Cinematic Television

I have already written extensively on a couple of miniseries this year that have blurred the line between cinema and television (Red Riding Trilogy, Carlos). Many directors are turning to this format as a way to expand the possibilities of cinema, and as a result, we are experiencing what may in the future be referred to as the definitive golden age of TV. HBO has raised the bar on series like The Wire and The Sopranos, and AMC is right on their heels with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Some of these shows are just damn good television, but in a few instances there is little to distinguish between the big and small screens. Here are a few of those instances.

Boardwalk Empire-HBO
This is the Golden Globe-winning series helmed by the two most important gangster writers of the past 30 years. Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino) and Terrence Winter (The Sopranos) have joined forces to make a slick, sexy, historical series set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. This is easily a contender for best new television series, as it fuses the respective cinematic and TV sensibilities of its creators to give us a show with impermeable characters, storyline in spades, and a mad creative frenzy to tie it all together.

The Walking Dead-AMC
If Boardwalk Empire has any competition, it is this new show, from Gale Ann Hurd (Aliens, Terminator 2) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist). Based off of the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, we follow a motley band of survivors of the zombie plague as they seek to survive not only the threat of the undead, but of each other. Zombies are in vogue right now, but this series doesn’t pander to that, choosing to back up its visceral effects with fully developed characters and real emotion. In its six episode first season, it blew everything else out of the water.

John Adams
This 7-episode miniseries swept the Emmys and the Golden Globes for good reason: it is probably one of the best things HBO has ever done. It tells the story of John Adams, naturally, but beginning with the Boston Massacre (where he represented the British in court) and ending with his demise. It is based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography by David McCullough, and like its source, finds a way to tell the story of the founding of America with such passion and zeal that it never feels like a history lecture. There is drama here, and it is not lost on its audience, perhaps due to the masterful direction by none other than Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech).

Mildred Pierce-HBO
This forthcoming miniseries on HBO would have made my list of anticipated films for the year, except for the fact that it will never be shown in a movie theatre. It is to be directed by Todd Haynes, who never fails to impress (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), and who should bring quite the Sirkian eye to James M. Cain’s novel. It was previously adapted for the screen with Joan Crawford, but this time around it will be starring Kate Winslet, who has experience playing a tormented wife in suburbia. I expect this will sweep the awards next year, and with good reason.

But these directors aren’t the first to experiment with the long format that television allows. Here are two more examples from the 80’s, before HBO was even established, when big name directors sought to make films too big for the big screen, that ended up being shown mostly on television.

Fanny and Alexander
This 5 hour epic from Swedish master Ingmar Bergman was originally released as a four-part miniseries, although a cut was made for a theatrical release that pared it down quite a bit. It tells the story of the titular siblings, who, following their father’s death, move in with their mother’s new lover, and have to adjust to the different surroundings. Their new step father is unrelenting and strict, and forces them to live in this oppressive setting until other family members come to help them out. In Bergman style, this has large sections of bleakness, with allegories for artistic and personal imprisonment, but it is also perhaps his most hopeful work, as it was intended to be his last.

Berlin Alexanderplatz
This is perhaps the longest great film ever made, running at just over 15 hours long. I have seen it, in its entirety, and its genius is quite simply unparalleled. A man has just been released from prison and is forced to find some way to make it, now that the years he would have spent preparing for work have been lost. After many failed attempts, he takes a job offered to him by the Nazi party, knowing only that it will put bread on his table. The miniseries follows all of his experiences, and by extension, the experiences of German citizens through the growth of the Third Reich, and offers us a unique viewpoint into what Hannah Arendt had called, in 1963, the “banality of evil.” It is directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who along with Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog formed the German New Wave, and who directed 43 films (including this behemoth) by the time he died at the age of 37.

Do you have any favorites, any shows that I’ve missed? Leave them in the comments below.

-Ben Creech

2 responses to “Cinematic Television

  1. I’d throw Lost into this mix. It was filmed on 35mm, which made the Blu-Rays look amazing, and the Hawaii locations are large in scope, giving the show a very cinematic feel. Not to mention the sheer scope of the storytelling and you get a show that feels like a movie every single week, plus all of the finales felt like feature length films in their own right.

  2. Some of the early TV mini-series should probably also be considered in the canon of cinematic TV:
    – Rich Man Poor Man
    – Roots
    – The Thorn Birds

    Roots is probably only one that makes regular TV appearances now. But the others held large audiences in their grasp for repeated nights in their original airing.

    Twin Peaks, while not a mini-series, also had a cinematic feel, due to Lynch’s techniques, and a story-telling style that was uncommon for television viewers.

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