Part of the lure of the big screen is this grandiose feeling. We are treated to moments of triumph, introspection and humility. As an audience we’ve also come to realize to that these are not cheap endeavours, as we can see how big budgets afford things like extensive CGI, massive sets and ensemble casts of Hollywood legends.
In recent years there has been a transition out of the movie theater. Audiences now enjoy big budget serialized shows across a variety of platforms. AMC’s period excursion of 1960’s culture in “Mad Men” had plenty of people wanting to drink gin in well groomed business attire, and “Game of Thrones” consistently has made it clear to it’s viewers that no one is safe from being killed off.
Avenues such as Netflix and Amazon have made great strides in creating their own original content. “Stranger Things” captivated fans with great ensemble performances capitalizing on Spielbergian nostalgia, whereas Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” dares to imagine a world with the Axis powers victorious in World War II.
So where did these shows come from? When compared to programs like “Big Bang Theory” and “Family Guy”, which are longtime television standbys, there is little they have in common. These shows err more placing an emphasis on plot and stretching it out over several episodes. In a typical episode of, say “Family Guy”, the audience is treated to one concise story that is told, and completed, in a little over 20 minutes. The characters remain fairly one dimensional, and mainly retain the same traits episode to episode, and season to season. This is one way explaining Peter’s alcoholism and how Stewie hasn’t aged since 1999.
These shows come from a writing and production process that champion decisions that allow for a stronger narrative and greater stylistic choices. Professor Erlend Lavik, a teacher of media studies at the University of Bergen, Norway, published a video examining cinematic qualities found in “The Wire.” Hailed as one of the best crime dramas ever made, “The Wire” took full advantage of it’s place on HBO by showing expressive violence and drug use, but also choosing to depict police work in a realistic manner.
Lavik does admit that much of the appeal found in “The Wire” lies more in the dialogue and character interactions throughout the series, but does make some interesting technical decisions. Part of this is that “The Wire” perpetuates an idea of realism. With the exception of the pilot episode, there are no flashbacks or dream sequences found throughout the series. This is done to make the story feel it is moving chronologically, the same way we as an audience experience time.
The show also chooses to forgo any non-diegetic sound. A quick lesson in film theory: diegetic sound is sound that is found within the reality of the movie. So this counts for things as a car stereo playing music, or a someone playing guitar in a shot. Non-diegetic sound is things such as the soundtrack, which is noise that that may enhance a scene, but is not physically a part apparent in the reality of the film. As Lavik points out all of music found in “The Wire” is diegetic, and thus directly available to the characters on screen, maintaining the idea of realism. This is also aided in the camerawork of the show, as very few times in the series does the actual motion or focusing of the cameras draw attention to itself.
Just looking at budgeting itself, TV series have even begun to rival movies in terms of costs. A News.com article noted the cost of production for a single episode of “Big Bang Theory” currently sits around $9 million. Although much of those costs are attributed to the salaries of actors like Jim Parsons, there are episodes of “Game of Thrones” that have broken the $10 million mark. This pays for things such as shooting permits, actor and screen extra wages, camera crew, set designers and CGI. The budget for a show like “Sesame Street” on a 26 episode season, roughly $17 million.
One main difference between film and television is who has the creative power. Of course their are the network and film executives who maintain a position of influence over the finished product, but in TV the writer reigns supreme. This is because on many TV series, the directory changes every episode, whereas in Hollywood the director gets final say on creative decisions. It also allows for a more writer friendly market just in terms of careers, where if a show is picked up by a cable company or streaming service, the material can maintain a greater authenticity to it’s creator.
There are still things that TV can’t do though. It is still a dialogue driven platform. Meaning scenes that are five minutes long and almost devoid of conversation, like the space walk from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” just aren’t going to fly with a network executive.
Also just the size of the viewing platform affects some cinematic decisions. The smaller size of a laptop or TV doesn’t translate larger landscape shots as well as movie screen might, so many shows have to compromise in shot size in favor of the small screen. An exception to this is David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” which blended a variety of shot sizes effectively for a serialized murder drama on ABC.
So next time you’re binge watching “Breaking Bad,” think to yourself, “Does this really feel like TV, or a drawn out movie?”