HBO’s phenomenal miniseries Chernobyl has recently come to a close. A five-part television drama that has garnered universal acclaim from critics and viewers alike, the show rigorously reconstructed the events that caused the 1986 nuclear reactor explosion and the dramatic and costly clean-up operation. It is, simply, essential viewing. It’s 9.7 score on imdb (at time of writing) marks it as the highest rated TV show of all time (granted, shows tend to spike early and then shuffle down a few points over time).
Still, one wonders whether the miniseries will creep onto a few end-of-year critics’ lists of 2019’s best films.
Why would it, you may ask? It’s a series, as opposed to a film. But the lines are more porous than ever, and there is precedence, not to mention criteria, which places the series in contention. And it’s not the only one.
Two years ago, Showtime aired Twin Peaks: The Return over the summer. 18 episodes in total, the show marked the return of American auteur David Lynch to the cult series co-created with Mark Frost. Though viewing figures were relatively low, it was a huge critical success. The first 2 parts premiered at Cannes (like a film) to a standing ovation. A personal triumph for Lynch after Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was infamously booed.
At the end of the year, revered periodical Sight & Sound named Twin Peaks: The Return the second best film of the year in its annual critics poll. Evidently there was enough of a consensus that the show was valid for qualification.
For one thing, Lynch referred to the project as an 18-hour film, and it played out that way. Episodes were quite deliberately paced. What’s more – and a rarity for American episodic television – Lynch directed every episode. He co-wrote the mammoth script with Frost. The result had the feel of a consistent artistic vision. An auteur’s piece imprinted with a sense of real authorship.
This placed it in the conversation.
But Twin Peaks: The Return is far from the first limited American series to adopt such behaviour, and its success (at least critically) seems to have spurred a new evolution in television that may well prove even more influential than the show’s seismic initial run in 1989/1990.
With streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime setting their prestige shows side-by-side with their home-grown feature films, the expectation for like-for-like quality has grown considerably. Ever since the likes of The Sopranos and The West Wing around the turn of the millennium, a new class of television show has become common in which established movie stars play major roles and we’ve seen a steady increase in production values. Now its common to find respected directors either guesting on TV shows or helming an entire season or series.
HBO is particularly good at presenting these. Take Big Little Lies, for example. The first season of 7 episodes were all directed by Jean-Marc Vallée of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild fame, while the new season (another 7 episodes) are all tackled by Andrea Arnold, director of well-received indie gems like Fish Tank and American Honey.
Netflix is also deep in the game. Last year, populist horror director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil) gave a sense of completeness to the streaming giant’s The Haunting Of Hill House and as recently as this week we’ve received a sterling 4-part drama series from Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) based on the notorious miscarriage of justice surrounding the Central Park Five. That show, When They See Us, is as hard-hitting as Chernobyl, and as likely to appear on end of year lists of the best films of 2019.
What we’re seeing, then, is an inclination to treat prestige TV shows as films if they present a singular artistic vision over an acceptably brief run; a new set of criteria perceived by the audience. Because x directed all of y, its like a film, but longer. So what if it has periodical opening and closing credits? Should you wish to, you can binge all of When They See Us or Chernobyl in around five hours a piece. Hell, if you have the stamina you could marathon Twin Peaks: The Return in an 18 hour stint (I’ve thought about it). But if we run with it, things become increasingly difficult to delineate.
What about shows with multiple directors that still maintain a consistent aesthetic? There are plenty of those. Any show worth its salt, really. When a show runner / exec producer has a particular ‘vision’, and with said aesthetic defined from the start, it is the job of for-hire TV directors to maintain it, and they’re very, very good at it. We see this all of the time. Shows like Breaking Bad or even Bojack Horseman that carry a continuing narrative with a maintained tone and consistent visual dynamics. If film length is arbitrary, and if features can have multiple directors (which happens frequently) then very quickly the lines that separate TV and film disappear.
I’m still inclined to treat something that is packaged episodically as television and something that is presented in one complete block as film. Much as I personally loved Twin Peaks: The Return, it didn’t appear on my Best Of 2017 list, and it didn’t feature in my recently corralled 100 Great Films Of The Decade countdown. But it could’ve. I entertained the idea. Just as I’m entertaining the idea that Chernobyl or When They See Us could feature in my end of year countdown for 2019.
Ultimately, the urge for inclusion comes from wanting to speak about and celebrate the things achieved by these shows. When something goes above and beyond the usual and ventures into the extraordinary we want to show our appreciation. It’s heartening, really.
In spite of headline grabbing outliers from Marvel (and what is the MCU if not a big screen TV series?), cinemas are struggling to fill seats because of the convenience of home viewing. The quality of TV is rivalling the quality of features, and all for the price of the monthly subscription fee that you were going to pay anyway. For casual viewers, why leave the house for your entertainment?
Because its better that way. I still value the experience of the cinema. Nothing beats it. And if film can inhabit our living rooms (as it has been able to for decades)… why can’t TV invade our cinemas?
When you visit a Vue cinema they have a piece before the movie promoting themselves. “This Is Not A Cinema”. It’s there raising awareness of other speciality screenings that take place. Theatre productions. Opera etc, etc. In among these boasts are season finales with a still from Sherlock to illustrate.
Such programming rarely actually happens. But it could. I remember my local Picturehouse celebrating the start of season 5 of Game Of Thrones with a live screening of the first episode as it became available at 2am. It was a one-off. But maybe our cinemas are missing a trick here?
If ticket prices were set lower to compensate for the shorter running time of the presentation, why not find time in the programming schedule for an ‘event’ TV show? It would give those without subscriptions to Sky or Netflix somewhere to go to get their fix. As already mentioned, production values are now at a point where TV would stand scrutiny on a cinema screen. For, say, £5 a week, I’d have happily ventured out to experience Chernobyl in the cinema five weeks in a row…
Could this be a way for cinemas to draw new customers? It’s a thought. If the things we watch at home are changing, maybe the things we watch at the cinema can change too?