Why TV Is Better Than the Movies; Film Has Always Been the Four Seasons to Television's Motel 6. Not Anymore. Here's How the Small Screen Ended Up So Much Bigger-And Bolder-Than the Big One

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Byline: Devin Gordon

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. …