Question of the week: is TV more forgiving of bad acting than movies are?

Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion on Castle.jpg

Willa Parkin over on Slate recently made an interesting suggestion:

In a movie, an actor has approximately two hours to convince the audience of his or her skill. They only get one shot at us, and if they’re unnatural or uncomfortable, overly mannered or under-emotive, we won’t connect to or care about them. They will have failed to do their job, and we will see them for what they are: bad.

TV is a whole other story. Actors have multiple episodes to hone their performances, and even if each installment is far shorter than a movie, it’s also contained. It films, it finishes, the actors can see it and take notes. Over the long run of a series, many initially not-so-great actors have dramatically improved — think of Taylor Kitsch on “Friday Night Lights,” Tina Fey on “30 Rock,” or Courteney Cox on “Friends” — just as their writers learn to create material that plays to their strengths, giving them the story lines and jokes best suited to them.

But while the actors and the writers are getting better, the audience is also doing work. As a show goes on, we start to think of bad acting as a character trait, and stop seeing it as the performer’s lack of skill. “Mad Men’s” Betty Draper is emotionless and unreadable because Betty has been infantilized her whole life by a sexist society that has rewarded her for being pretty, not interesting — not because January Jones can only play one note. “Castle’s” Katic is stilted and stiff because her character, Kate Beckett, is uptight and traumatized — not because Katic can’t express feelings and wouldn’t have chemistry with a bottle of peroxide. “Friday Night Light’s” Julie Taylor is oddly unknowable because she’s young and immature (despite having three to four times as much screen time as “FNL” characters we know intimately), not because Aimee Teegarden isn’t up to the level of her costars. (Though the aforementioned examples are all actresses, men fall into this category too: Like David Boreanaz in “Bones” or Winston on “New Girl.”)

So this week’s question is a simple “Do you agree?” –

Is TV more forgiving of bad acting than movies are?

Answers below or on your own blog, please




  • Lisa Rullsenberg

    Isn't one of the problems with Katic in Castle that she's working opposite Nathan Fillion, an actor who can communicate all manner of quirky emotion (distress, wry humour etc) without it looking like an effort.� It feels a little harsh to judge her by his standards.

    And it's good the piece ends on acknowledging this isn't just a female thing: David Boreanaz has such a limited range it's almost embarrassing how long Bones lasted.�

    Is TV more forgiving?� Do we have lower toleration threshholds?� Is 'the box in the corner' (however it is consumed) just expected to not meet the expectations of going to a film (how old fashioned do I sound…).

    It's easy to forget that a LOT of TV is just awful – wooden performances delivered poorly with bad plots; but even the good stuff can get lazy.� I think its that film is so expensive and so particular you notice more when performances don't work.

  • SK

    Hm. I think I take issue with the idea that bad acting is either restricted to, or more common, on TV. I remember once when my mother was visiting we went out to see a film of her choice. The only way I could get through The Duchess was by playing 'the Kiera Knightly game', the rules to which are, 'Kiera Knightly is trying to express an emotion: what is it?''

    So I'm going to argue the opposite point, and see where that takes us: that actually it's films that are more forgiving. Because a film is a self-contained thing, the number of scenes and range is more limited. Because the budgets are higher and schedules looser, there's more opportunity to do multiple takes, and edit together the best of each one. Put those together, and an actor or actress doing a film has a smaller number of moments to master, and more chances to get them right. Plus they probably even get to rehearse, which doesn't happen much in TV these days, as I understand it. So they have less to do, and a longer time to spend getting it right.

    On TV, on the other hand, or at least series TV, and definitely series TV in the US, the characters keep going, so every week the performers have to find new and interesting things to do. That's immediately harder. Finding an interesting way for your character to express anger once is easy, finding an interestingly different way to do it in the seventieth episode is harder (I say harder, it's not like acting is in any way hard, but you know, comparatively).

    What's more, the scheduling is such that you have a very few takes; okay, not, these days, as bad as Doctor Who where they wouldn't stop if you fell through the set ('Frontios', check it out) but still not as leisurely as film. And there's no rehearsal: get the script, do the read-through, block it, run through it a couple of times, roll the cameras, on to the next set-up.

    So, my argument: film is more forgiving. With a film you have the limited range, the time and the chances so that even a performer of more limited dramatic ability (cough Rihanna) can be coached into giving an acceptable performance, and then you can keep shooting (possibly at them) until they get it right.

    With TV, an actor has to make new choices every week or so with a script they are handed just a few days before shooting, they get one chance at it, and whatever they do is immortalised on screen for people like us to pore over and spot all the places where they could have added something but didn't think to.

  • bob

    Hey! Stop bashing David Boreanaz! He knocks it out of the park on Angel.