Friday, March 31, 2006

The New World of TV and Film

SPOILERS: A couple of things for the first four seasons of 24

Writing about the first season finale of Battlestar Galactica, I started to explore the idea that TV has supplanted film as the premier visual storytelling medium. The thing that really prompted me to address this is that so many TV shows are hailed for being "more like a movie than a TV show," with seasons made up of a bunch of "little movies." However, the way things have gone, saying that a TV show is like a movie isn't so much of a compliment, I think we've reached the point where the best movies should be hailed for their TV series like complexity.

Now, the thing about evaluating television is the fact that everything on it is grouped into one catergory. So, you get a lot of people who look down on TV, witness the classic Onion article: Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn't Own a Television." Yes, the vast majority of stuff shown on TV is crap, but saying you won't watch television because of reality TV is like saying that you won't read a book because of The National Enquirer.

That said, I think peoples' perceptions are changing. The most important development in affecting peoples' view of television has been the start of TV on DVD. I remember back when the first season of The X-Files was coming out, it was this completely unprecedented thing, that you could easily go back and review the series in order, without having to tape episodes and wait for each episode to air. It's a lot easier for people to appreciate a series without the commercials and seeing everything in sequence.

Concurrent with this was the rise of the internet, which made it a lot easier to keep track of series and find other fans to talk about stuff with. The internet is much more suited to television than film because TV series have a lot more content, and on top of that, there's speculation about the future of the series to talk about. I have no data to support this, but I think reading internet reaction to shows changed the way producers perceive the audience. If you're not getting any real feedback, it would be tough to tell how much of the show people really did remember, but when the fans are calling the producers of the show on continuity mistakes, it becomes clear that fans are able to keep up with even the most continuity intensive plot lines.

Twin Peaks was a critical innovator in bringing an unprecedented artistry and style to television. Following that was The X-Files, which effectively shows the world of TV in transition. On the one hand, it's a standalone procedural series, you can tune into most episodes and get everything you need to know from the hour. However, with the mythology arc, the show engaged in an extended, longform story that took roughly 60 episodes to complete, many dependent on your knowledge of what happened in earlier seasons to understand.

And at the end of the 90s, two shows emerged that forever changed television: The Sopranos and 24. The Sopranos was notable for many reasons, for one it started the pay cable original series trend. This was a show that fully exploited its freedom from network censorship, with all kinds of violence and sex.

However, the greater impact was that the show was just so good, even people who usually dismissed TV had to take notice of it. The Sopranos completely raised the bar on what was possible to do on TV, and other shows struggled to catch up. It was also one of the first shows to consistnetly present a morally ambiguous universe. Our hero made a lot of bad decisions, you don't like him, it's more that you're fascinated by him. If previous TV shows used their characters as an idealized alternate family for the viewer, The Sopranos was one where you love to watch Tony, but have no desire to run into him in real life.

24 brought a lot of what The Sopranos did to network TV, and thus democratized it. HBO's whole slogan was "It's not TV. It's HBO," which appealed to those people who considered themselves above television. 24 showed that a network show could do extreme serialization and still be successful. This is a show where you don't miss an episode, you're either watching the whole day or you're not watching, and that was a new way for network shows to work.

The other change was to bring the morally ambiguous hero to network TV. I think TV changed forever with the second season premiere, when Jack asked for a hacksaw to cut the head off a man he'd just killed. Jack was a guy who didn't care if you didn't like him, he was going to do whatever it took to acheive his goals. And as part of the stories, you frequently saw problems with no easy solution, where Jack would make a huge sacrifice to get something done. Witness the killing of Chapelle in year three, or the Paul Raines vs. terrorist emergency room scene in year four.

Many shows since have taken on the violence and anything could happen feel of 24. Battlestar, particularly in the miniseries, does a lot of those no easy choice decisions. The scene with Roslin leaving the little girl behind to die would not have happened if 24 didn't exist.

And both series are examples of longform storytelling. On The Sopranos, there's almost always a followup on what happened the previous week, and when there's not, we know that it's still affected Tony. Everything that happens is part of these characters' lives and factors in the way they live. So, the TV series became less a bunch of episodes and more one longform work, broken into chapters, rather than just a bunch of episodes.

