Medium, Message, and Effect
by David Ottlinger
There is a moment in Marvel’s recent Doctor Strange that stood out to me in the theater and has stayed with me ever since. The titular doctor has by now suffered an accident which has left his hands seriously debilitated, abruptly ending his career as a hot-shot surgeon. Now he is desperately chasing leads, trying to find any hope. When he hears of a man who made a miraculous recovery from a spinal injury, he tracks the man down to the basketball court. That’s when my moment happens.
The court is bright in the early afternoon sun, but the day is overcast and the light is harsh. The chain-link enclosure is tall and deep. Doctor Strange and the miracle patient have a private conversation, but the camera sometimes sits well back, letting us see the expanse of the court, up to the corners. As the two talk, a game continues in the background. Beyond the enclosure of the court is the surrounding city. Nearby high-rises loom above in the pale light. The city continues out of sight.
And that’s all. The whole scene consists of a simple conversation. The miracle patient gives Doctor Strange a name, sending him to a faraway temple where he will discover a plot. The conversation between the two could have happened in an office or anywhere else, except that we would not see but have to be told of the miracle—the man who shouldn’t be walking, playing ball. Certainly this scene seemed modest enough compared to the special-effects extravaganzas of later parts of the film, in which city streets rotate and fold up and eventually surround the viewer. But this modest scene felt special, and I slowly came to realize why. It was because I had seen so few like it.
In a word, the scene was composed. In some sense, of course, all scenes are composed, even in films that are indifferently shot. But this was different. This was a 3-D scene that was shot for 3-D. By this I do not mean that it was shot in 3-D, as most effect-driven blockbusters are, but that it was shot for 3-D. This is what makes it remarkable. It was composed and arranged with an awareness of the unique sense of space and depth that 3-D can convey. While critics rightly praised the film for the use of 3-D in its action set-pieces, the more banal scenes distinguish it more. Doctor Strange was a film which was alert to the possibilities and pit-falls of 3-D for the entire time it was on the screen. In almost fifteen years of the technology’s use, I have seen three or four films like it.
Among film fans 3-D is now very passé. It’s quite popular to take pot-shots at it. My favorite Youtubers noted that 3-D film spread though America about as quickly as the dreaded Ebola (and with about as much fanfare beforehand). (1) But to my mind 3-D is not so much a failed technology as a criminally underutilized one. It is constantly in use but rarely is it explored. Much of its potential remains untapped.
In the beginning, it all seemed so hopeful. I can remember seeing Coraline in 2009, a relatively early 3-D feature, made when the technology still seemed novel. The film had its narrative problems but the use of 3-D was memorable throughout. Coraline was a young girl slipping more and more into escapism. In her waking existence she was ignored by her parents, who had their own problems, but in her dreams she visited an alternate version of her home which resembled a dollhouse. In it, doll-versions of her mother and father lavished her with attention and catered to her whims. As time passed, Coraline lived more and more in her dream and began to neglect her real life and real relationships, preferring to play in her consequence-free dream-land. Until, of course, it all goes wrong. At the climactic moment, the doll-like avatars of her mother and father demand Coraline sew buttons onto her eyes and become one of them forever.
This was all a bit overwrought and sententious for me. Neil Gaiman is an odd sort of person who apparently worries about children having too much imagination. But along the way, the effects were genuinely mesmerizing. In her dreams, Coraline takes in shows that the dream characters put on for her as part of their slavish devotion. These shows take place in a small circus tent, a Victorian music-hall, complete with foot-lights, and other fairly modest spaces. Given the 3-D photography, we can experience these little shows in an intimate, softly lit performance space, just as Coraline does. We even have the same sense of having a front-row seat. One such performance involves a trapeze act, during which the acrobats recite “What a piece of work is a man…” from Hamlet. Seeing them actually swoop back and forth overhead, literally over our heads as the audience in the movie theater, lent a real dynamism that would not have been possible with conventional photography.
Even better was the brilliant opening-credit sequence. While dreamlike music plays, a mysterious pair of hands made only of sewing needles receives a doll that floats in through the window from the night outside. The hands set about to work, removing the doll’s stuffing and its features and slowly replacing them until it finally resembles Coraline, the film’s heroine. Our eyes naturally focus closely on this fine, delicate work. At one point the hands remove the doll’s button eyes. As it sews on new ones, there is a moment when the needle protrudes through the button and directly at the eyes of the audience.
