As TV Quality Rivals Film, Showrunners Must Stop Being Embarrassed By the Small Screen

Calling shows like "Game of Thrones" a long movie or cinematic is reductive to a craft that is no longer in second place.
Clive Owen The Knick

The “Game of Thrones” creators sparked debate last month at a SXSW panel with the comment that they viewed their hit HBO show as a “73-hour movie.” It’s a common conceit for showrunners to believe that calling what they do “cinematic” is a mark of quality. And there are plenty of cinephiles and prominent movie critics, like the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who haven’t been shy about what they believe are the limits of television as a medium.

However, “cinematic” is sloppy — for television and for movies. It’s become a hat tip to pretty lighting, majestic backdrops, and lavish sets, stylized camera movement and composition, or a sense of scale — epic battles, explosive visual effects, sweeping tales – that “deserve the big screen.”

David Fincher can probably make something cinematic shooting a short in our conference room with a $500 camera on a tripod. That is to say: The way a director stages a scene, creating a specific window for how an audience experiences images, is innate to the art form — as much as the way in which Van Gogh painted a vase of flowers.

Calling great TV cinematic is something of a backhanded compliment; it tells us cinema is the higher art form, much as “novelistic” has been used to justify greatness of pulp, graphic novels and erotica. Not that TV can’t be or shouldn’t be cinematic, but the more interesting conversation is how movies have adapted the language of TV. As art forms go, moving pictures are still very new; drawing definitive lines between movies and TV — especially in a time of technological revolution — is a naive game that soon will make all participants look silly.

David Fincher Directing "House of Cards" pilot
David Fincher directing “House of Cards” pilotMelinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

“Cinematic” also suggests that the evolving language of television is something lesser, rather than just different. Personally, I don’t need David Simon to make a great movie to prove his brilliance as an artist. That said, if “cinematic television” continues to be in our lexicon, here are four examples when television actually adapted movies’ visual story language.

Sam Esmail’s Paranoia

The prescience of Sam Esmail’s world of hacking and citizen revolt against corporations in “Mr. Robot” is uncannily and consistently 12 months ahead of our unfolding real-world nightmare. As a writer, he concocts conspiracies firmly grounded in a well-researched understanding of modern cyber piracy, while clocking the democratic revolutionary fervor that seems to be bubbling beneath our entire global community. It’s scary stuff.

Yet the underlying paranoia of “Mr. Robot” is largely visual. Placing the viewer in Elliot’s (Rami Malek) delusional subjective world, we are never firmly grounded. The eschewed framing and intentionally jarring cutting patterns undermine a continuum of time and space that deny us comfort. For Esmail, who has been very open about his struggles with social anxiety, there’s an element of personal filmmaking that transcends his text and becomes a uniquely cinematic experience.

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z" Episode 212 -- Pictured: Jeremy Holm as Mr. Sutherland -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/USA Network)
“Mr. Robot”Michael Parmelee/USA Network

What is Unspoken in “Mad Men”

In most good dialogue writing characters don’t say what they are feeling. The audience is able to clearly understand the motivations behind the words based on the dramatic situation and performance of the actors.

In “Mad MenMatthew Weiner wasn’t always looking for such a clear understanding, as he made the audience work a little harder to understand his opaque protagonist Donald Draper (Jon Hamm). Not only was his dialogue about what was not said, he created scenarios where the interior of character is externalized in extremely subtle ways characters react, act and move to situations. Character is revealed in decisions or choices that don’t always immediately or dramatically alter the surface drama.

The roots of this type of storytelling were planted in David Chase’s “Sopranos” (for which Weiner wrote), an early attempt to bring an arthouse story approach to TV. With “Mad Men,” Weiner took this to the next level with a more controlled and concise story world that skipped symbolism and demanded the audience engage with the screen in a way previously reserved for a pitch-black room at a great arthouse theater.

Soderbergh’s “The Knick”

There’s a very good reason TV is a writer’s medium. While most directors struggle to use the language of cinema to create a coherent 90-minute story experience, stringing together multiple one-hour story arcs demands that the principal storyteller be the writer(s). As TV becomes increasingly visual, it’ll be fascinating to see how the showrunner’s role continues to evolve and how they collaborate with directors. For fantastic creative partnerships that push this boundary, look no further than “The Knick.”

Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

“The Knick” was a straight-up Steven Soderbergh movie. Whereas many film-to-TV auteurs like Fincher (“House of Cards”) or Martin Scorsese (“Vinyl”) established a world and tone, their shows belonged to their creator/writer. In “True Detective” Season 1, where director Cary Fukunaga shot every episode, you could feel the dual-voice storytelling between him and writer Nic Pizzolatto at work. Yet with “The Knick,” creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s wonderful scripts are blueprints for Soderbergh’s camera and visual world, which very clearly are the principal storyteller. With new editions of “Top of the Lake” and “Twin Peaks” getting ready to premiere at Cannes, it’ll be interesting to see if Jane Campion and David Lynch can repeat their auteurship directing television.

“Game of Thrones” Battles

The biggest misuse of “cinematic” comes in describing kinetic, violent battle scenes. A cacophony of quick-cutting violence and special effects, with cutaways to exposition that ground us in “why this is important” is not being cinematic. In addition, the epic scale of a show like “Game of Thrones” does not make it a director’s medium.

Yet there’s prime examples where the shows’ creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have collaborated with great directors to capture the palace intrigue of men and women pivoting for the throne and incorporated it seamlessly into great battle scenes. With the “Battle of the Bastards,” the writers created a scene in which two unique personalities came to head in a climatic battle. Director Miguel Sapochnik didn’t cross-cut between story points and bloody violence; he used precise spatial presentation, movement, and physical action to organically fuse them into one. Camera, character, action and story were one. Steven Spielberg and Anthony Mann would tip their caps.

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