While the season's movies fall flat, the small screen flies high!

By Bruce Fretts
Updated October 20, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Pop Quiz: It’s a Thursday night, and you’re bored. You could drive to your local cineplex to see Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas chase each other around in Assassins, Demi Moore turn The Scarlet Letter into a bodice ripper, or Steve Guttenberg cheer on a peewee soccer team in The Big Green. Or you could stay home and watch Rachel pine over Ross on Friends, George try to wriggle out of his engagement to Susan on Seinfeld, and Dr. Greene try to save lives — and his marriage — on ER.

What do you do?

If you’re smart, you stay home. Sure, great movies still come along occasionally (let’s see, there was Pulp Fiction — a year ago), and TV still shows a lot of junk (there’s no excuse for Coach). But the fact is, on almost any given night, you have a greater chance of finding something good by watching TV than by going out to the movies.

Think about it: NYPD Blue. The X-Files. Frasier. Roseanne. Murder One. Homicide: Life on the Street. The Larry Sanders Show. Law & Order. Hell, even Melrose Place is more entertaining than most movies — at least it has a healthy sense of its own ridiculousness. As opposed to, say, Showgirls.

Still not convinced? Then read these 10 simple reasons why the small screen is superior. And if you’re still skeptical, maybe you can run out and catch the late show of Mortal Kombat.

1. Women thrive on TV

With Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Murphy Brown, Caroline in the City, and Ellen near the top of the Nielsens, there’s no shortage of strong TV women. No wonder seven Oscar-nominated actresses joined TV series this season alone: Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope), Mercedes Ruehl (Frasier), Elizabeth McGovern (If Not for You), Mariel Hemingway (Central Park West), Cathy Moriarty (Bless This House), and Madeline Kahn and Mary Tyler Moore (New York News). Now look at the scintillating parts for women in some of the current top movies: Gwyneth Paltrow cooks supper for detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Seven. Julianne Moore plays a cat-loving ”surveillance expert” who snuggles up to Stallone in Assassins. Meanwhile, Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo get to wear all the best dresses in To Wong Foo.

Are TV execs feminist and movie execs sexist? Nope. It all comes down to money. The key to huge opening weekends for movies is young men; they’re also the most likely to give a film repeat business. As a result, says McGovern, ”parts in movies for women tend to be less interesting, more the young girlfriend.” On the other hand, she adds, ”TV advertisers are going after women, and women have the need to see themselves reflected in interesting, dimensional characters.”

With an eye on the increasingly profitable international market, movie studios seem most interested in making action spectaculars — the less dialogue to be translated, the better. But these projects rarely offer meaty work for actresses. ”Women are being shut out,” says two-time Oscar winner Sally Field. ”The kind of films I was lucky enough to make in the [’70s and] ’80s — Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, Absence of Malice — they’re not making them anymore.” That’s why the ex-Flying Nun returned to TV for the miniseries A Woman of Independent Means, for which she was recently Emmy-nominated opposite fellow film vets Anjelica Huston (Buffalo Girls) and Glenn Close (who won for Serving in Silence).

TV is kinder to older actresses like these, and to women of all shapes (think Roseanne). Even big-screen bombshell Jamie Lee Curtis, who stars in TNT’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles, admits, “TV these days has so much more of a broad range of roles for women.” Unlike True Lies, Heidi doesn’t require Curtis to pack an Uzi—or strip.

2. We care more about TV characters

Most movie characters are one-night stands. TV characters are long-term friends. For example, we’ve spent 11 years with Dr. Frasier Crane. “Because the audience is so well acquainted with Frasier, there’s a whole world of history we can draw on,” says Kelsey Grammer, who recently completed his first major film, Down Periscope. “This is somebody they know.”

