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All Movie Talk

Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Cinema on the Small Screen

No, this is not a post about releasing DVDs on the same day as a movie comes out in the theaters. Rather it's about the recent trend of television shows becoming more and more cinematic. I know this is a little bit of a break from the normal stuff at All Movie Talk, but it's a topic with which I am absolutely fascinated.

Sometime in the 1980s, TV dramas started to really mimic the look of the movies. Action series like Miami Vice ripped off the action flicks of the day (no coincidence that A-list film director Michael Mann created the show) while more serious fare like Hill Street Blues brought the subjects and style of serious dramatic films to television. For the first time you started seeing a lot of dramas that had storylines longer that 45 minutes but weren't soap operas.

In the 1990s, a lot of shows really jumped into cinema as they switched to widescreen formats (sometimes for purely aesthetic reasons and sometimes in anticipation of the move to high definition). The cable networks, especially HBO, came into their own in terms of producing original content, and they used their freedom from over-the-air censorship to make shows about content the broadcast networks never could.

In 1999, HBO first aired The Sopranos, a show heavily influenced by classic films like The Godfather and Goodfellas (both of these movies are explicitly referenced regularly in the show). The show was violent, gritty, and darkly comic. Just as importantly, it completely eschewed the episodic format found in most shows, with pretty much every plotline running through multiple episodes or even multiple seasons. The Sopranos really builds an epic feeling and world in much the same way those classic mob movies do. And it does it without being a real ensemble show -- something like E.R. had lengthy plotlines and a cinematic look before Sopranos, but every season of The Sopranos has a story centered around a protagonist, with a focused central conflict that most ensembles do not.

Since then, HBO has exploited this formula with its dramas and the networks have followed suit. Shows like The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, and countless others have garnered acclaim and viewers following the basic mold pioneered by The Sopranos. Because of its popularity (especially for a premium cable show) and its immense critical success, I think Sopranos is the real start of this recent movement of cinematic shows. I think the basic formula consists of three items:

  1. A commitment to long-form storytelling. All of these shows tell stories that cannot fit in single episodes. Many of them weave in short "B" stories to make episodes a little more self-contained, but often the season becomes the central unit of storytelling rather than the episode.
  2. A willingness to explore material we've not seen on television before. Cop shows are nothing new, but The Wire or The Shield are hardly Starsky and Hutch or Dragnet. They're about looking at traditional television subject matter in totally new ways.
  3. They adopt the styles of movies. Even sitcoms have gotten into the act, with shows like Arrested Development or The Office have killing the laugh-track and moving away from the traditional three-camera sitcom look in favor of a more cinematic vibe.

As somebody who just loves serial storytelling this is the best thing ever. There's nothing better for me than just being able to really get inside of a world and live with the characters and themes. It's also nice that we're seeing shows that actually have something to say and are more than just disposable entertainment. As much as I liked Cheers, I don't think there's a whole lot to take away from watching it.

My favorite show (of all time) is The Wire, which would never work as a movie, because it has too much to say. Over the course of its four seasons, it has explored almost every aspect of the drug war in West Baltimore, from tbe ways cops and dealers interact to the way incompetence and ignorance on the parts of elected officials allow it to continue unabated. And it does all of this while still spinning a compelling story that's never dry or preachy. It's a masterwork that cannot fit into two or even three hours, but just a few short years ago it would never have found a home on television. Now it can, and certainly we all benefit from this sort of variety in our entertainment.

I also really enjoy being able to see the cinematic techniques that make me love film so much be applied to these other stories. There's something thrilling and pleasing about well made films, and now we get even more of it. I think television is very likely to become even more of a breeding ground for young filmmakers, and the lower budgets and expectations of the cable networks will probably allow us to see some very interesting cinematic experiments in the near future.

It's funny the way these things work. Films were considered mainly a novelty for their first few decades, and I think TV has just taken a little while longer to grow up.

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