It’s become conventional wisdom that there’s more vital work taking place these days on television than in movies.
At some point, goes the story, a bunch of TV writers tired of the usual small-screen fare and started stretching their creative muscles. (And strangely, lots of them were named David: David Milch did "NYPD Blue," David Chase did "The Sopranos," David Simon did "The Wire"…)
But how long has it really been going on? And how is it reflected in the awards picture? If one were to compare the Emmy-winning drama series and the Oscar-winning movie from each year, which medium would consistently deliver the more significant achievement?
I did just that, and the results aren’t pretty for Oscar, at least not lately. Since 2000, we’ve had 11 Best Picture winners and 11 Emmy drama-series champs—and by my reckoning, the TV shows have been more substantial, and more impactful in the culture, nine of those 11 years.
Here’s the rundown:
I’d say "The Hurt Locker," because of the significance of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win, is the one film that can make a strong case for being more significant than a season of "Mad Men." And "The Return of the King," the culmination of an enormous achievement by Peter Jackson, gets my vote over "West Wing" in 2003. But while I love "No Country for Old Men," is it more substantial than "The Sopranos"? Nope. ("Million Dollar Baby" certainly isn’t.)
As a sometimes infuriating but always intriguing pop-culture touchstone, "Lost" wipes the floor with "Crash." And I’d argue that Jack Bauer on "24" is a significantly more compelling character than Billy Costigan in "The Departed." I mean, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Kiefer Sutherland played Bauer, but who hears Costigan’s name and remembers Leonardo DiCaprio?
Unquestionably, Emmy voters get it wrong at least as often as their Oscar counterparts do. (Hey, those third or fourth "West Wing" Emmys, or that first "Mad Men" one, really could have gone to "The Wire.") But in this century, at least they’ve more frequently honored achievements that have made a mark in the culture.
It wasn’t always so. When I went back further, I gave the decided edge to Oscar winners in the 1990s." Law & Order" lasted for decades but didn’t shake the culture the way James Cameron’s "Titanic" did; "Picket Fences" was an amusing Emmy winner in '93 and '94, but I wouldn’t pick it over "Schindler’s List" or even "Forrest Gump" (which I hated, but which supplied a catchphrase—”Life is like a box of chocolates”—more enduring than anything from David E. Kelley’s smalltown fantasia).
In the '80s, shows like "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" at least held their own against movies like "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Last Emperor" and "Chariots of Fire," but earlier than that the edge goes resoundingly to the big screen.
I mean, the ‘70s slate of "The French Connection," "The Godfather," "The Godfather II," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" and "Annie Hall" takes no prisoners when you put it up against "The Bold Ones: The Senator," "Elizabeth R" and three seasons of "Upstairs, Downstairs."
Also read: Grammy Awards to the Emmys: Hey, Notice Us!
And while you could argue that '60s TV shows like "Mission: Impossible" and "The Fugitive" had an impact (even on future movies) more profound than Oscar-winning fluff like "Oliver!," the further back you go the clearer it is that TV was the puny little brother.
But we’re not talking about 1969 ("Midnight Cowboy" vs. "NET Playhouse") or 1962 ("Lawrence of Arabia" vs."The Defenders") or 1953 ("On the Waterfront" vs. "The U.S. Steel Hour").
We’re talking about 2012, when the momentum’s all with the little screen. I’ll be back on the Oscar beat come September, and let’s just say that I’d really like to see a few films that have the muscle to step into the ring with "Breaking Bad."