Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
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

'House of Cards' Netflix

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.

"Cinematic," of course, is a good thing; "televisual," meanwhile, is a dirty word

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.

'Arrested Development'

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?

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.