theater! And people will be eating popcorn!' " says Tina Fey, who wrote the 2004 hit "Mean Girls" and created the NBC sitcom "30 Rock." "It's just different." Hollywood wants to be consumer friendly, but not too friendly, because that arm's length exclusivity is the essence of glamour. And without glamour, what is Hollywood? Yup--television. Last year, when Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana shared a screenwriting Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain," McMurtry thanked his typewriter. During an interview, he grumbled while Ossana sang the praises of modern TV. "It's not a question of quality," McMurtry responded. "It just means the prestige is still with film, and I suspect it always will be. Put it this way: I'd rather have an Oscar than an Emmy." The man's got a point.
Then again, it's possible to win an Oscar only if your film actually gets made, and good luck with that. The economics of the movie business have created a climate of "paranoia" in Hollywood, says megamovie producer Brian Grazer, an Oscar winner for "A Beautiful Mind" whose company, Imagine Entertainment, also co-owns "24." The average film budget, according to the latest Nielsen figures, is about $60 million, with an additional $36 million in marketing costs. That means the typical Hollywood film is a $100 million bet--with the money paid upfront, before anyone sees a penny in return. That kind of environment has a stultifying effect on artists. "They begin to worry that their movie will never get made, that they'll never hear 'yes' again," Grazer says, "so they end up being much more accommodating to an executive's opinions." Increasingly, Hollywood is making only two types of films: lavish blockbusters ("Superman Returns" cost $204 million) or thrifty, $15 million genre bets like horror flicks and lowbrow comedies. The midrange $60 million drama has all but vanished--at least from theaters.
With all those channels and all those hours to fill, television has charged into the void. In five years, according to Adams Media Research, the number of digital-cable subscribers in the United States tripled, from 10 million in 2000 to 30 million in 2005. In such a crowded market, you either evolve or die. "Desperation breeds inspiration," says NBC president Kevin Reilly. And thanks to iTunes and TiVo, networks can afford to be patient with a quality show, knowing an audience has multiple ways to find it. NBC hopes that will happen with its Texas high-school football drama "Friday Night Lights," a superb show that's only incidentally about football. The series actually surpasses the 2004 film because the long form of TV has given its writers leeway to explore an entire small-town orbit. Freed from the need to sell tickets, the TV show doesn't have to swell to a crowd-pleasing gridiron drive.
It's not just the stories on TV that are improving; they look better, too. "Some of the action that 'Lost' and '24' are doing compares to almost any feature out there," says ABC president Steve McPherson. "We're making the investment in these shows. They're not cheap. But the production gap is closing." TV is spending more money on us--and we're spending more money on TV. Gradually, homes are filling with high-definition sets that rival the cinema experience, only without the nasty carpets sticky with spilled Coke. "I still occasionally hear someone say that they don't watch television," Leary says, "and I always tell them, 'Look, I don't care what book you're reading--put it down and watch these five shows, because you really, truly don't know what you're missing'." He's right, except for one thing: only five?