There’s a curious mutation spreading around the entertainment industry, altering form and tampering with time. TV series, it seems, keep turning into movies. They’re probably not patient zero, but the showrunners of Game of Thrones are undoubtedly super-spreaders for this current wave, having ignited controversy by describing their show as “a 73-hour movie” back in 2017. Soon, the TV landscape was swarming with series rebranded as films of varying yet uniformly hefty length. The idiom was repurposed frequently enough to reach “bane of all existence” status for TV critics, and to inspire a Shouts and Murmurs piece in the New Yorker. Now, to quote a show that ignited a powder keg of debate about the difference between cinema and television not so long ago, “It is happening again.”
Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, co-creators of the upcoming Addams Family reboot Wednesday for Netflix, uttered the magic words in an interview with Vanity Fair earlier this week, stating that “the ambition of the show was to make it an eight-hour Tim Burton movie.” (Burton is on board as executive producer and director for four of the eight episodes.) They’ve dusted off the old soundbite during a period of increased critique for it, with The Boys head honcho Eric Kripke having recently thrown down the gauntlet on the matter. Of TV directors who claim to have conceived their series as a manner of movie, he said: “Fuck you! No you’re not! Make a TV show. You’re in the entertainment business.” In Olivier Assayas’ new miniseries reimagining his 1996 showbiz satire Irma Vep, the director of the show within the show invokes the “eight-hour movie” adage in an interview as if to poke fun at the phrase’s inescapability. Speaking with me at Cannes earlier this year, he confirmed that he doesn’t share the mindset, and that this line shares the soupçon of caricature accenting the rest of the series.
To understand the cause for all the fuss originating from a seemingly matter-of-fact figure of speech requires an awareness of the connotations and biases tacitly coded in the TV-to-movie pivot. When the makers of TV like their work to a movie, they’re inviting a host of associations set by the praise for 00s classics like The Sopranos or The Wire that emphasized their “cinematic” qualities: ambition of scale, long-game storytelling, technical sophistication with the camera. When writers made this comparison, it scanned as insight; coming from the mouths of directors, it sounds more like image control, a broader assurance that the series in question is accomplished enough to stand comparison to the big boys of the silver screen. It’s a method of preemptively classing up the joint, and of distancing TV from a perceived dinkiness seen as inseparable from the character of the medium.
And so one starts to see the condescension in this line of thinking that alienates anybody invested in respect and appreciation for TV. Even if the “X-hour movie” line hadn’t been used as an excuse for plodding episode-by-episode plotting with flagrant disregard for the subtle art of pacing, it would still be fundamentally inaccurate. Using one entire season to tell an overarching story broken up into segments isn’t fitting cinema into the mold of TV, but the very definition of TV itself. Those writers subscribing to that flawed philosophy haven’t rejected serialization, just resolved to be bad at it. Every great TV show has found a way to tell stories contained within the space of an episode that nevertheless coalesce into a larger narrative structure. Streaming allows us to eliminate the time between installations, and too many have taken that as implicit permission to abandon the building blocks of the art.
The quasi-meme of the “X-hour movie” betrays a confused idea about dignity and creative validity, as inferiority-complexed directors imagine they’ll be taken more seriously if they cast their lot with the cinema. (Note that the franchise managers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe hesitate to bill their product as being like a TV show, even as they force serial storytelling and drain the polished grandeur from cinema.) This amounts to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, in that TV will never gain in stature until those making it wear their format with pride. Everyone would do well to embrace the qualities unique to their chosen field as advantages to be worked with, not limitations to be overcome. Until they do, there’s a simple way to expose the absurdity of TV wrapping itself in film’s clothing: next time you hear someone puff up a show’s air of prestige in this way, instead picture the most embarrassing, amateurish, contemptible movie you’ve ever seen. (I like to go with The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.) Let its example be a lesson – that words have meanings, that form cannot be synonymous with quality, and that there are far worse things to be than TV.