(Author’s Note: I originally wrote a version of this article for a website called “Sucker Punch Cinema” that is now very much deceased. But it was a lovely place, I assure you, run by movie nuts whose cinematic obsessions would probably make junkies blanch. Because I spent the last article prattling on about ghosts, I thought it would be pretty and symmetrical to resurrect this particular corpse. So R.I.P. Sucker Punch Cinema. And welcome back to the land of the living, Therapy TV…)
- I’ve Seen That Movie, Too
Movies are unforgiving.
They’re life on speed. Cliff’s Notes abbreviating one fraction of one sliver of one fingernail of someone’s total life experience into a marketable quickie.
On average, they’re about two hours long: compact, easily digestible slices of entertainment. They’re meant to be swallowed in one big, thirsty gulp, more book than serial. They’re usually about a singular idea (more often than not, that idea relates to a film’s genre), and that idea lays the groundwork for a main character’s journey. The ideas and the journeys vary; we find characters learning to survive grisly scenarios of horror, finding love in hopeless places (thank you Rihanna), learning to laugh at life’s absurdities, etc. They’re getting over break-ups, they’re coming of age, they’re saving the city from megalomaniac comic book villains, and they’re doing it all rather quickly (in or around one hundred and twenty minutes, hot damn!). Doing ANY of those things in or around one hundred and twenty minutes is an impressive feat.
In fact, I could get the vicarious rush of saving Gotham City about six times in one day, and still have enough time to hop over to Metropolis for a cinematic go or two, and feel full: just absolutely, terribly full, because each one of those outings is a dinner. They’re not scrappy; they’re not celluloid Lunchables. Even the bad ones: they’re bad dinners, but they’re dinner all the same. Beginning, middle, end: peas, meat, dessert. Rinse, scrub, repeat. Et cetera.
And we’re not just talking mainstream entertainment: the moneyed ones, lubricated by the greasy veneer of popcorn butter. Oh, this applies to art house movies too, because they also have a time cap. They might be longer than mainstream films; they might be odder and quieter; they might dress in funny suits and pretend they’re smarter (the dinner might be better for you, but trust me when I say that you won’t get more drunk off that expensive glass of wine).
But they’re still, by their very nature, constrained: all bound up in structure, oven ready or microwavable because they are, once again, dinner.
They’re not eating in general; they’re just dinner. One dinner. A dinner.
So where am I going with this?
First of all, I’m hungry. I dunno if you can tell by all of the metaphors, but I’m apparently really hungry.
Second of all, none of this matters, unless you thought for some reason that your life was going to be a movie, and you’re realizing (the older you get) that your life can’t be like a movie, if not for the exclusive reason that your life is longer than a movie.
Even with commercials. Even if it’s all three Lord of the Rings films on TNT.
No, your life is more like TV.
Netflix has helped me realize this.
The Instant Queue (which I badly want to pronounce “kew-ee-oo-ee”), more specifically, where the posters for movies you might have otherwise watched now stare at you glumly from the bench.
You don’t have time to watch them, after all, because you’ve been crushed like a witch under a house by all the weight of whatever television show you’ve picked, all seven seasons of it, now available back-to-back-to-back-to-back…
Which leads me to…
- Movies and Television: Let’s Eat Each Other
So I’m that guy.
I used to think: “My life is like a movie!”
I’m not sure when that started. I’m not sure when little Me decided that I was the main character of some film that only I could see: a movie just for Me, starring Me, directed by Me. It’s like solipsism squeezed through the sprocket holes of my mind. Again, I’m not sure when that began, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it happened around the time I ditched religion, and film structure seemed an equally justifiable way to view life.
It saved a lot of ugly, nasty little questions from having to rear their lop-sided heads: for example, what’s the point? I mean, of all this? I don’t ever ask what’s the point when James Bond is trying to stop some lazy-eyed, cue balled cat guy from starting World War III from within the belly of his volcano layer. I don’t ask the point when Loyd Dobler is trying to woo that girl from Say Anything. I don’t ask what’s the point when Amy Steel is running from Jason Voorhees across Camp Crystal Lake (run, girl, run!) What’s the point? It’s a movie, it’s drama; I hope good wins and evil loses, I hope characters can achieve great things, I hope it’s funny and entertaining; inspiring and enlightening; even if it’s scary, I hope I take something from it.
