I was browsing Reddit after the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve (or what I suppose would then be New Year’s Day). Netflix released a poster for season three of Stranger Things right at midnight eastern time. It was all over social media, including this particular thread. It was a good tie-in with the holiday, too; the poster features the characters watching fireworks and announces the season will be released on July 4th. Perfect.
The Reddit thread I was browsing included a comment about the length of time between seasons of shows getting too long. In fact, it will be close to two years of waiting between season two and three of Stranger Things. This keeps happening with cable and streaming series. Game of Thrones will air what is technically the second half of its final season two years after the first half. Big Little Lies will air season two a couple years after season one (though it was supposed to run only one season). And so on.
One user commented that this happens with these high-profile shows because they’re so good. It takes them a long time because one season of Stranger Things is like four mini-movies.
People say this a lot about TV shows they “actually” find to be of quality. Sometimes actual showrunners, writers, and actors say it about their own shows, too. I believe the showrunners behind Game of Thrones have likened their series to “six or seven mini-movies” per season (though I couldn’t find the exact quote in a quick search). I remember when Ian Somerhalder praised everyone making The Vampire Diaries because it was practically the task of making 11 movies.
To Somerhalder’s credit, he was speaking to the effort it takes to create so much content in nine months. And I agree with him.
To everyone else: No. Your TV show is not several mini-movies.
Please stop saying that. (Note: there are spoilers about Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Good Wife in this post.)
For one, there’s the sheer amount of effort involved, of course.
Actors who mainly do film love to talk about how exhausting it was to do a few episodes of television in such a short span. (Do not quote me on this, but broadcast shows typically film an episode in eight days. Some series have been known to cut to seven days to save money; it’s how Chuck secured a fourth and fifth season. Cable shows can film for much longer. There are the reports that one scene from Game of Thrones took two months to shoot. And Nicole Kidman was shocked at how they had several months to film seven episodes of Big Little Lies—which is way more time than normal, but she still found it to be short. Still, most cable shows stick to the same schedule.)
My favorite example of this is when Kirsten Dunst talked about how scared she was to film 10 episodes of Fargo, and Julianna Margulies—who filmed 22 episodes of The Good Wife a year for seven years straight—laughed right in her face.
Julianna Margulies does not give one single fuck. 👑 pic.twitter.com/zJENUA69Iy
— Michael (@michaelcollado) June 26, 2016
One way or another, most of the film-to-TV transplant actors talk about what a grueling endeavor it is. Kerry Washington said she took B-12 shots like a professional athlete while filming Scandal, something Lizzy Caplan also advised Dunst to do.
But that was just me being petty. There’s more to it.
For two (what awkward phrasing), TV isn’t about the spectacle.
Not like movies are. Not the ones most people mean when they compare a TV show to a movie, anyway.
Like, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves: most of the graphics on Game of Thrones are not great. They certainly don’t compare to a $300 million tentpole blockbuster.
And no one is watching Game of Thrones for that, right? (If they are, my whole argument falls flat here.)
People are watching Game of Thrones because they’re completely invested in the characters, the plot, and the intrigue of it all. I mean, it’s thrilling to see a dragon or a huge battle scene. But it’s hardly the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Game of Thrones.
The first thing that comes to mind is that Arya and Sansa need to be the final rulers of the thrones, tandem-style—natch.
Don’t get me wrong. Those huge scenes can be some of the most buzzed-about moments in TV when they happen. The hallway fight scene from Daredevil is a huge feat. When Will was seeing that monster in the schoolyard from the upside down on Stranger Things, I was anxiety-ridden. But TV shows aren’t built around those set pieces the way most popcorn flicks are.
And for good reason, too.
For three, you can’t do storytelling in movies like you can do it on TV.
TV storytelling is an art form. There’s a reason it’s my—and millions of other’s—favorite mode of storytelling. The medium commands telling stories differently.
On TV, everything’s got to be earned, or it’ll feel cheap. Every plot. Every character choice. And certainly every twist.
You couldn’t do Game of Thrones as a movie. You couldn’t even do it as several movies. There wouldn’t be enough time to tell all the intricate stories. It wouldn’t feel as devastating when Ned died and you had to wait a year to see how the show would continue without him.
Mainly, though, your TV series is not a movie because the best TV series build upon everything that’s happened before the current episode—and everything that will happen thereafter.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer season five episode 16 “The Body” could never have happened if it were several mini-movies. (Never mind that it was already a failed movie, and Joss Whedon knew it had to become a TV show for it to work.) “The Body” is a masterpiece in episodic television that devastates the audience because of the four previous years we’ve spent with the characters.
It’s heartbreaking because the death in the episode is not supernatural in any way. It’s this unordinary blip in the universe built by the show, a subversion on how Buffy Summers can’t save everyone around her from everything, particularly natural causes. And it’s also heartbreaking just because we feel very close to the characters affected. You don’t get close to characters in movies like you do with TV.
In The Good Wife season five episode five “Hitting the Fan” (an episode with higher stakes and more adrenaline than the Red Wedding, to be honest), the audience is shocked to its core when Alicia and Cary decide to go through with betraying their law firm and poaching clients. How will the series even overcome this? They’re destroying the very DNA of the show! It’s a huge moment in the series because it is 100 percent earned from every episode that came before it.
But it’s also thrilling in a way movies never are. Alicia Florrick is one of the most actualized television characters in the history of the medium. We know how she’ll respond to most situations. And watching her act as strong-willed, cold, and calculated as we expect fires on every single cylinder imaginable.
It’s one of the elements I love most about Jane the Virgin. Part of the entertainment, for me at least, comes from a sort-of dramatic irony. Sometimes there’s a scene without Jane Villanueva in it that reveals new information. It can be minor. Let’s say it’s that her baby’s father, Rafael, wants to invest in some new shady venture. The audience knows instantly how Jane will react to this. We anticipate the scene where inevitably the conflict needs to be hammered out. And strangely that’s part of the thrill.
Movies aren’t built for that deep knowledge the audience develops about characters. Not the ones where the audience instinctively knows how they’ll think, feel, or react to any given situation. This sort of actualization comes from spending years developing, honing, and writing a character. And it’s entertaining to see them placed in situations you’d never expect, too.
Imagine Breaking Bad as a movie. A man going from Mr. Chips to Scarface in 90 minutes or two hours is fine. But watching that ego grow larger, episode by episode, season by season, and all the fine-tuned reasons for why is what makes Breaking Bad the greatness it is. TV isn’t just for knowing characters inside-out; it’s also for giving them space to grow into people you’d never expect.
Wesley from Buffy the Vampire Slayer could never have become the badass in Angel through film. TV series like Mom could never explore topics like motherhood, substance abuse, and gambling addiction at length like they do on the small screen. Could you imagine Sansa Stark from season one doing what she did in season seven?
What people are saying when they say a season of some TV show is like “several mini-movies” is that for some reason TV shows are inherently inferior. But they’re not.
They may not always be blockbusters. They may not always have the budget. But TV storytelling is about connecting with your audience in intimate ways that sometimes movies can’t do. When I watched Crazy Rich Asians, I thought it could’ve been a great Game of Thrones-style TV show. (It really could have been! If you read the book, you know what’s up.) But it also works as a flashy, adventurous film. It’s not that one medium is inferior over the other; they’re suited for different kinds of stories. Some of us just tend to be biased toward one over the other. (Ahem, TV is better, tho.)
And, yeah, sometimes you just want to sit back with an easy-to-watch show and relax. Sometimes you just want to see the latest case happening on Law & Order: SVU. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s what TV is for.