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Television Isn't Film, Damnit

By Ryan McGee | Think Pieces | March 29, 2017 |

By Ryan McGee | Think Pieces | March 29, 2017 |

Everyone has their pet peeves. If I had to fill out a personal ad, I’d put “morning people, smokers, and those not into the latest Ryan Adams album” under “Turnoffs.” When it comes to pop culture, I try to be less precious about this than I have in the past, because it’s almost invariably insufferable. What I like or don’t like shouldn’t have anything to do with what anyone else does in a perfect world, and going out of one’s way to actively antagonize someone for something as personal as taste in television speaks of too much time on one’s hand. If you like something, and it brings you joy, and you can defend it, more power to you.

The same goes for creators: There are times in which the best of us offer criticism that is little more than, “Here’s what I would have done, and it would have been way better.” I don’t think it’s wrong to criticize shows when they go astray, but it’s ultimately someone else’s vision, and if it zigs where I would have zagged, maybe that says more about me than the show itself. Doesn’t mean I don’t get disappointed, but it’s hard to take it personal.

(However, if I slag a show, and those involved DON’T take it personally, well, I’d find that weird. It’s another reason why it’s better to focus on talking about what shows to do right versus what they do wrong, and one of the big reasons why I got out of the episodic recap game when I could.)

All of this is a way of saying that little gets under my skin the way it used to, which is either a sign of maturity or sheer exhaustion. But there’s one thing that still rankles with white-hot anger, and it’s one of the few hills upon which I’d die when it comes to TV: that it’s its own entity, complete with its own set of strengths and limitations, and no matter what increase in quality the medium has seen over the past two decades, it’s not because it’s adopted the tricks and tropes of another popular medium in order to do so.

That seems obvious, but then you get Jonathan Nolan, creator of shows such as Person of Interest and Westworld, talking with Mashable about the upcoming season of the latter show.

Nolan and Joy are in the process of writing Season 2 now, and while they declined to offer any actual specifics — aside from joking (we think) that “it’s a musical” — Nolan did say, “It’s a 10-hour movie we’re making. We’re writing right now; we’re terribly excited about what we’re writing.”

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.

It’s a topic that I’ve written about constantly. Go back nearly five years and you can read my thoughts on a trend that has only gotten worse in the half-decade: Many shows have replaced “episodes” with “installments,” to the detriment of the medium and the viewing audience. It does a disservice not only to TV, but to film, and blurs lines that never needed blurring in the first place. You can argue that TV as a medium is currently better than film, but you can’t and shouldn’t argue that it’s better because it’s now a better version of film than film itself.

Let’s break down the three things wrong with the “10-hour movie” argument.

1) Who wants to watch a ten-hour movie?

Even if it’s perfectly paced, features amazing acting, has a drool-worthy score, and has expert cinematography, that’s a really, really long damn film. I can’t think of more than two or three films in any person’s lifetime that could justify that running time, and even then it would be such a difficult thing to experience as intended that it becomes prohibitively exclusionary. Even if you want to argue film trilogies can provide an entertain ten-hour experience, that’s still not a ten-hour film. If Nolan wants Westworld to be a ten-hour movie, that’s certainly his right, and it would be fascinating in theory to see what that would entail. But taking a film, with its own complete series of ebbs and flows, and arbitrarily breaking it up would violate the totality of what’s theoretically intended. A ten-hour movie should be watched start to finish, and even if you binge an entire season in a single day, you still haven’t watched a ten-hour film. You watched a clumsily-conceived show over a single Saturday.

2) There’s nothing about this claim that inherently makes it a quality program.

I love movies. Movies are great. And like most TV, most movies suck. They just do! No one tries to make a crappy film. But the idea that a “TV show that’s a ten-hour movie” means it’s automatically good seems utter ridiculous. Is Nolan suggesting that he’s made the ten-hour version of Collateral Beauty or Suicide Squad? If so, youch! Nolan and others who make this type of claim often equate “movie” with “a big budget,” suggesting that viewers will get the large scope of a blockbuster film. But that’s absolutely no guarantee of quality. (I’m looking at you, Vinyl.) Big budgets certainly can be used in service of small-screen narrative, but they are equally used as The Emperor’s New Two-Story Set, covering up a mewling mass of storytelling ineptitude with a shiny, often CGI-laced surface. Shows like SyFy’s Killjoys have less money than Games of Thrones’ catering budget and still manage to craft excellent entertainment.

3) It puts two genres in conflict that have no business overlapping.

Arguing about film versus TV can inspire a lot of fun debate when viewed from a semi-dispassionate perspective, but it’s also the kind of thing that people take way too seriously way too quickly, as if there’s an actual “winner” that be derived from it. I like my Film Twitter to stay out of my TV Twitter, and honestly most times I can’t take TV Twitter either, which is theoretically my Twitter, alongside Dad Jokes Twitter, Pictures Of Animals That Shouldn’t Be Friends But Are Twitter, and Post 15 Jokes About The Same Image While You Search For the Best Joke In Real Time In Public Twitter. Movie stars and feature film makers starting migrating towards the small screen in the early 2000s, and the need to compare/contrast/rank the two industries has been endemic ever since.

If you told me you set out to make ten really well-crafted episodes in your upcoming season, I’d be interested. If you told me your show was a ten-hour movie spread out over ten weeks, I’d either give you the middle finger or a PDF of this article. That doesn’t mean the former show would necessarily be great, but it sure as hell has a better chance of success than the latter. Why? Because it knows the world in which it’s operating. All In The Family, Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and others didn’t work like gangbusters DESPITE crafting excellent episodes. Tweaking the wheel can be refreshing, but reinventing it isn’t necessary. Just because there’s never been more great TV doesn’t mean that shows have abandoned the building blocks that have always been part of its historically best programs.

Great episodes have always been that building block, and the idea of imposing a three-act structure of a film over a thirteen-hour season of TV seems like weird math and even clunkier narration. If an episode can’t stand on its own, with a beginning, middle, and end unto itself, then it doesn’t matter how it fits into the larger structure. It’s a bad piece of the overall puzzle, and an eyesore when seen as a whole. Focusing on episodes doesn’t magically make every single one stellar, but at least the focus is in the right place.

When I think of the best seasons of TV I’ve seen, I think of the second season of Justified and the first season of Veronica Mars, the latter of which balanced the episodic versus season-long arc better then possibly anything I’ve ever seen. You could watch a forty-minute episode of either show and be taken on a ride that felt complete as a piece of entertainment. And yet, these episodes made the next ones better due to the way that individual successes and failures led to something simultaneously surprising and inevitable. Those shows used the medium’s primary luxury (incredible amounts of time over which to tell a story) to its advantage not by delaying payoffs but pacing them according to the apparent limits of the medium that turns out to be benefits.

Episodes aren’t the enemy. They are vital to the medium, and part of its primal power. Take away that, and we’re left with a much smaller screen indeed.