So, while all this was happening we've seen people talking about the artistic bankruptcy of Hollywood filmmaking. When a movie like Crash wins best picture, it's clear something's wrong with Hollywood's definition of quality. This has prompted people to lament the fact that Hollywood has fallen so far from its creative golden age in the 70s (including me). And I would stand by the idea that the American film scene is nowhere near as exciting or innovative as it was in the 70s.

But, looking at the situation, I realized that in thirty years, they're going to talk about today's TV like they're talking about the films of the 70s. What are the similarities? For one, both eras came about as a result of the easing of standards. It's mindboggling to think that into the 60s, the production code was still strictly regulating the content of films, and for a long while, those same standards were held on television. The emergence of cable shows has completely changed the game, allowing for shows that have even greater boundaries than most film, and even on the networks, there's room for a lot more sexuality and violence than would have been possible earlier. There may be some groups trying to stop that, but for the most part, there's more room for developing stories than there was before.

What was the other big development of the 70s? Auteur filmmaking, and on TV we're beginning to see the emergence of a class of auteur showrunners, who have near total control over the content and direction of their series. Because shows became more longform, the guiding hand of the showrunner became more apparent. In the 70s, filmmakers were given a lot more freedom to do what they wanted without studio interference. With TV, it seems like most of the showrunners are being given a free hand to do what they want now, certainly more than filmmakers today. The reason for this is if your show gets high ratings, you've basically proven that what you're doing works. So, the network has no reason to mess with it.

Obviously, some people have more autonomy than others, but I get the feeling that David Chase has become the Kubrick of television, doing whatever he wants whenever he wants it. If Chase was doing a film, there's no way he'd have the autonomy that he does on The Sopranos because there'd be no guarantee that it'd be successful. People aren't watching The Sopranos for David Chase, they're watching it for Tony and his family. Like in film, very few TV people have become brands unto themselves, Joss Whedon is probably the most notable example, though his fanbase clearly wasn't large enough to support a show on its own.

But as long as you stick with the main show, you can do whatever you want. Chase may take heat for his dream sequences, but people are still watching the show. TV gives you the ability to experiment with an almost guaranteed audience, and the critical reason why that's possible is the emotional connection to the characters. David Lynch's most abstract work is in the last episode of Twin Peaks, a piece that can simultaneously be completely symbolic and abstract, and still be emotionally affecting. Because we know the character so well, when Cooper goes through the lodge world, we don't watch with a detached perspective, we're on that journey with him. Similarly, Joss Whedon's experimental episodes, notably Restless and Once More With Feeling, work because of what we know about the characters. If he was to just write an original musical, it'd probably be good, but in combining the musical with the existing TV universe, it becomes great.

Over the past few years, as I've watched a whole bunch of fantastic longform TV shows, I've also become increasingly disenchanted with traditional Hollywood films. The depth and nuance of the characters on a Buffy or Six Feet Under makes the plot-serving people in most films seem utterly contrived. Compare Firefly the show to Serenity the film. In Firefly you've got a large ensemble cast of people, all doing their own thing, living their lives as the show goes along. Sometimes big stuff happens to them, sometimes they just coast. And even though Mal may be the leader, everyone has an equally interesting and developed life.

In Serenity, Mal is clearly front and center, and a lot of the supporting cast is defined by just one trait. They all have their own little goals, and they're so resolutely focused on them. It's the necessity of the film to fit everyone into an arc, and Whedon does an admirable job of it, but it feels contrived. Compare the tentative dance of the developing relationship between Simon and Kaylee in the show to the very clear she wants this guy arc in the movie. In the film, that goal is her sole characteristic, the thing that defines her. In the film, you get a much clearer main character/supporting cast divide, whereas the genius of Buffy was that we got just as much insight into Xander or Willow as we did into Buffy. The main character is usually the least interesting, Han Solo trumps Luke Skywalker and Willow or Xander trumped Buffy. But if Buffy were a movie, even one true to Joss' vision, Xander and Willow would have been little more than one note comic relief, and Buffy herself would never have the depth that she did on the series.

Up until recently, most TV people talked about using it as a way to get into films. David Chase made it clear that he'd rather be in films and Joss did as well. Recently, Chase seems to be acknowledging that what he's done in TV goes beyond what could be done in a film. Alan Ball also made it clear that Six Feet Under was his greatest creative achievement, and he's already jumped back in to work on a new pilot for HBO.

