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Adams' Analysis - Television is Television, Not Film

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Sight and Sound, the monthly magazine published by the British Film Institute (BFI), made a curious decision this week. The January 2018 edition, which published Tuesday, featured its top 25 films of the year, as voted by 188 international critics and curators. Ranked at number two? Twin Peaks: The Return.

The David Lynch drama, two seasons of which originally aired on ABC between 1990 and 1991, came back earlier this year with an 18-episode season on Showtime, to much critical acclaim. Its encore, by all accounts, was just as surreal and puzzling and slow as the original. But Sight and Sound’s ranking raises an interesting point about not only the categorisation of Twin Peaks but of television at large in 2017, an era in which creators often describe their show as a six/ten/insert number here-hour movie.

With such creators, it is often hard not to wonder if they haven’t simply failed to realise what year they are currently in. No longer does television play second fiddle to the big screen: budgets are bigger, concepts are more extreme, options are plethoric. Performers who have an established career in film are looking for short stints in television - Oscar winner Nicole Kidman was on Big Little Lies this year, for example.

The idea that television is still the weaker medium is outdated and short-sighted; sure, amidst the 500 scripted shows - not to mention unscripted - there is more than plenty tame nonsense, but the ratio of lauded to non-lauded programming is probably pretty similar to that of films over the course of a year. The stigma that once surrounded television is no longer there, at least in a lot of the industry.

Why, then, do creatives insist on defining their show in this way? One explanation could be the length. Although a season of drama takes far, far more time than any silver-screen flick ever could, it allows for infinitely more expansion of stories and characters - the heart of any material. Importantly, to the viewer, the idea of sitting through two hours-plus at a cinema can take some persuading; a 45-minute pilot in your living room? Sold. And, just like that, several hours of your life prepare to go idly by. It is in this that the genius lies.

TV as film is a truly baffling concept, not least because its implication is that of all-in-one consumption. Binge-watching has only grown with the advent of streaming services, so much so that Netflix now has its own metric to record such obsessive watching. And that isn’t to say it’s a bad thing: plenty of shows benefit from watching a handful of episodes back-to-back, and there’s a certain pleasure of powering through several hours of something very good in the space of an evening. But there’s value, too, in taking time to pause, to reflect, to build up the anticipation for whatever comes next to make it even sweeter.

Film is inherently different. Uproxx critic Alan Sepinwall remarked on Twitter this week about how "Lawrence of Arabia" doesn’t become a family sitcom if you watch it in ten, 22-minute instalments. Beneath the facetious nature of that view, it’s a valid point. The way in which something is watched does little to change its classification. Of course, just because a show might be made with an eye to binge-watching, that doesn’t make it anything other than a television show. Similarly, you could say that episode x of show y is memorable; would you pick out half an hour of a film and laud it in the same regard?

The best shows recognise the value of episodes. Would you tell Vince Gilligan that “Ozymandias” is problematic because it is geared toward its individuality; complain to David Chase that “College” is too much a departure from New Jersey; criticise Damon Lindelof for explaining time travel in “The Constant”? It would be pure insanity to do so. In a similar vein, the existence of these three don’t make Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or LOST bad shows.

Part of the problem is a discrepancy between what the creators say and what they actually put out onto the screen. Earlier this year, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said that they view Game of Thrones as a “73-hour movie”. That is fundamentally insane. At no stage could you say that, narratively, Thrones is a film of that length. It simply isn’t the case, not least because it has a number of characters who have lasted more than a season.

Characterisation works on the basis of taking a character from one place in their lives to another, with them having developed in some way by the time they get there. Films can often have an issue of undercooking this concept, the running time too truncated to adequately explore the material on offer. Television often presents the opposite problem, but it shows exactly why the creators’ belief is nonsensical. Characters go through so many different arcs over the course of an eight-season show (not to mention visible changes, like appearance, which ultimately don’t make a whole lot of different but do remind the viewer how much time passes) that it is impossible for them to fulfil that film role of changing from point A to point B. That happens within the first season, usually. Season two sees them move to point C, season three to point D, and so on. Expanding them in as shallow ways as film so often does would be cause for heavy criticism that such characters are being wasted entirely. So many of those hitherto actors trading Paramount for FX point to that expanded development as explanation for their temporary switch.

The same applies to general narrative arcs. It’s perhaps worth attempting to condense shows into a two-hour feature film, in their entirety, to truly note how ridiculous it is. Let’s return to Breaking Bad: in two hours, Walter White has to get from cancer-diagnosed chemistry teacher to Heisenberg, dealing with Tuco, Gus Fring, Uncle Jack along the way, all while Jesse goes from drug addict and amateur cook to major criminal with a bout of depression in between; that’s not to mention all of the other threads and nuances.

Why mention Breaking Bad, when Gilligan never referred to the show in that way? Because earlier this year, someone condensed all 62 episodes into 127 minutes, and uploaded it for the world to see. (It has since been removed on a copyright infringement claim.)

Is this a symptom of the chatter? Potentially. Regardless, it is a reminder of why television is such a powerful medium, and why the notion of making films through television is a bad one.

My colleague Louis Rabinowitz informs me the following (*) regarding Twin Peaks: The Return: “Twin Peaks may legitimately work as an incredibly long singular story. It still has some semblance of episodic [structure]… [but] it was written as one long script, done by a movie director and chopped up pretty arbitrarily into TV-sized chunks after the fact.”

(*) Full disclosure: I’ve seen only the first two episodes of The Return, having realised that watching the original run - something I am yet to do - is a necessity. But even from those two hours, it was clear that Lynch was making a half-speed marathon.

Lynch can probably get away with this, given his history of filmmaking. But it is far from a model on which to base the structure of a television show. The beauty of this format is that it gives scope to produce standalone content, to make perfect use of actors and characters and plots in a way that might not be a blunt journey from A to B, but indulge in that journey.

Perhaps, ultimately, there is little more to the debate than simply creators looking to gain more buzz around their project by referring to it like a film, without ever demonstrating it as truth on the screen. Provided that remains constant, television will remain at its peak.

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