The brief moment is perhaps the best thematic use of 3-D in a film I have yet seen. It is a sudden and arresting thing. What was charming and seemingly innocent, the sewing of a doll, has suddenly become dangerous. We were lulled into feeling ourselves as mere spectators but suddenly we realize that what we are watching has the power to harm us. Dreams, Gaiman and the filmmakers want to say, are like that. If we allow them too much power over us, they can betray us. And of course this image gracefully prefigures Coraline’s situation at the critical moment of the film, when she is asked to sew over her own eyes. Coraline has mistaken her dream parents for dolls, things she can control and play God with. But they have taken on lives and powers of their own and threaten to control her real life in ways that would harm her.
Again, this is all a bit much. But what is noteworthy for our present purposes is that a 3-D effect contributes uniquely to both the symbolic significance of the image, and its emotional impact on the audience. Only a 3-D film could threaten its audience with a needle to the eyes, and this film made the most of it. Objections that similar effects could be made in 2-D miss the point entirely. Ben-Hur could have been made without CinemaScope. Ran could have been made in black and white. The Conversation could have been made as a silent film. At least they could all be made, in the sense that the same story could be told. But what makes these films so interesting, in part, is the way they exploited the technical possibilities of the medium. Ben-Hur would not be quite the same Ben-Hur in 4:3. Ran would have a very different resonance, if it lacked the vibrant and violently contrasting colors that distinguish it, and The Conversation would be an entirely different film without its elaborate sound bridges and disconcerting assaults of static. Even realizing that the original Ben-Hur was very successful and memorably epic in 4:3 or that Throne of Blood, in black and white, produced effects similar to those produced by Ran seems not to matter. No analysis or critical defense of Ben-Hur could be without reference to the great canvass provided by CinemaScope, and the same holds for Ran and its use of color. Coraline is not nearly as distinguished as those films – few films are – but it succeeds in a parallel way, by exploring the unique possibilities of the medium.
So I left the theater in 2009 feeling hopeful. I would not have guessed that I would not see a film to exploit the possibilities of 3-D in a similar way for another eight years. This is quite a considerable failure. The main culprit, I suspect, is the nature of blockbuster films. The economics are clear. Some people prefer 3-D, some people prefer 2-D, and the major studios want to sell to both of them. So, it became the established practice to release major films in both 3-D and standard, as it began to be called. I can remember asking myself, early on, Which is the real film? The director could not, of course, be simultaneously composing for both 3-D and 2-D. He or she would have to be thinking of one or the other.
But to my horror, I slowly realized the answer was “neither.” When big budget action extravaganzas came out, I usually watched them in 3-D. But what I realized was that only the action sequences were really meant to be seen in 3-D. In those sequences shots were composed with an eye for depth of frame and the effects that 3-D can produce. All the rest of the scenes take place in dull, uninteresting spaces. None of them have the distinctive sense of dimension and proportion that distinguished the basket-ball court in Doctor Strange. They’re just spaces where the action happens to be taking place, and they make much better visual sense when viewed in 2-D. Likewise, on those occasions when I saw these films in 2-D, usually at the behest of friends who insisted, I had pretty much the same experience in reverse. I can remember, for example, watching The Avengers in 2-D, when the camera swoops suddenly to look up a long vertical passageway. In 2-D the effect is so strange as to be puzzling. But then I realized—that was “the 3-D shot.” It was so different that it stood out as kind of island of 3-D composition, against a general sea of 2-D composition. Accordingly, I could see the film in 2-D and view the action sequences in the wrong presentation or view the film in 3-D and view the majority of the film in the wrong presentation.
With Doctor Strange, the 3-D film is the real film. But most 3-D films are stuck in the homogenizing trap of being presented in two different presentations, with distinct aesthetic demands, and it is worth considering for a moment why this trap is so pernicious. The philosopher, Ted Cohen, was very fond of a certain essay about the emergence of film as an art form, and he often assigned it to his students. (For a brief but happy time, I was one of those students.) Alas, after a lengthy search, I cannot locate the essay so I will have to quote it from memory. With the emergence of film as a technology, the author argued, certain effects and qualities became accessible to the film-maker which were as inaccessible to the theater director as fog was to the sculptor. For Cohen and for the author of the essay, success in film seemed bound up with success in these previously inaccessible effects. Indeed, and for whatever reason, success in any medium seems to be bound up in success in what is unique to that medium.