Joss remains pointed towards features, and that's not something I'm thrilled with. I would guess part of that is the fact that his two most recent shows were cancelled, but I'd rather see him try to get a pilot on HBO than go forward with Wonder Woman. I'm sure personally it's a terrible grind doing a series, but creatively, Buffy or Angel make nearly every feature film ever made pale in comparison.

The way I see it now, TV has raised the bar for film to a different level. Serenity is a perfectly entertaining movie, a well told story, but that's all it is. Compared to Joss' TV work, it's pretty insignificant. The films I'm most interested in seeing now are the ones that do what TV cannot, namely focus on style and the art of filmmaking. TV, for all its merits, still suffers from the fact that it must be filmed so quickly. Even the best directors can't make every shot great when you're shooting an episode in eight days.

What films can do is make those perfectly constructed, really artistic pieces. Wong Kar-Wai is a perfect example of this, a guy who creates films where each image is a beautiful work of art unto itself, films that are more an atmosphere, a feeling than a story. I want films that you get lost in.

That's not to say you can't still make a good film that's a straightforward narrative, just you have to raise the bar. Magnolia is an example of a film that is simultaneously a wonderful piece of visual/sonic fusion and also creates characters with a depth of a long running TV series. It's a movie I would say is more like TV than cinema and mean it as a great compliment.

And finally, much like the creators of the show, a lot of TV actors used to see it primarily as a stepping stone to films. So, Sarah Michelle Gellar left Buffy for the "greener pastures" of cinema. Now, from a money and time point of view, film is much better for an actor than TV, but from an artistic perspective, the best TV shows offer actors so much more than films.

As Buffy, Gellar got to do everything, from really broad comedy to painful drama, often within the same episode. Watching her in The Grudge, she didn't even have a character. She was just a person who stood there while stuff popped out. I think she spent more time promoting The Grudge than she did actually acting in it.

For an actor, doing a TV show is a risk. You could end up in a show that fails, which would tarnish your reputation and hurt your chances of getting future film roles. Or you could end up on a show that gets enough ratings to keep going, but no buzz. The actors in Lost may get written about now, but come season six, will anyone still care? And more importantly, you'd be past your prime and thus unlikely to get any good parts once the show finishes. And even in the best of cases, you're still stuck in one role for many years.

However, the best shows give actors possibilities they would never have in a film. James Gandolfini is a prime example, this is a guy who's been in a bunch of movies, supporting roles. Then he does The Sopranos and creates one of the most compelling characters ever seen. Alyson Hannigan is another prime example, seeing her in something like Date Movie is painful because on Buffy she showed such varied potential, and post Buffy she's just doing one type of role.

In a lot of cases, the acting on these shows is so good, people forget that these people aren't just playing themselves. I was shocked when I heard James Marsters or Alexis Denisof's actual speaking voices, you completely believe that they're British. Same thing with Gandolfini in the two most recent Sopranos episodes, it's not until you're aware that this is in fact a performance that you can appreciate what they're doing. This is where the fear of typecasting comes in. When someone is so good, it becomes tough to see them in another kind of role. I've talked to multiple people who were really surprised to learn that neither Michael C. Hall or Matthew St. Patrick were actually gay.

Ultimately, I feel like this is what real acting is about, totally becoming a character. The Academy Awards usually award showy performances, where the performance is an attraction in and of itself. It's like special effects, the Academy is going to award the shot that makes you go "whoa, that was an awesome effect," whereas the best effects are the ones you don't even know are there. And that's the best kind of acting. You never say, "wow, Peter Krause is great as Nate," you only see Nate.

So, what's the conclusion? Basically that the most exciting and innovative storytelling right now is happening in TV. If I had the choice between having the chance to make a big studio movie or an HBO series, I'd go with the series, and an increasing number of creative people are making that choice as well. We've been so conditioned to think that two hours is the time that a story must be told in, it's liberating to have the chance to see something that goes into more depth. Conventional wisdom holds that The Godfather is one of the top five movies of all time, and if The Sopranos does everything The Godfather does and goes way beyond it, doesn't that mean that The Sopranos is better than any movie ever made?

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