Too many movies don’t bother to develop characters with even one dimension. You could sit through an entire Jim Carrey comedy and still not know whether he was playing Dumb or Dumber. “They’re dreadful,” Grammer says of films like Dumb and Ace Ventura. “They don’t play up to the audience. People come away feeling a bit more rewarded if you ask them to take a step up, not to just talk about pissin’ and crappin’ and poopin’. I hate that stuff.”

On the big screen, characters are often larger-than-life figures caught up in extraordinary situations, with their personalities secondary to the story lines. Even after all these years, do we really know James Bond? Roseanne, however, has spent seven years wringing big laughs out of the eminently relatable struggles of an average American family. “You’ve seen our kids grow up—you’ve invested the time, like a friend or a parent,” says Roseanne executive producer Eric Gilliland. “If Darlene’s doing drugs, it’s ‘Ooh, gosh, how are we going to get out of this mess?'”

“We embrace certain TV characters, and we want to know what’s happening to them,” says Homicide executive producer Tom Fontana. “I mean, I’m still worried about where Mary Richards is.”

3. TV does better with drama

Dick Wolf has figured it out down to a percentage: “A script from one of the A-level dramas—whether it’s Law & Order or NYPD Blue or Murder One or ER or Chicago Hope or Picket Fences—is far superior to 97 percent of film scripts produced.” Wolf may be a bit biased—he’s executive producer of Law & Order, as well as New York Undercover. And he hasn’t had much luck writing films (Masquerade, School Ties). But his point is well-taken.

While prime-time TV has entered a new golden age of dramas, movie studios seem less interested than ever in the genre. Why? Because it’s hard to sell overseas, appeals to an older audience less likely to go to the movies, and rarely generates blockbusters. “There’s an argument that says, ‘Why bother going to a movie theater to see a small, intimate character drama?'” says Twentieth Century Fox Films chairman Peter Chernin, who formerly headed the Fox TV network. “People say, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll wait to see that on video.’ That’s not why they go to the movies. They go for spectacle.” Perhaps this explains the disappointing box office performances of thoughtful, special-effects-free films like Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption. Both of these were Oscar-nominated for Best Picture but didn’t find a wide audience in theaters.

Continues Wolf, “Look at the top 10 movies this year—they’re all either action or kids’ pictures or something that would hardly be described as an in-depth look at the human condition.” (For the record, the movies are Batman Forever, Apollo 13, Pocahontas, Casper, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Crimson Tide, Waterworld, While You Were Sleeping, Congo, and Dangerous Minds.)

A few years ago, TV execs had all but written off dramas as commercially unviable, too. Then NYPD Blue took an in-depth look at the human condition and hit the top 20. And ER took an inside look at the human body—and hit No. 1. Suddenly, TV dramas have a pulse again.

4. In TV, the writer rules

As ER executive producer John Wells explains: “The train leaves the station on the first day of a series, and you have to continue to provide material. The person who makes that happen is the writer.” Like Wells, TV’s true auteurs—NYPD‘s Steven Bochco, Larry Sanders‘ Garry Shandling, Friends‘ Marta Kauffman and David Crane—have never severed their roots as writers. Television “is totally writer driven,” says Roseanne‘s Gilliland. “If other people get in charge, it’s going to be a mish-mosh.”

Which is a good description of most movies today. The people in charge are studio executives who want formula product with feel-good endings and directors who often seem more concerned with setting off visual fireworks than with telling a coherent story. “The writer in movies is not king,” says Frasier executive producer David Lee. “He’s some peasant out in a field.”

Unless that writer happens to be Joe Eszterhas, who was paid an obscene $3.7 million to pen the critically reviled Showgirls. The irony is that Eszterhas (whose scripts virtually scream out, “Get me rewrite!”) is one of the few screenwriters not routinely subjected to revisions by a succession of hired hands. Not that this take-a-number system yields better material. Thirty-five scribes toiled on The Flintstones, and the result was about as funny as a rockslide.