I have no idea why this should be so but it seems to me to be true. One encounters examples all the time. As is widely recognized, there is no way to properly appreciate Shakespeare, without appreciating what makes his art essentially dramatic. No character in Shakespeare speaks for Shakespeare. If they did, they would stand apart from and outside the drama. Rather each character, each speech, each line is set in opposition to some other character, some other speech, and some other line. Shakespeare is the great poet of antithesis, and that fact is deeply connected to his choice of medium. Likewise, performance-side criticism has gone a long way to establish the importance of the fact that while the plays can be read, their ambiguities and possible meanings are deeply bound up with the fact that they are performance pieces. Elsewhere, it is often noted that Kafka’s Metamorphosis could only be a short story, or at least only a prose piece, because of Kafka’s guarded, elliptical and intriguingly vague descriptions of the transformed Gregor. Any visual representation would have to disambiguate those descriptions. Eliot’s poetry deals profoundly with the inherent unnaturalness of poetic language. Examples abound. Somehow it seems that it is usually the case, perhaps even always the case, that great dramas are greatly dramatic, great poems greatly poetic, and so on for each medium.
Of course we must immediately steel ourselves against falling into dogmatism. While the importance of the uniqueness of media seems to me an insight, it must be admitted that many films have been mindlessly abused as “un-cinematic.” This is what makes most of what is written about Shakespeare adaptations so meaningless. Usually adaptations suffer, because theater directors insist on shibboleths about a medium, film, which they do not love and so cannot fully understand. (These include the mother of all non-statements—“film is a visual medium”—which somehow gets repeated endlessly by people who should know better.) And because film is still slightly insecure in its status as fine art, film makers accept these shibboleths as truth. So it is accepted that characters could not patiently deliver long speeches or soliloquies more or less to the camera because to do so would be “un-cinematic.” Forgotten is the fact that such speeches are essential to The Last Motion Picture Show, Under Capricorn and The Silence of the Lambs, which, as far as I can tell, are as cinematic as any other films. It’s likely that many theater directors have not seen them and filmmakers don’t doubt their theater-director superiors long enough to think of them. Neither group seems to notice that cinema is as much a verbal medium as theater, and theater is as much a visual medium as film.
But mistakes of this kind do not undermine the fundamental insight. Mostly they hinge on mistakes regarding what is and is not unique to a given medium. It means, at most, that the insight has to be applied carefully. To return to the case of film, it seems to me that this insight does a great deal to explain why films being presented in two presentations is a major stumbling block. As it is, 3-D films are not greatly 3-D and 2-D films are not greatly 2-D. Directors are asked the impossible, to compose for media which cannot coexist.
It also strikes me that other homogenizing forces are being exerted by other technologies and these too pose some challenges for art as it is being created today. In particular, the uniqueness of film and of television have been eroded to a remarkable extent in recent decades, as can be seen clearly by comparing film and television from past generations and film and television now. Consider a television show such as All In The Family in light of contemporary film. Film – or at least the best film – was dominated at the time by dark, tense, atmospheric works, by auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Terrance Malik, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick (in exile), Sydney Lumet and Roman Polansky. These films often featured, dense, shadowy, even claustrophobic mise-en-scenes and frequent use of tight close-up (think of Al Pacino in the Godfather part II or Faye Dunaway in Chinatown). Even the best comedies of the era, made by Woody Allen, featured the same dense visual style, partly because he borrowed Gordon “The Prince of Darkness” Willis from Coppola to do his cinematography. And even Allen’s stories became darker and chillier as the decade wore on.
Now consider All In The Family. The set that was the heart of the show was Archie and Edith’s living room. The appointments were fairly spare and the set was unapologetically theatrical, with its obvious missing fourth wall. With the kitchen on the left, the staircase in the back and the front door on the right, the scene was set for multiple entrances and exits and all kinds of crisscrossing stage traffic. It was normal for multiple characters to be onstage at once and for the camera to take them all in at once, in wide shots, giving the audience a view of the characters and their environment much like that of a member of a theater audience facing a stage.
Now, this is all quite understandable when we think of 1970’s televisions. Screens then were much smaller and offered lower resolution. Colors were bleary and somewhat indistinct. It was quite understandable that the visual aspect of television would decidedly take a back seat. Close-ups would seem fairly awkward, and it would be natural to have wide shots encompassing several characters. It might be too much to say that it was more important in any given shot to see who was speaking than to see them speaking, but probably not by much. What was important was what was being said.
