Since the dawn of the 20th century, American ingenuity and productivity have been firmly entrenched in the act of churning out mass market entertainment, the single greatest nation in the world in terms of pop culture production. Nearly every medium, from the inception of radio to film, television, and now the Internet, has thrived in our media culture, thanks to the glamorized, over-the-top showy lights of Hollywood.
But, commercialism hasn't quite killed creative output in America. Sure, it's put it on hold many times and it makes it harder each and every year to dig through the mess and find those rare gems, but it hasn't killed it.
Especially now as the new generation of mass media evolves on the internet, there are more and more outlets for decent products to reach the masses, whether it be formerly underground music like The Arcade Fire or indie films pushing their way all the way to the Oscars like Little Miss Sunshine, the buzz machine that is the internet keeps everyone in the loop.
As big as the internet is these days though, still there are two main standards by which we remain happily entertained most days. And Television has become increasingly better than film at doing so. While Hollywood has wallowed in those pits of remakes and sequels, television has started to do something interesting all on its own, spend time and money on creative new ideas.
Good writing on television was as rare as slot car derbies on Animal Planet only a decade ago. The idea of putting a decent concept and a full production budget on par with a major motion picture into a television show didn't occur to most executives until channels like HBO and Showtime started doing it. The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and half a dozen other shows were massive successes and they were good, solidly written shows, devoid of cliché, tired sitcom humor, or reality show excess.
While it's true the reality show craze is just now starting to die down a bit (only to be replaced by the big stakes game show craze), the effects of those genuinely intelligent programs is still felt today in shows like Lost, 24, and House. The networks saw the effects of a serialized program with a well-developed plot and tons of interesting characters.
Characters, Characters, Characters
Characters are the key to any good television show. Look at the best ones out there. They have huge ensemble casts, full of people you hate, people you love, and people you want to see sleep with other people. Part of this is the need to maintain a story arc for more than 16 hours of show throughout a season (and beyond if it's a good show), but also it creates strong attachment to the viewer who keeps coming back to see what happens with so and so, their favorite character.
Films just blow stuff up any more, and unconvincingly. If you manage to craft a strong plot in which lots of interesting ideas are floating around (Miami Vice for example) and forget the basic tenets of making me care in the slightest about who is doing what, I'm going to lose interest...and quickly.
Fearlessness to Be Different
Everything out of Hollywood these days is a rehash. Original ideas tend not to find an audience in the Hollywood offices, regardless of whether they would in a theater. One needs only look at the nominees for best picture the last couple of years to see at least half of the films on the list didn't do well at all in the box office.
It's the comic book adaptations, remakes, and 80s rehashes that bring in the big bucks these days and as long as that's what people pay to see, that's what Hollywood will make. But, on television, writers are taking chances, creating new and exciting ideas, or reworking tired stereotypes (such as Heroes) to create compelling new shows.
The idea that a television program doesn't need to be the same as another show that was on four years ago with different characters and a new house must have come as a shock to the networks, but at least they're listening to the fans and running with the idea.
Serialize without exploiting
Serialization is a great tool. It allows for a single plotline to be carried over the course of multiple episodes or seasons and still maintain an audience. Because of the massive growth of DVD, it's the reason television series that follow such a formula have been so successful. If you create a 16 hour run of a single storyline that people find compelling and offer it for sale on six discs that can be watched simultaneously, it will be successful.
But film has had a bit of trouble with the same formula. A financially successful film will be revamped and turned into a new film to be released three years later, mainly in hopes of duplicating the original success of the first film. However, the concepts are maintained.
True trilogies, films that maintained the breadth and emotion of their originals are almost always successful. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings all stayed true to the source material and in most cases serialized the content. Spiderman is another good recent example of the same idea.
But genres like the horror genre start pumping out yearly incarnations of the same story but with more blood (and less plot), they only dilute the original film and the fan base. We mustn't forget the effects of milking a franchise for cash. If the third and fourth Batman films taught us anything, there can be too much, and it can be incredibly horrible.
At this point, television is better than film. It just is. There are more original ideas, bold ideas, and willingness to experiment on television these days and the film industry might just be taking notice, actually taking some of the more successful writers and producers on TV like J.J Abrams to revitalize old franchises like Star Trek. But, they've got a long way to go with people like Uwe Boll and Michael Bay on the loose.