Many TV scripts are also group efforts, but it’s frequently a more collaborative process, with a team of writers brainstorming around a table. “The way we do it is, everybody works on everything,” says Partners cocreator Jeff Greenstein, who trained under Kauffman and Crane on Friends and Dream On. “We believe having as many brains as possible helps solve problems.”

5. TV is more fun to talk about

Half the kick of Melrose Place is watching it with friends and busting on the unbelievably stupid people on screen. That’s what led bars like Baja Sharkeez in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and the aptly named Jake’s Dilemma on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to start Melrose nights on Mondays. “It’s like a big party,” says Baja Sharkeez owner Greg Newman. “A movie theater is not a big party.” Indeed, talking back to the screen is discouraged at movies—except for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Plus, since most people watch TV shows at the same time, they can chat about them afterward, whether it’s at the office watercooler or via an online service. X-Files fanatics like Forrest Eastham (America Online screen name: The XPhile) Net-pick the show’s intricate plotlines. “We don’t even get [X-Files] conventions here in Alaska,” Eastham explains. “But as soon as I link up, there are as many as 40 other people discussing The X-Files.”

Many other television series, from Friends to Beverly Hills, 90210 to Lois & Clark, have avid online followings, yet it’s rare that a movie inspires such buzzing. And while you can read countless theories about Keyser Soze’s identity among devotees of The Usual Suspects on the Internet, it’s not so easy to discuss the film in public. “Just last night, I was with a group of friends—’Hey, did anyone see The Usual Suspects?'” says Gilliland. “Well, half the table didn’t, so we couldn’t talk about it.” Mention ER on a Friday morning and you probably won’t have the same problem.

6. TV deals with ‘mature themes’ more maturely

Sometimes, a little censorship is a good thing—it can force writers and directors to be more creative. NYPD‘s tastefully suggestive love scenes are far more titillating than the full-frontal assault of Showgirls. And the daily horrors of police work are depicted less graphically but more evocatively on NYPD and Homicide than in Seven and Die Hard With a Vengeance. “We see the aftermath of violence—we see death, but we are very cautious,” says Homicide’s Fontana. “The movies, because they can do anything, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, let’s just blow his head off.'”

On TV, dialogue can’t consist of rampant profanity, either (to quote Banderas from Assassins: “S—, f—, motherf—er! S—, f—!”). “You have to be more clever,” says X-Files creator and executive producer Chris Carter, who’s planning a movie version of his show. “You have to communicate the same feelings without saying s— or f—.” Remember Seinfeld‘s uproarious masturbation episode, when the M-word was never spoken? TV can even create its own dirty words. Cheers cocreator James Burrows recalls searching for euphemisms: “We finally got boink. We created that word, and it’s used now!” Who says TV never makes lasting contributions to culture?

7. TV is more convenient

A totally unscientific survey of moviegoers in New York and L.A. yielded the following complaints: Movies cost too much. You have to wait in line. They sell out. People talk during the show. The seats are uncomfortable. People with big hats sit in front of you. The snacks are too expensive.

By contrast, the TV experience is a veritable paradise. It’s cheap. There are no lines. It never sells out. You can shush talkers without getting dirty looks. You can sit where you want, wear what you want, and eat what you want—including popcorn with real butter.

Best of all, parking is never a problem. “I promised my dad he wouldn’t have to get in his car and go down to the city to see the premieres of my movies,” says Cathy Moriarty of her decision to do Bless This House. “He’d be able to watch me in his little chair.” So that explains why she’s costarring with Andrew Clay.

8. TV does more with less money

Face it—the nickel-and-dime Batman TV show delivered more bang for the buck than any of the megamillion-dollar Batman movies. “Isn’t there something inherently fun about being a little scrappier?” asks Frasier‘s Lee. “Okay, you don’t have much money, you don’t have big stars, you don’t have time to do it—as opposed to on a film saying, ‘Okay, here’s a big star and here’s the next year and a half to do it.'”

