Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Ronan Doyle
October 2, 2013 10:00 AM
9 Comments
  • |

Why 'It's Like a 13-Hour Movie' Fails to Do Justice to Great TV

'Breaking Bad' Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

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.

'Seven Up!'

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?

You might also like:

9 Comments

  • Douglas Holt | October 6, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    I think this article makes too big of a deal out of nothing. Its as if we have never had a medium that people could take their times getting through. With a book some people might finish it in a day others might take a few weeks, some might never finish it.

    Tv used to force us all to talk about programming on a weekly basis, but now we can go at our own pace. I understand that in some circumstances that can be annoying, but for the most part giving someone the entire story and letting them work through it at their own time is always a benefit.

    I work 1-9 so discussing a show on netflix for me personally is easier and more enjoyable than trying to catch a 8:00pm show to discuss it in the morning.

    The water cooler has changed and its not a bad thing.

  • Ronan Doyle | October 7, 2013 6:31 PM

    I agree! It's not a bad thing in and of itself, I'm just wary of the dangers of delineation. When you look at something like Southcliffe, the UK-funded TV miniseries Sean Durkin of Martha Marcy May Marlene fame did, you see a fine piece of storytelling specifically based around the possibilities and pitfalls of TV's week-by-week broadcast. When it premiered at TIFF in one chunk, I think it lost something. Of course there are the positives to change (I'm a big fan of the new Arrested Development and the bold moves it makes with the new forms of TV distribution), and the last thing I'm trying to be is the crotchety guy in the corner saying "it was better in my day", I'm just also concerned that something special is slipping away, or at least could in the future.

  • Joseph Schmoe | October 2, 2013 11:20 PMReply

    Your "argument" falls apart if you think a 90 minute cannot have a profound effectmon an individual and "age along with the viewer." Perhaps you have watched too much TV and not read enough books or seen enough great movies.

    The frequency of the exposure of a series to its devotees keeps it on their minds over time. All while the produces are adjusting the story to keep ratings high, often eliminating dull characters and creating newer ones to do so.

    If you are going to try to bring literary style academic criticism that informs your readers beyond the content being examined, you had better read some yourself.

    What garbage! Dumbing down to the dumpster level.

  • Ronan Doyle | October 3, 2013 7:57 AM

    And your "response" falls apart if you think that's at all the argument I'm making. Sure, a movie ages alongside a viewer (Roger Ebert's Great Movies piece on La Dolce Vita being a terrific example of how), but its character don't (at least not in the same real time manner). TV gives us an exciting opportunity to live with characters day by day and measure our evolution as people alongside their own. I'm not saying that cinema is now inferior to television, not in the slightest. It's just different, capable of using a different means to different ends, and yes sometimes the same ends.

  • Ronan Doyle | October 3, 2013 7:55 AM

    And your "response" falls apart if you think that's at all the argument I'm making. Sure, a movie ages alongside a viewer (Roger Ebert's Great Movies piece on La Dolce Vita being a terrific example of how), but its character don't (at least not in the same real time manner). TV gives us an exciting opportunity to live with characters day by day and measure our evolution as people alongside their own. I'm not saying that cinema is now inferior to television, not in the slightest. It's just different, capable of using a different means to different ends, and yes sometimes the same ends.

  • Jorge | October 2, 2013 2:46 PMReply

    wow..that article seemed longer than the 5 years of Breaking Bad, and said NOTHING. What a bore!

  • Ronan Doyle | October 2, 2013 6:05 PM

    Sorry you feel that way, but oh how sweet of you to stick it through to the end of all that nothingness nonetheless.

  • Michael Pattison | October 2, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    For years I was frustrated by descriptions of a certain type of film as "poetic", as if it was an inherently positive value, or as if film as a medium should aspire to a different (and by implication higher) form. The flip-side was that "prosaic", itself a neutral term, became a kind of pejorative. Now, cinema's the aspired-to medium; music has "cinematic" qualities, a television show has "cinematic" qualities.

    If "cinematic music" is a tonal thing, "cinematic television" seems to be about our fixation with storytelling -- and with narrative time. There's this assumption that longer is better, that having more space is innately appealing. But I think it also brings its own limitations: television has drifted into its own format-dependent storytelling patterns. When a main character gets offed in a season finale, they'll be "replaced" by someone else in the next season; and the fandom goes so deep nowadays that people watching the show can know if an actor's likely to be contracted beyond thirteen episodes. Got a film in the works? Their character'll be offed before the season ends. Similarly, after "The Sopranos" especially (and "Boardwalk Empire" now), characters are more and more predictable precisely because we have more "space" (time) in which to see their arcs unfold. If someone goes AWOL for several consecutive episodes and then suddenly returns, they're probably heading towards doom. In television, "breathing room" often becomes padding and recurrent characters become fodder.

    Films are more flexible now than they ever have been with regard to running time. But the idea of having to stretch (or indeed squeeze) a show into thirteen hours because of programming and broadcasting schedules has to me obvious drawbacks. At any rate, I think this fixation with "character motivation" and with the fate of "people we have grown to love" is rooted to "The Godfather" movies... maybe.

  • Ronan Doyle | October 2, 2013 6:14 PM

    Very good point about "poetic"; seems we just can't manage to consider an art form on its own terms. You're not wrong about long-form limitations, I think a lot of TV very aptly shows the pitfalls of being beholden to commercial breaks and needing to retain audience attention throughout those, and week-by-week of course. But then film isn't entirely different in that regard, aren't they making Marty shorten The Wolf of Wall Street? I certainly don't see the storytelling possibilities of TV as innately superior to cinema's, mind, just hoping we can recognise and retain its individuality. Gives us the chance to say something different, or differently at the very least.