I recently had the peculiar pleasure of being privy to a heated debate among a group of friends on the subject of “Breaking Bad”; more specifically, on the precise moment when its terminally ill chemistry teacher protagonist Walter White had become its meth-cooking mastermind antagonist Heisenberg, or — to borrow creator Vince Gilligan’s once-throwaway line — when Mr. Chips became Scarface.
Were it not for a firm opinion of my own on that exact point, I might have been tempted to step back and stare on, to see the showdown between those for whom the zero point, as it were, was three years ago and those for whom it was three days. That’s always been the genius of the show: to conceive and conduct the ultimate character arc, turning white to black right under the audience’s nose and leaving them, five years later, unable to agree where and when this seismic shift had happened. Therein lies what makes “Breaking Bad” a masterpiece of long-form storytelling: Gilligan, stretching seemingly the simplest switch-flip across half a decade, reveals just how unsimple a thing it really is.
When Kevin Spacey, delivering the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August, earnestly asked with regard to the changing face of television “Is 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole really any different than a film?”, it was with genuine conviction and concern, a real desire to see the medium moved to the point where it can service its audience on their on-demand terms. But it was also with, if not quite disregard, then perhaps mistaken value for that long-form structure with which television storytelling has flourished and come into its own as an art form independent from cinema.
Writing for Vulture on the valid, vital point that television can and should be criticized in as episodic a manner as it is exhibited, Matt Zoller Seitz says that “a TV show is a more slippery, organic thing, practically a living creature that grows, evolves, and sometimes sickens and dies in front of you over the course of weeks or years.” It is not, like a movie or a novel, one solid chunk of story meant to be absorbed all at once; rather, a TV show thrives on the space between, the rest of the week spent fretting on the characters’ fates, spent desperately hanging on the edge of that cliff.
Though let’s not forget, speaking of cliffhangers, that they are no less the property of television than they are of cinema and literature before it. Think of Dickens, whose works were released in serialized form during his lifetime; think of the old movie serials, which drew crowds back again and again to theaters until they were rendered obsolete by the rise of TV and its essential absorption of their function. These media and their means are all interlinked, all offshoots from various points in the evolution of the human imagination.
But if the means are the same, at least nominally, it’s the ends to which they’re employed that distinguish one art form from another. Where cinema, at its best, invites us into a world for 90 minutes or so, great television barges into ours, fostering in our minds and living with us every off-air moment like a parasite we’re pleased to have.
A TV show ages alongside us, its evolution acting as a benchmark for our own as we grow up in tandem with its characters. Its monopoly over the cliffhanger comes, aside from the obvious commercial concerns, as a natural extension of its integral purpose to replicate the feel and flow of real life: how often, after all, are our everyday problems immediately solved?
That’s perhaps never been better seen than in the “Up” series, surely the most profound use to which TV’s capability for long-form storytelling has yet been put. Airing septennially, the British documentary series revisits the same group of people first met as seven-year-old children in 1964, finding in the ordinary occurrences of their lives the most extraordinary human drama. Through births and deaths, marriages and divorces, promotions and dismissals, these editions have chronicled life in real-time, allowing us to see in the respective arcs of these characters, as it were, reflections of ourselves.
It’s worth noting that “56 Up,” the series’ latest installment, was released theatrically in North America this year, perhaps lending credence to Spacey’s contention that “the device and the length are irrelevant… it’s all content.” All eight episodes are available on Netflix, where someone whose life may have only spanned two of them can easily trace the subjects’ half-century of aging in the space of a single day. But is it the same? Can we truly appreciate the enormity of the project when absorbing it in one sitting? Is its overarching grandiosity equally manifested when its span is trimmed to less than one ten-thousandth the running time?
It’s reductive to relegate the series’ potency solely and wholly to its considerable length, but the ephemeral, occasional glimpses it offers is undoubtedly paramount to its lasting effect. When Spacey cautioned that “one way [the] industry might fail to adapt to the shifting sands is to keep a dogmatic differentiation in their minds between the various media, separating film, TV, miniseries, webisodes, or however you wanna label these narrative formats,” he wasn’t entirely wrong, yet at the same time it’s precisely that differentiation — dogmatic or no — that defines the ontological identity of these media.
The Netflix model of which Spacey is so keen a proponent — watch what you want, when you want, where you want, in whatever quantity you want — is the latest challenge to television’s identity; it’s telling that he talks of 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole, as though TV should strive to be more like this other medium. “Cinematic,” of course, is a good thing; “televisual,” meanwhile, is a dirty word, saved for features that have no place on the bigger, “better” screen. But that’s nonsense, patently: “Behind the Candelabra,” the Soderbergh swan song most film critics agree to be among the year’s finest efforts, is a TV movie.
If that seems like fuel to the fire of Spacey’s argument, it’s because, in a sense, it is. He’s right, distribution is changing, means of consumption are conglomerating, and the labels are starting to seem as though they might be as useless as he claims. But that doesn’t mean storytelling should be streamlined to fit one narrow view of the future.
“Arrested Development,” in its almost absurdly ambitious Netflix-facilitated resurrection, is our closest glimpse yet at the possibilities and — more prominently, alas — the pitfalls of this new media hybrid. Film, TV, miniseries, webisode: it is at once all of these and none, neither beholden to their respective restrictions nor reaping their relative rewards.
And how strange a thing, for the thousands upon thousands who willed that show back into life across eight years of raised hopes and false starts, to have that near-decade of anticipation culminate in a five-hour block. “Arrested Development” may be proof positive that there are exciting new storytelling apparatuses emerging in our internet age, but it also provides a staunch reminder of what we stand to lose if we commit to the new at the expense of the old. There’s far less mystery left in wondering who killed Rosie Larsen when it only takes half a day to find out. Seven years make far more impactful the revelation that Tony Soprano’s saga goes on and on and on and on than do seven days. And “Breaking Bad,” spanning five years even while only chronicling two, has taken its time to teach us how little it takes us to change.
The aforementioned discussion that show spawned posed a particular dilemma for the one exception to its intriguing inclusivity: the sole, fretful latecomer to the series’ particular appeal, fingers wedged firmly in ears for fear of catching the dreaded stray spoiler. How many of us gathered, in the midst of watching “House of Cards,” to wonder together what might happen next? Spacey says that Netflix has moved the “water cooler moment” online, bringing us together as one global community.
Yet it’s a community rife with the terror of trepidation, living in fear of treading on toes and either desperately waiting for everyone to catch up or suspiciously eyeing those who’ve gone ahead. The Netflix model, for all its media-melding potentiality, is one that’s not so much brought us together as pushed us apart; isn’t TV — like life, that slow process its long form bears the uncanny, unique power to replicate — so much less interesting when experienced alone?