HBO’s opulent presidential biopic, Truman, cost about $8 million; Oliver Stone’s upcoming presidential biopic, Nixon, will cost $43 million. (Talk about inflation.) “With TV, there’s an automatic limit—if you spend much more, somebody closes you down,” says Frank Price, producer of HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen and former head of Columbia and Universal Studios. “It’s impossible to get into a Waterworld situation.” In fact, NBC shut down filming on the James Clavell miniseries Gai-Jin earlier this year when the production went over budget.

A drop in the ocean compared with the $175 million Waterworld, The X-Files costs about $1.5 million per hour. Yet Carter says he gets movie-quality production values by skimping on effects (“What you don’t see is as scary as what you do see”) and making maximal use of locations (different parts of a Canadian battleship provided the sets for four sequences last season).

TV’s lower price tags also allow trickier subjects to be tackled—there’s less at stake. HBO has attracted stars like Sissy Spacek and Richard Gere for films dealing with such hot-button topics as abortion (A Private Matter) and AIDS (And the Band Played On). Explains HBO Pictures president Robert Cooper, “One of the attractions for feature talent is they don’t have to worry about box office receipts breathing down their necks.” Maybe that’s why Waterworld-logged Kevin Costner’s next directorial effort, an ambitious adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle, will be made for HBO.

9. James Burrows does TV.

Can any current cinematic comedy director match Burrows’ TV CV? The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Taxi. Cheers. Frasier. Friends. And this year’s three most promising new sitcoms: NewsRadio, Partners, and Caroline in the City. Maybe Woody Allen (in his early, funny films) rivaled Burrows for sheer yuks per minute. But Burrows’ light farcical touch seems even nimbler when compared with the sledgehammer approach of a filmmaker like Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Nine Months).

“They’re a little heavy-handed in the movies,” Burrows agrees, with characteristic understatement. “There’s not a lot of subtlety in the comedies, and it’s because they’re appealing to a certain market. Teens aren’t used to sophisticated comedy.”

Burrows is “the reigning genius of this milieu,” declares Kelsey Grammer. Put more simply: Burrows knows what’s funny. Says Partners costar Tate Donovan: “You’ll say the line and open the door, and he’ll go, ‘Uh, open the door, then say the line.’ You’re like, ‘What the hell’s the difference?’ So you open the door and say the line, and all of a sudden, it’s hysterical.”

Oddly enough, Burrows’ one big-screen comedy was also titled Partners, a 1982 flop starring Ryan O’Neal as a cop and John Hurt as his gay partner. Burrows blames his own inexperience for its dismal box office performance. “I don’t think I was ready to direct that film,” he admits. “It was before Cheers, and I really blossomed on Cheers.” He says he’s not interested in making another movie: “I love what I’m doing.” And it shows.

10. On TV, you can change the channel.

If a TV show stinks, you can switch around in search of something that stinks less. (Channel surfing is an art in itself.) But once you’re in a theater, you’re stuck, no matter how bad the movie is. You can try sneaking into another theater, but you risk getting nailed by a pimply-faced usher.

In what TV execs like to call “today’s multichannel environment,” networks have been forced to get better by competition from cable. Prime-time shows simply can’t afford to be less riveting than the Weather Channel or the Home Shopping Club. And they have to maintain their level of quality—if a series loses its spark, it often loses its viewership. Just ask the cast of Northern Exposure.

Yet once they’ve gotten you to fork over your money, moviemakers have little incentive to deliver a good product. That’s why there are so many terrific trailers for mediocre movies. “There are scores of movies that open big because they have a good marketing campaign,” admits Fox chief Chernin. “And the movie itself turns out not to be as good.”

So stay home, turn on the tube, and you can have the best of both worlds: In between all those great TV shows, you can watch all those great movie commercials.

(Additional reporting by Kristen Baldwin, Steve Daly, Dave Karger, Dana Kennedy, Kate Meyers, Lisa Milbrand, Dan Snierson, Anne Thompson, Gary Eng Walk, and Bret Watson)