Sometimes, pairs of things that seem comparable are not. The Harlem Globetrotters didn’t seem so astounding the year that the ’92 Dream Team was showcasing true basketball excellence. You wouldn’t bother going to Q’doba if there was a Chipotle on the same block. And, in a situation of emergency need, you’ll never see a cop confiscate a bicycle.
Similarly, the comparison between television and cinema has never been one that required much debate. While TV has certainly had its examples of narrative achievement (The Sopranos, The Wire), loyalty (The Simpsons), and massive audience (M*A*S*H), its model has never given to the achievement of high art in storytelling. For decades, the cable and network vehicle has been one fueled by advertising. In so being, the episodic stories are not the focal product; it’s the products advertised in the breaks that are the central product: trucks, sodas, beers, clothes, etc. In the HBO model, the endgame is to acquire and sustain as many subscribers as possible. Perpetuity is a poor map for narrative arc, rising/falling action, conflict/resolution. In these two formats, the storyteller is contracted out to to the purpose of moving the merchandise and subscription; his or her goal becomes one of ensuring week-to-week viewership, of lining up as many eyes as possible for product temptation. Narrative principle, literary purity, and artistic daring are not rewarded in this set-up (for evidence, just check out the spiraling descent of the second season of Twin Peaks, or consider that Carnivale was thrown into the abyss after just two seasons). So, the shortsighted and peripheral ambition of television past hasn’t exactly created an atmosphere that is welcoming to driven, skilled, ambitious, and brave talents. Until recently, there has always been a lesser stigma attached to actors of the small screen. On the other side of the camera, the most capable directors have always preferred the big screen and their crews have aligned similarly. That’s why TV’s highest dramatic achievements (at least until the current decade) pale in comparison to the most standard film work. The images and audio of television traditionally do not contribute to the storytelling purpose the way we find in even the most average film. That is to say that the visual accomplishment of the best episode of The Sopranos is less impressively conceived than, let’s say, Tremors. When you pit the same aesthetic artistry against an even stronger film example (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes to mind), the comparative conclusion is one that almost warrants sympathy.
However, modern technology is reshaping the television landscape. Mass produced media (series and seasons on blu-ray and DVD) and seemingly limitless streaming options (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, as well as Network-specific services) have started to tailor out the influence of outside party advertising. The continuing reformation of a new model has resulted in a measurable tightness in the concision of television storytelling that has attracted top quality talent into the effort. The whole story matters again, and those driven, skilled, ambitious, and brave talents have taken notice.
The crossover of film talent was prominently evident in the final seasons of Breaking Bad, a TV-favorite of film fanatics and, in a note of personal opinion, my easy selection for greatest television show of all time. With over 50,000 votes on IMDb, the episode of Breaking Bad entitled Ozymandias holds a deserved perfect 10 rating. This episode was directed by Rian Johnson, a young director who had already acquired critical celebration and fan praise for his creative work in film, seen as both an innovator of story and technique. As a whole, Breaking Bad was cutting edge in its narrative blueprint, from the beginning planned as a five act play, each season being its own act, chronicling a rise to power of Shakespearean proportions. Bryan Cranston’s out-of-nowhere leading effort created not just one but two searing and powerful performances: Walter, the everyman hero beaten by fate, and, Heisenberg his power hungry and perhaps evil alter ego. There are moments of editing mastery in every season of Breaking Bad, subtle hints presented as overlapping dialogue, perfect frames that serve as entire snapshots of the show, and edited sequences of brilliance so transcendent, it begins to feel like, well, a drug (another opinionated sidenote: Dead Freight is the best standalone episode of television I’ve ever witnessed).
Right as Breaking Bad came to its conclusion, a quiet television miniseries made its way onto my list of top 10 films from that year. Academy Award winning writer and director Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake aired first on BBC 2 in New Zealand and Australian TV, and then later in America on the Sundance Channel. The six-episode series is an emotional and muted but powerful storyline, capturing a female detective investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12 year old girl in a small isolated New Zealand town. With unnerving and atmospheric cinematography, Top of the Lake takes a familiar story format and uses it to explore gender power structures, deep-rooted small town psychology, and universal existential concerns. This is all weighted by a performance from Elizabeth Moss that would have been worth re-evaluating the Oscar rules. The end product is a long mesmerizing movie, and the single best movie of 2013 that no one seemed to watch.
Campion’s chosen structure, however, is one that seems to be taking off in the major networks of American television. In 2014, some of the most popular television shows are structured so that single seasons tell one story, in a vacuum with a definitive plotline moving to conclusion. The format has been adopted by hit shows like Fargo, American Horror Story, and True Detective. You should have known we were going to discuss True Detective.
In a year in which the announcement of a new Batman nearly broke the internet, perhaps the most appealing and intriguing casting story of the year has proven to be the speculation of which A-list talent will be brought in for the second season of True Detective, HBO’s southern noir smash hit. Rumors have circulated (and in some cases, been discredited) that the second season might include the likes of Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, or Christian Bale, three of the top talents and biggest names in the current film moment (Third note of opinion: give me Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell, please). And it’s no surprise. In the same year that resurgent superstar Matthew McConnaughey picked up his first Oscar for his performance in the AIDS-drama Dallas Buyers Club, his more intelligently-conceived and stirring performance was offered on the small screen as nihilistic murder detective Rust Cohle.
The separative substance of True Detective extended far beyond its stars’ performances. The initial four episodes held a richness of noir detective writing long forgotten, offered by novelist Nic Pizzolatto. Speculative hives buzzed all over the internet with elaborate and brilliant fan theories, dissecting scenes, enhancing details within scenes, and investigating literary influences. True Detective director Cary Fukunaga and his photographer Adam Arkapaw put together darkly atmospheric and surreal camera work rivaling that of the younger (and better) David Fincher and his cinematographer Harry Savides. For three episodes, the show worked best in nightmarish stillness and slow pondering, and then episode four unleashed a milestone moment in television, providing a six minute Alfonso Cuarón-like uncut tracking shot which had more energy and innovation than would have been thought impossible of a dramatic program just five years before.
This sort of acting talent and technical execution has marked a new era in television, and I believe it might become more of a television normality if TV audiences can reprogram their minds to receive these extended storylines as long movies. Consider three of the greatest works in film history. Shoah is a ten hour documentary revisiting the horrors of the holocaust (and the measure of human compassion and evil) more usefully than any other film. Scenes from a Marriage premiered as a TV event in Sweden, but has since been thought of as a single work and one of Ingmar Bergman’s most celebrated and personal pieces. And The Human Condition, considered by some critics to be the single greatest achievement of film, has been collected by Criterion into an individual work. Television studios might not even realize it, but they are currently toying with a structure where greatness in film has historically thrived.
So, is TV catching up with film? For those who have had the debate, or commented on its unevenness, the competition between television and film might be pulling closer now than it has ever been. The last year and a half of television has offered a moment of familiar pause. Sports fans might recognize it as the same feeling experienced when we saw young Allen Iverson cross Michael Jordan onto his bottom, or when we realized that Buster Douglas had put Mike Tyson on the defensive. The competition is catching up. And if the reigning champion meets the challenge (it has), audiences everywhere will be the ones who benefit.