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Is TV better than the movies?

Aubrey Plaza in "The White Lotus," one of many excellent new TV series of recent years.Fabio Lovino/HBO

I was looking over the new Oscar nominations this week and shaking my head. There were only a few titles that did not disappoint me, that seemed to deserve the praise lavished on them. “Top Gun: Maverick,” that faded Xerox of better action flicks? Sorry not sorry. “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a favorite for best picture? Not in the universe I’ve chosen to live in at this moment. Hyperactivity, dazzle, formlessness, hollowness, here is your slick effigy.

Even “The Fabelmans,” another best-picture favorite, seems like a miss to me. “Roma” it is not. I’m a fan of Steven Spielberg and his work, so I went in hoping for rich insight on his complicated early life. But while the movie gestures toward messiness, it never quite breaks through to that deeper level of emotional muck, the Gena Rowlands level. As the mom, the central figure of chaos in the story, Michelle Williams gives a performance that is too artificial and oddly stylized to feel real.


Here’s the thing: I think my years as a TV critic — and as an avid TV viewer — may have ruined me for the movies.

As I sat poking holes in so many of the Oscar nominees, I realized that I’ve been terminally spoiled by what has become known as Prestige TV, the series and miniseries since 2000 that have elevated the medium and, ironically, drawn writers, directors, and actors from the movie world looking for more creative freedom. Strange as it may sound to those who still see TV as a wasteland, who haven’t opened up its treasure chest of long-form storytelling on cable and streaming, I’ve become a bit of a TV snob.

What dissatisfies me when it comes to movies often comes down to length and depth. I so often wind up thinking that a movie has skimmed along too much — “Glass Onion,” for example. It’s fun, but when it was over it all felt so hurried and forgettable. I thought of Apple TV+’s “The Afterparty,” a similarly light Agatha Christie-ish mystery with an ensemble cast, and it seems so much more thorough. We don’t just get EZ-to-read characters, all potential murderers; we get an episode exploring each one, with each episode formatted in a different style — a romcom for the romantic party guest, a musical for the wannabe pop star, etc. In eight half-hours, “The Afterparty” has the time to prod, probe, and play, a reminder that TV is a writer’s medium while the movies belong to directors.


Sam Richardson (left) and Ben Schwartz in “The Afterparty.”Apple TV+

It’s almost a tic for me at this point: See a movie and come up with a TV series that did it better, or at least one that did it with more scope (“Everything Everywhere,” meet “Little America”). Television has always had the time to devote to story and character — too much time, in the old days of 20-something episodes per season, but just enough in our current era of six-to-10 episodes per season. The best-written series are able to spend the kind of time with characters that doesn’t necessarily forward the plot. They’re able to pursue unabbreviated backstories, to give us character transformations that feel natural because they’ve occurred sometimes across seasons.

I’m not suggesting that every movie could be improved with more time and more detail. Concision is an art. I do still see movies that seem perfect and just enough, like “Aftersun,” for which Paul Mescal was given a deserved best-actor nomination. “Aftersun” does what TV series can’t really do without becoming tedious and ponderous; it lets the subtext (no spoilers) gradually evolve into the subject, as it tacitly invests each of the many small moments with weight, as it resists a more commonly used narrative gait. It has an almost Virginia Woolf-like intensity, a quality that often bores when it makes up a full series.


And there really is nothing like going to a movie theater, sitting in the dark, feeling anonymous, and giving yourself over to watching. Sitting at home in the dark, even undisturbed and untethered to a phone, does not evoke the same dreamy sense of selfless connection to a story. So many easily available theaters are now dominated by the big-budget franchises, though, making movie-theater-going a less sacred kind of experience. And watching TV at home can certainly be an immersive experience in its own way, especially when the material requires you to pay close attention.

My disappointment in the world of the movies, as compared with TV, isn’t a new idea, of course, and I know I am not alone. Culture watchers and industry insiders have been noting it since the advent of shows like “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” and since big movie talents such as Jessica Lange, Amy Adams, Martin Scorsese, and Tom Hanks have eagerly worked in the medium. But for me, as I am overwhelmed by extraordinary newer shows like “My Brilliant Friend,” “Severance,” “Maid,” “The White Lotus,” “The Underground Railroad,” “Normal People,” “Succession,” “I May Destroy You,” and so on, it still rings as true. Enduring, indelible experiences at the movies have become a rare thing.


I do want to watch movies and feel that rush of brilliance, and I want to talk about them afterward, and I want to think about them in the following weeks, and I want them to, as Pedro Almodovar said, “fill in the empty spaces of [my] life and [my] loneliness” — but right now, still, TV is meeting those needs.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.