I do, however, wonder what’s the point when I’m bubbling in some arbitrary Scantron test. I *don’t* if I think it’s an exciting scene in a movie: here’s a character with a lot of pressure riding him into the ground, trying to Vanquish the Evil Scantron. Maybe it’s an indie comedy: it’s ironic because it’s so meaningless, but he does it anyway, and I find hope in that. So at the end of the day, I am entertained. I am pleased.
So yeah, this is histrionic, but it is what it is.
See, when you allow any mythology to dominate your world view (religion, film, sports, whatever) slowly, you start to erode those ugly, nagging questions from inside of your brain. What’s the point? Who cares. The point is I’m good and my obstacles are evil. The point is victory; struggle and triumph and tears and drama, gosh darnit, good old fashioned drama. The point is to live such a successful life that it warrants a sequel.
Ah, but there lays the rub: sequelitus.
Because movies, my friend, have a Time Cap. They’re dinner. Beginning, middle, end, et cetera, et cetera.
So what happens when you reach the climax of your movie?
Well then, baby, it’s time for a sequel, where the main characters return again, but everything’s just a LITTLE bit different.
That’s what happened to me after high school.
I think the high school portion of my life was a pretty good movie. I learned to like me as a main character in my movie. I found an incredible group of friends, overcame tremendous(ly melodramatic) obstacles, and was even crowned Prom King (lets warm ourselves by the glow of pubescent accomplishments and shameless self-plugs, shall we?). It was a good Disney movie, the kind they say don’t happen in real life. Only it was real life; it was good real life, the best movie ever, and I knew, as high school ended, that the first movie was coming to a close.
The summer after senior year of high school was every summer-after-senior-year-of-high-school movie ever made, only it was better, because it was mine. Then college happened. And movie two started.
Now, sequels have a checkered history. For every Aliens and Dark Knight, you get one hundred Grease 2s. Luckily for me, College: The Movie was no slouch. Was it better than part 1? I mean, probably not, because part one was the Classic. It’s the old worn out VHS tape of my mind, and I’m not really sure what ever could top it. But College: The Movie was good. Critically well received. It’s the one where the girl I took to prom in the first film became my girlfriend; the one where I sort of stumbled my way into my future career. It’s the one that…ended already.
Maybe that’s the problem with part 2: it didn’t seem as long as part 1, didn’t seem as thick (maybe it’s because part 2 is surely on DVD, so I don’t have to manually rewind it every time I visit it like I do my VHS friend from high school…)
Whatever. The point is this: college is over and I’m in movie 3. And I’m freaking out.
Because movie 3 is just oh-so-rarely good.
Sometimes, they have a gimmick (Friday the 13th: 3D!), but they’re still not as good as their predecessors.
Sometimes they have no gimmick, but just flat out suck anyway (X-Men 3, Spider-man 3, Alien 3, etc. etc.)
Let’s jump out of the film metaphor for a moment: out of college, young twenty-something year old is an awkward, strange time in life, because you’ve just been born. Seriously, you’re minted fresh; you’ve just survived Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory of academia, and Vincent Price has replaced your scissored hands with real people hands. That was twenty something odd years of your life you spent gestating while other minds fervently furnished your own. They put all the pieces in place, unplugged you from the wall, and pressed “Go.”
But now…gee whiz, what do you do outside of your natural habitat? The classroom? If anything, the third movie Life After School most resembles is The Creature Walks Among Us, the one where the Creature from the Black Lagoon is taken from his aquatic home and turned into a human.
Granted the movie ends in tragedy; and, granted, it isn’t as good as the first film.
So, we realize something terrible: that maybe the first two movies ended too quickly, or maybe I’m still in the first movie and I don’t realize it (and it’s starting to drag structurally, because man, the climax was High School Prom), or maybe there IS only one movie, and it is your LIFE (and it’s incredibly long and a bit of a snooze fest at times…), or…
The movie analogy doesn’t work.