This also makes good sense of why such shows tended to be wall-to-wall talk. It was very difficult for such shows to communicate visually, so they had to rely on what they had, and what they had was the spoken word. This made them very different from films of the same era. Not only did films tend to have a much more complicated visual aspect, as we have already seen, but films of the era also tended to indulge more contemplative silences. In many great films of the era, what was not being said was as important as what was. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spaceck, for example, were brilliantly incommunicative in Badlands. Close-ups seethed with restlessness and unease that neither character could put into words. The boldest experiment occurred in 2001: A Space Odyssey which, while technically arriving in the late sixties, belongs stylistically to the seventies. In it, Keir Dullea attempts to underplay a monotone red dot, representing the computer intelligence, Hal 9000. This experimentation was undertaken to huge effect on the big screen but television could simply not afford it. Television had to strike out in a very different, far more theatrical direction.
In our own era, nearly all of this has changed. Televisions have become many times larger and the resolution is incomparably better. Even in my own time – I was born in the late eighties – the difference in quality was striking. I can remember watching a small, black and white vacuum tube television when I was a young child. Now I would be hard pressed to find anything with a screen that small and finding anything with less than four times the resolution would be impossible. That incredible pace of change must necessarily have an impact on what is written for the medium. Today, viewing a television program is far more like viewing a film. The screen is large enough and the aspect ratio is wide enough, that the screen can project much more than the eye can focus on at once. Likewise, the resolution allows for textures and kinds of mise-en-scenes which were once only possible on film.
What remains striking to me, however, is how long the theatrical template remained standard. When I was young, it was still firmly in place. Seinfeld, no less than All In The Family, had a center of gravity in a single room. Seinfeld may have roamed more, but Jerry’s living room was always home-base. In many ways it was remarkably similar to the living room in All In The Family. It had the street window on the left (characters not infrequently shouted through it to the street level), Jerry’s bathroom and bedroom were in the back and both the hall entrance and the kitchen were on the right. The camera migrated but naturally settled behind Jerry’s television, where it could survey the couch, much of the room, the bathroom beyond and the inner part of the kitchen. The street window remained a quick pan to the left, the kitchen a quick pan to the right. Once again, these were used to support all kinds of blocking and stage crossings. Once again, the camera frequently left room for several characters arranged around the stage. And once again, there was the unacknowledged and invisible fourth wall.
Going through this detail may seem excessive. After all this format is not unfamiliar to viewers of, say, The Big Bang Theory. But there is reason to dwell on it. First it is noteworthy just how strong the parallels are. Two of the best and most popular shows of their era, twenty years apart, really do seem to me to share a common visual grammar. Secondly, though it is always possible that memory is selective, up until about Seinfeld’s time, this style is pretty much universal. It can be seen in virtually all of the sit-coms from the period and also typifies the dramas. Lastly, it is worth considering just how far the current paradigm has shifted. While this same Seinfeld-style format is still in use, as with The Big Bang Theory, the results are usually remarkably un-compelling. No one would take these shows, which all feel like hold-overs, as representing “what’s going on” on television. For that we have to go elsewhere.
The big shift seems to me to have come from HBO. I cannot say the new style originated there, but it does seem that it was there that it made its mark, and a great deal of the current paradigm can be traced back to that channel. An early example was Sex and the City. That series seemed determined not to have a single home like Archie’s or Jerry’s living room. Its setting was to be the titular city itself. Accordingly, while the series frequently brought the four main characters together to eat, it did so in a variety of different restaurants, bars and clubs, such that there was always a feeling of novelty and exploration. There were a few settings which became familiar, notably Carrie’s apartment, but they did not provide a center of gravity in quite the same way. Perhaps even more importantly, the show was constructed in such a way that cinematography was always an integral part. It would never be satisfied with a simple shot and reverse shot. It experimented constantly with a wider, more cinematic vocabulary, including dramatic angles, close-ups and swish pans (O the swish pans!). In one scene, after Carrie reads a certain post-it note and sweeps a vase of flowers off her table, we get a genuine match-on-action shot. These kinds of touches were deliberately ambitious, deliberately different and deliberately cinematic.
This was continued in The Sopranos, which debuted a year later and which had a seismic influence on television. Starting with the second season in particular, The Sopranos began experimenting with a visual style that was strongly reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ in The Godfather series. Characters were often isolated from the background to appear in large, dark frames. Such technique was often used when characters were wrestling with moral ambiguities. The frames gave an appropriate sense of being unmoored, without a frame of reference. Some years later, Mad Men, begun as it was by a Sopranos producer, continued with the same visual style. Again, characters were left to phrase their moral questions in dark, echo-y spaces.
