Darren Franich
September 01, 2010 AT 10:45 PM EDT

Image Credit: Cliff Lipson/CBS; DisneyTV shows are better than movies. The stories are more intricate. The actors are unencumbered by digital effects. Once you watch The Wire, cop movies look stupid. Once you watch Battlestar Galactica, Avatar plays like a billion-dollar screensaver. Or at least, so goes the great argument in favor of the new Golden Age of Television: In a decade that saw the big screen become dominated by superpowered boy-men and Heigl-bots desperately seeking male validation, TV created Mad Men, Lost, The Wire, 30 Rock, etc.

Steven Zeitchik of the L.A. Times has put his own stamp on the Great Debate, in an evenhanded essay that comes down politely but firmly on the side of the silver screen. “Are there two hours of television in the last few years,” he writes, “that achieved, on the screen and in our minds, what The Hurt Locker or Slumdog Millionaire did?” That’s a good question, and my answer is “Yes, The Pacific episodes 7 & 8, and any two episodes of Breaking Bad.” But to me, it’s irrelevant to compare greatness to greatness. Doesn’t it make more sense to compare the two mediums’ mediocrities? By which I mean, would you rather watch CSI: Miami or Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland?

The cop show and the Disney CGI romp have quite a bit in common. CSI: Miami is spin-off of CSI (and a spiritual sequel to Miami Vice), while the new Alice in Wonderland is a remake/homage/sequel/whatever of the original Lewis Carroll classic. Both the TV show and the movie feature great actors (David Caruso and Johnny Depp) in truly awful acting roles…and I think you could argue that, in both cases, the awfulness is kind of the point. Both TV show and movie are so gorgeous to look at that it’s possible to completely avoid paying attention to the nonsensically overwritten plots. CSI: Miami is successful, but lives in the shadow of CSI: Original Blend, while Alice in Wonderland is arguably the most forgettable movie to ever gross $1 billion.

What I’m trying to get at is that both projects are utterly middling. They are professionally made. They will not aggravate your brain more than a low-key tension headache. Alice in Wonderland is not Jonah Hex. CSI: Miami is not CSI: New York. They are perfectly mediocre examples of contemporary cinema and television. Having watched plenty of CSI: Miami and sat through Alice in Wonderland more than a few times (it’s a good in-flight movie), I’d pick the bad movie over the bad TV show any day.

Put it this way: Bad TV is merely annoying, like a machine that has broken down. Bad movies are like machines that have gone insane, and sometimes, that insanity is a good thing. I can’t think of that many examples of TV that is literally so bad it’s good (except John From Cincinnati, which regularly rises below awfulness into transcendence.) Whereas movies simply overflow with splendid terribleness: Wicker Man, anybody?

Again, I’m not trying to argue that Mad Men is worse than There Will Be Blood, or that Inception is decisively better than Lost. I’m just saying that the worst TV shows have none of the redeeming qualities of the worst movies. Agree? Disagree? Think Alice in Wonderland is a masterpiece and David Caruso is our greatest living actor? Sound off below!

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