THE STATE OF CINEMATIC TELEVISION
By Stephen McCabe
"Amazing direction happened on TV all the time before cable but almost nobody recognized it as such because we were told that art was an anomalous in television as wildflower in a toxic waste dump"
- Matt Zoller Seltz
Television as a medium, produces much that could be in direct opposition to ‘having qualities characteristic of motion pictures’. The visual language of television staples like soap operas would not be considered cinematic at all, the same can be said for some of the output of television at the moment. As we progress through the so-called ‘Golden Age of Television’, there has been a shift towards television as a more cinematic medium. With the continued rise of content streaming services such as Netflix or Video On Demand, the lines between cinematic television and cinema itself are becoming considerably blurred.
The question I am posing is whether a television show being ‘cinematic’ in its style is integral to its success. Much of the presence of cinematic visuals in television has been placed on certain authorship that can be found in show. As Matt Zoller Seltz noted in his New York Magazine article 'How to Direct a TV Drama', this authorship is not only designated to directors, unlike in film where the concept of the ‘auteur’ proposed by Cahiers Du Cinéma has maintained a popular concept where the director is the key authorial voice of a film. The authorial voice of a television show is often attributed to the writer, creator (or showrunner as they have become known) and director are often put in the position to follow already an already in place visual tone and style and in order to adhere to the consistency and continuity that audiences have come to recognise as a significant trope of television dramas.
If there are fewer distinctions between television and film, what is to be made of shows which take a less cinematic approach? Shows such as HBO’s The Wire or AMC’s Mad Men are two of the most celebrated television shows of all time but often both shows don’t look cinematic. The Wire, as a great depiction of the hierarchies of American society, took to a more plot driven cinéma vérité style of visuals that fit perfectly with the story being told. This still has not stopped critics hailing it as the finest television show ever made. As for Mad Men, it differs greatly from The Wire’s documentary-like approach but often resembles something like an Edward Hopper painting in motion or as Seltz notes ‘A Classic A-picture’. Due to this, when a show like Mad Men uses a technique that would be considered more cinematic, it is often praised more so for it. An example being the musical number that brought the mid-season finale of Mad Men to a close. A song and dance number by a recently deceased character brought a necessary stylistic flourish that not only added to the plot but opened up a treasure trove of possible meanings to be picked apart by audiences in its song choice.
It could be argued that much of the cinematic visuals that are coming to television are down to the directing talent that are getting involved with television. Directors like Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), Rian Johnson (Breaking Bad), Michael Mann (Luck) and David Fincher (House of Cards) have brought their distinctive authorial voices to their respected shows, with Scorsese, Mann and Fincher each laying the visual foundations for the series to move forward with.
For Fincher, with developing and directing the pilot of House of Cards, he helped establish the visual tone for the series and for those familiar with his work with notice the muted colour palette, stylish but subtle camera work that has been synonymous with his work ever since Se7en. With House of Cards, Fincher has established overtly cinematic visual tones that have continued throughout its two season run. If one were to look at the shows that have brought about this “Golden Age of Television” moniker, some of these shows would be more minimal in their direction and less stylistic, allowing for the story to take precedence. After all, television as a long-form medium caters more towards plot-driven shows than director driven ones.
With House of Cards being the first television show not to air on television but rather as a Netflix exclusive where every episode is available at once, this has changed how television is consumed. This approach, in turn, is impacting how it is being crafted.Upon their respective releases, many viewers (including myself) simply binge-watched both seasons of House of Cards in one weekend.
In order to assess the state of the cinematic television show, I believe it best to examine what would be considered the most critically acclaimed television shows of the past year. With such a wide variety of critically adored television airing at the moment, it would impossible to assess the cinematic value of each but to take a selection of shows from a variety of sources, not simply cable or premium networks and assess their cinematic value would create a more accurate, albeit still incredibly broad, answer for whether or not the cinematic quality of a television show attributes to its success as art.
For shows like FX’s Louie and HBO’s Girls, each are driven by their respected stars and creators, Louis CK and Lena Dunham. Cinematically, they fit within that of American independent American film. Though both differ greatly in content, with Louie’s influences seemingly to be that of Woody Allen with the occasional dick joke and the distinct visuals of an American independent film that can be traced back to Cassavetes. Both it and Girls can be seen to be quite messy in their plotting, tone and continuity but regardless of this chaos, both shows are considered to be part of this crop of important television shows of this “Golden Age”, Girls critical praise and the many words written about it seem to come more from its significant representation of the female but this has not stopped the show from having several near-perfect episodes. These two demonstrate that the need for huge budgets to give authorial voice to television is not necessary.
It would seem that television has begun to showcase its true potential with not only the shows mentioned here but with many others too. Television’s evolving landscape has opened some exciting doors to tell stories and make art in a way that cinema couldn’t allow. This increase in varied cinematic styles found is proving that television time in the toxic waste dump is over.
My first article is up on DigitalFaun, give it a read. Very excited to have some of my work up here.