The solidification of this new paradigm can be seen in the television career of comedian Louis CK. A child of the seventies and a deep admirer of the old school television of Norman Lear and Jackie Gleason, CK was encouraged by the British series The Office, which brought grit, realism and the realities of middle-class life back to situational comedy. He attempted to further the revival with a series titled Lucky Louie, which ran, tellingly, on HBO. Lucky Louie very nearly attempted to do the same thing Sex and the City had done, only in reverse. Airing alongside The Sopranos and The Wire, Lucky Louie tried to distinguish itself by its theatricality. Its sets were not merely theatrical but deliberately – one is tempted to say defiantly – abstract, fashioned not to be convincing but so as to appear as sets. It was filmed before a live audience, with multiple cameras. CK reportedly even had long conversations with Norman Lear before designing the show. (2)
This counter-revolution is noteworthy for its failure. Lucky Louie ran for one season and was to my knowledge imitated nowhere. According to CK, the show had a steady audience and while some critics savaged it, it had a generous write up in the New York Times, yet its failure seemed inevitable. (3) In terms of the sensibility it required, it was miles away from any contemporary series. It attempted to turn back the clock, when audiences were just adjusting to the new way of doing things. It was too much to ask. When CK did break through, it was with Louie, a single camera show that is so cinematic in its style that it has invited comparisons to films of the French New Wave. This trajectory underlines how much had changed in television. By the time Louie aired, a new paradigm had been established. The old, more theatrical television was out and a new, more cinematic way of doing things was here to stay.
The trouble is that all this emulation seems to me to have more or less run its course and even perhaps become a bit dangerous. I began noticing signs of trouble around the time Breaking Bad ruled the roost in terms of fashionable television. I maintain that Breaking Bad was an overrated series, which is hardly the unkindest thing that can be said about a series that was praised like the second coming of Christ, but which nonetheless surprises people, when I say it. Breaking Bad was as visually ambitious as The Sopranos and Mad Men, but to my mind, less successful. Part of the problem was that while The Sopranos and Mad Men had been imitating film dramas, Breaking Bad tried to imitate action movies. The opening sequence of the series is instructive, and no doubt it was deliberately designed to introduce the audience to its approach. The wide open spaces of Arizona with a pair of pants billowing on the breeze, the dramatic car crash and Walter White pointing a gun down the open road were all tailor made for the big screen. The problem is that it wasn’t on the big screen, and while bigger and better televisions made filming things like this possible for television, it didn’t necessarily make it wise. Viewed on a sufficiently large television, Breaking Bad’s Dutch-angle shots and dramatic close-ups had sufficient effect but perhaps only sufficient. There are simply limits to what a television screen can do. The impact of, say, Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood’s stare-down in The Good The Bad and The Ugly, cannot be replicated on the small screen. That requires a screen large enough to overwhelm the audience. Likewise, many of Breaking Bad’s iconic moments, including the oft quoted “You’re Goddamn right,” would seem to me much more at home in the theater. Watching it, I often found myself trying to blow it up in my imagination in order to get the full effect.
None of this was fatal, of course. There was much to enjoy in Breaking Bad, and it was not always in the business of supplying big moments and action sequences. Often it was at its best working on a more intimate scale, as in the unforgettable “Fly.” But it was significant that the series strained against the limits of the medium. In this respect, it was a prelude of things to come. Now, with any number of series, I find myself trying to mentally enlarge the image. As much as I loved Stranger Things, for example, it serves as a fine case in point. The series attempted visual quotations from E.T. and other Spielberg films, which are deeply wedded to the big screen and its possibilities. The sequences are atmospheric and compelling enough on their own terms, but they feel “off” in exactly the way that ordinary scenes of dialogue seem “off,” when watching a blockbuster in 3-D. In a very real way, they are not composed for the medium they are in.
