Insanity Later

September 30, 2005

As I've been reading reviews of Serenity (previously discussed here), one criticism that comes up repeatedly-- particularly in reviews on niche film sites, rather than in the major media-- is that Serenity looks or feels like television and not a major event film.

In fact, there seems to be a condescension among film reviewers (particularly those writing for niche film sites and magazines rather than the mainstream media) towards the television medium. This reflects the business reality of Hollywood, where movie budgets dwarf those of their small screen brethren. Shooting a major motion picture in the neighborhood brings in about 300% more crew and equipment than a Law and Order shoot. In the Hollywood pecking order, movies stand ahead of television. This is probably obvious to anyone working in the industry, but as a mere audience member, it's something I'm just figuring out.

But while film is a director's medium, television is a writer's medium.

In film, the director runs the show. The screenwriter delivers the script, but is often treated like the second-class citizen. The director is the go-to guy. In television, the executive producer/show runner controls the writing process. T In television, the directors come in for an episode at a time, while the executive producer/show runner oversees every episode and overall story arcs. (Individual directors and writers get to leave their marks on an episode, but the exec producers and show runners are the center of the television universe.) Writers like Joss Whedon, David Chase, Mitchell Hurwitz, or the team behind Lost are the driving creative forces behind their shows.

So, is film is about look while television is about substance? Not entirely-- it's just that film has a greater potential for developing the visual aspects while television has a greater potential to develop more intricate stories. So, while television may represent a smaller business than film, it is a medium that allows and rewards telling much more ambitious stories.

A television season offers much more scope to develop plots and characters than a 2 hour film. In her review for the NY Times, Manohla Dargis misses much of the quirkiness of Firefly: Scruffy Space Cowboys Fighting Their Failings: "'Serenity' works nicely as a movie, although in blowing his television series up to the big screen, Mr. Whedon has lost some of the woolliness that made "Firefly" such a pleasant oddity."

Seth Stevenson in Slate thinks that the film medium is too limiting and Joss Whedon should stick to television

Perhaps Whedon figures he now has the clout to control a movie set. But I think his skills—imagining every nook and cranny of an intricate fictional universe; conjuring an ensemble of nuanced characters with complex, long-running relationships—are actually far better suited to television. When he's got a TV show humming, Joss Whedon, bless his pasty, dough-faced soul, is the most gifted serial storyteller alive.

Stephanie Zacharek in Salon misses the pacing of serialized episodic television: Serenity

My problem, I think, is that "Serenity" dredges up some of the same feelings I have when a movie adaptation of a book I love just doesn't measure up. I'm so used to "reading" Whedon in the long form -- so used to riding the rhythms of his television series, rhythms he sustains beautifully week after week, season after season -- that "Serenity," as carefully worked out as it is, feels a bit too compact, truncated. That's less a failing on Whedon's part than a recognition of the way TV, done right, can re-create for us the luxury of sinking into a good, long novel.

While Firefly featured 9 main characters, Serenity is bogged down by having to keep all 9 occupied while only really featuring Mal and River. Television manages to develop plots and characters that can not be done in 2 hours on screen. Episodic television is more ambitious, at least in terms of story, than a film. Arrested Development also has 9 core characters, and it's only a half-hour show. In 92 years on television, The Simpsons have had to feature more and more secondary and tertiary characters just to avoid recycling plots; yet, somehow, we're still waiting to learn more about Disco Stu's backstory.

Lost is even more ambitious in exploring at least 12 main characters (and that's after killing off one last season.) Lost manages to combine the look of film with the broad narrative scope of television. Shot on location in Hawaii, Lost looks more cinematic (read: expensive) than almost anything else on television.

Well, almost anything except the The Sopranos. Like Lost, The Sopranos combine the cinematic approach to presentation with the television approach towards plot and characters. And we only have to wait another year for the next season.

These shows are actually better adapted to long-form DVD than serialized television. Firefly only hit its stride in DVD sales. Viewers were able to see the episodes in order (and not only on Friday nights.) But it also allows viewers to skip to the next chapter in the story. Lost is actually paced better watching 2 or 3 episodes at a time rather than an episode per week. Arrested Development needs repeat viewings to catch all of the jokes and asides.

Or, maybe I've been watching too much TV lately.

Previously: Serenity Now

Posted by Andrew Raff at September 30, 2005 04:04 PM
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