It seems clear to me that this inattentiveness to what the medium is capable and incapable of is now widespread. To see this, we need only compare what is in theaters with what is on television. In theaters, we are treated to an endless parade of comic book movies which are being scoured for ready-made tales of grand-scale action and adventure which are then blown up for the big screen. Leading this is the wildly successful Marvel cinematic universe. By telling intertwined stories of adventure with multiple heroes which culminate in the vast, epic Avengers films, it could be said that these films are presenting the largest tableau in the history of the medium. It out DeMilles DeMille. Not to be outdone, Disney is providing a series of loosely related films to explore the recently acquired Star Wars franchise, while Warner Brothers is doing something similar within the universe of DC comics. Some of these films are more drab and solemn, in the vein of Christopher Nolan, while others are bright and imaginative, but they all share the common elements of action, adventure and technically ambitious special effects. Many blockbuster films are adapted from comic books, others from similar source materials, and even original films such as Avatar and Inception have a pulpy, action-adventure aesthetic.
On the small, but not-as-small-as-it-used-to-be, screen, it is immediately noteworthy that perhaps the most popular show, The Walking Dead (4), is likewise an adaptation of a comic book and generally offers the same mix of action and danger as mainstream films, though in what could be considered a concession to the medium, it relies less on computer generated effects than on make-up and stunts. Another contender for the top of the pile is Game of Thrones, with which I am less familiar, but which everyone assures me offers plenty of questing and sword-fighting and sieging, which not so long ago was the stuff of the big screen in the endless adaptations of the works of Tolkien. (In fact, given the use of computer graphics and creature effects, the show could be considered even closer to its big-screen peers.) And moving down the list, we see much of the same. Beyond the familiar dinosaur formats (legal dramas, cop-dramas, contest shows) we are treated to an array of bottom-of-the barrel comic book adaptations such as the inexplicable Batman without Batman (Fox’s Gotham) and such third stringers as Green Arrow and Supergirl.
The boldest statement of the continuity between the two media is of course the extension of both the DC and Marvel universes into television. (This means, essentially, that the stories played out in film and on television exist in the same universe and will occasionally acknowledge each other. Particularly important in the Marvel universe are the events of the first Avengers film, including a massive battle in downtown New York, frequently referred to by characters on the television series as “the inciden.t”) It would be easy to write that this extension has abolished the distinction between the media but this would be recognized as false by those familiar with the shows in question and would be unfair to their producers. Again my exposure is somewhat limited (I am better acquainted with the Marvel side) but I have noted that these series tend to put stunts and practical effects where their large-screen contemporaries put computer effects. This is particularly effective in the make-up and gore effects of The Walking Dead and the elaborately choreographed hand-to-hand combat of Daredevil. These kinds of approaches are better suited to the smaller canvass of television. They draw the eye in, inviting with detail and subtlety while the standard laser-light show of big-screen film seeks to stun and overwhelm. But this is not yet to say that these television series are free from the same kind of strain against the nature of the medium I argued was recognizable in Breaking Bad. It is only evident in other places. To my eye it is actually most evident in the quieter, action-free moments but moments which nonetheless try to create striking visuals. It can be seen in the way Daredevil or Wilson Fisk looms over us in a pose suggesting power and imposing strength. It can be seen in the tight close-ups of the series’ attractive stars that should, by rights, tower over us like Bogart and Bacall. Above all it can be seen in the series’ inexhaustible fascination with New York, with the scale and endless texture of it. Many establishing shots and backgrounds seem to long for a larger canvass than television can provide.
To say it once more, none of this need be fatal. Many of the series I have discussed have great strengths and even more unique qualities that I have not discussed. But taken altogether the points I have contributing to a certain staleness to television at the current moment. There has been too much emulation and too little thought given to its dangers.
It may seem, given the way I am arguing, that I believe the lights are going out all over film and television and I admit that that is true to a greater extent than I would wish. But there are also more hopeful signs. I’ll end by discussing these, which hopefully will have the effect of lifting the spirits of any who happened to have theirs dampened by the analysis up to this point, but also in order to suggest ways that television may find its way out of its current malaise. Network presidents and powerful executives may ignore it at their peril.
As is often the case, the best way to go forward starts with a good look back. In this case I think it is important to reflect on what television has already learned and it seems to me that in the era of The Sopranos and Mad Men, television discovered certain things about itself which it is now in the process of forgetting. Perhaps the most important of these concerns pacing. These series found they could inhabit the patient shuffle of everyday life, unfurling over hours and hours, as perhaps no film ever could. Viewers of The Sopranos became familiar with the sight of a bath-robed Tony Soprano bellying up to the island in his kitchen, eating cereal and chatting about small, domestic matters with his wife and family. Toward the end, some scenes even played out without dialogue. This was why I was always implacably opposed to the idea of a Sopranos film. Many things about The Sopranos were adaptable. The cinematography could have been adjusted for the big screen without threatening what was essential to the show. But The Sopranos could never be reduced to a theatrical run-time and still be The Sopranos. Without the time for Tony to wander down to the curb to grab his paper or for Carmela to chat-up her latest fantasy object over coffee or Anthony Junior to waste the afternoon away with video-games or Facebook, The Sopranos could not be the same kind of animal it had been on television. The medium would not allow it.
Mad Men went perhaps even farther. The audience took in not only important account and board meetings but all the minutiae of daily business such as hours stolen for naps, placing office decorations, stray words over coffee and what cookies to put out for what client. As Virginia Wolf once said of Tolstoy, everything stuck to its magnet. But now this kind of careful detail and patient tempo is being lost in the mad head-long rush to more action and plot. I don’t know of any series today that has the same feeling of experiencing characters in their everyday lives.
The Mad Men and Sopranos way of doing things seems to be dying out. It remains to be seen if it is recoverable or, more likely, in what form it is recoverable. But a new way of doing things may be taking shape and to understand this new way of doing things, we must appreciate the nature of streaming services like Netflix and how they differ from what we have hitherto known as television. Ted Cohen was fond of saying that the first film reviewers reviewed films as if they had just seen a bad play, and the first television reviewers reviewed television as if they had just seen a bad film. His point was to call attention to the way that television was subtly different from film and film subtly different from theater. In the same way streaming shows seem to me to be subtly different from what we have heretofore known as television.
As a way into the differences between streaming shows and traditional shows, consider the phenomenon of “binge-watching”. The term describes the practice of watching multiple episodes of a series at a single stretch. Fascinatingly, the name itself also reflects a certain value judgment. To binge, obviously, is to consume to excess or immoderately. And many people have disparaged the practice as reflecting a lack of discipline or patience on the part of contemporary audiences. These kids today, they seem to chide, can’t be bothered to wait until next week or even the next night to get resolution on the last episode’s cliff hanger ending. They have to greedily press “next episode” immediately. To old-fashioned eyes this can seem like culture gone wrong, an ability to savor and wait being broken down by the immediacy of modern technology.
As might be expected, I find this to be a mistake and a mistake along the lines of those made by early television and film critics, at least in Cohen’s analysis. They assume standards which are no longer relevant and fail to appreciate how subtle shifts in the medium transform the way audiences relate to the material. When the technology is such that an episode of a series appears once every week, the authors and creators of the series will naturally tend to produce installments with clear beginnings, middles and ends, installments that are instinctively self-standing and which naturally expect week long breathers between them. But when the creators know that all the videos will be available at once, a different set of instincts takes over. In shows created for streaming services, episodes do not so clearly stand alone, with well-marked beginnings, middles and ends. Rather they naturally blend into each other with each cliff-hanger ending naturally leading into the beginning of the next episode. This is to say that they positively invite “binge-watching,” except that the name is unfortunate. A viewer consuming several episodes of Daredevil at a stretch may be said to be “binging” on a show but may not be viewing it inappropriately or inattentively. They are merely conforming their viewing to the way the story is written.
Likewise, the visual aspect of the best of these series seems tailor designed for long viewing sessions. Series like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Iron Fist, The Crown and Stranger Things are thick with rich textures—smoky, neon bathed streets; snow covered mountains; pea-soup London fog; windy forests rattling with dead leaves. These stories present worlds which practically demand we crawl up inside them for hours at a time, and across the country, curled up in blankets with ear-buds in, people do.
This is a new kind of experience. It was made possible by televisions and computer screens of sufficiently high resolution and size to convey all this beguiling detail. And audiences seem to be responding with enthusiasm to this something-new-under-the-sun. The best streaming shows have penetrated high onto the lists of the most popular programming. In this way audiences may be ahead of critics, who have for the most part, in my observation, treated new streaming shows as merely more of the same. Going forward we should emphasize and treasure the uniqueness of this burgeoning medium. It may represent television’s best chance at regaining its old distinctiveness.
- CK discusses the making of his film on NPR:
Pamela Adlon reminisces about the series (warning, very NSFW):
Editor’s note: This article originally stated “Not to be outdone, Disney is providing a series of loosely related films to explore the recently acquired Star Wars franchise, while Sony is doing something similar within the universe of DC comics.
“Sony” was changed to “Warner Brothers.”