It just doesn’t. It’s as full of holes as religion is.
Because life isn’t like a movie. It isn’t always exciting. It isn’t tightly structured, full of quotable dialogue and well scripted scenes. Everything isn’t as slick. There are no montages. The main character spends an awful lot of time on the toilet (or asleep). Sure, it has all the good stuff (where do movies come from, after all?), but it’s more than the sum of its parts.
But that’s not really the point either.
Because I’m about to say “TV is a better metaphor”, but it really isn’t in those terms. Life isn’t like TV either: it isn’t full of snap, crackle, and pop. I mean, it’s there, just not all the time.
But life is like TV in one incredibly important way: TV is forgiving.
III. Judge, Jury, Executioner
If you’re the main character of a movie, you better be on your best behavior, because you only have ninety minutes to sort that shit out. You have to factor in subplots, too, so be wary. Granted, the main character of a movie doesn’t always have to be heroic, or inspirational, or even a good person: they can pull a King Lear and end up so far down the shit hole by the piece’s end that the eponymous title seems more a middle finger than a gesture of gratitude.
And it’s all good, because the audience will learn something from it, and apply it to their own lives: the tragedy, as text and as catharsis and as (let’s face it) schadenfreude, is invaluable.
But the fact is: more often than not, we want to watch someone we like.
Or: I want to watch someone I like. I want someone I can relate to, someone I don’t mind spending two hours with, someone who I can grow vicariously with, who reflects me in some way.
But, again, movies are unforgiving. If you’re that pencil pushing geeky dude who dooms the off-world colonies from Aliens, you don’t really have a lot of room for redemption. In fact, your character is built to die. The slasher movie formula applies here: cross any number of invisible red tape lines, and your character is canon fodder; meat for slash-happy Jason’s machete.
Really, it goes more like this: if you’re good in a movie, you generally stay good. If you’re bad, you stay bad.
Sure, sure, sure: you will be tested. But you’ll never do anything that out of character, never do anything to jeopardize your protagonist status.
Aladdin never screwed up so badly that we thought for a second he wouldn’t marry Jasmine and live happily ever after by the end (and that’s a rough example, because that guy lies a lot, I mean A LOT, but it’s all good). We never really doubted for a second that Spider-man would put his spidey tights on by the end of Spider-man 2, because that’s who he is: he’s the hero.
Likewise, Predator isn’t about to find redemption any time soon.
If redemption does occur in a movie, it happens Loudly and Lately and involves Death. For example, Darth Vader (SPOILER ALERT!) doesn’t make it through Return of the Jedi. Sure, he becomes a Good Guy by the end (even though he blew up a planet in A New Hope without hesitation, but somehow all is a forgiven when he throws a feeble old man down an elevator shaft…or whatever). But it comes at the cost of his life. Everything is Big in movies: and what’s Bigger than losing your Life?
The problem is (once more, with feeling): life is not like the movies.
Sometimes you realize (with creeping anxiety) that you’ve become the bad guy. In certain situations, you never were the “good guy”. You’re not a villain, but you’re not Luke Skywalker. You’re just…somebody. Full of complications and neuroses and mental bruising and all of the icky sticky things that movies generally don’t have the time to sort through.
Here’s an even easier way to say it: you’re not an archetype. You’re just somebody. You’re not always good, and you’re not always bad. But get this: you’re always struggling to do what’s right.
And, what is life, really, but a chronicling of your struggles?
And, really, that’s what television is: it’s the chronicling of someone’s struggles. Maybe (usually) a group of someones. Trying to do what’s right, trying to succeed in life, committed to making us laugh every week, or inspiring us in some way. It’s always up-and-down with a television character, much as it is in real life. It’s not committed to proving a point (like the text of a movie); it isn’t nearly so conclusive, so judgmental, so unforgiving.
No, television is exploratory.
I used to look down on TV. I thought it was fortune cookie entertainment: every week, you’d unwrap an episode to find that it had some clichéd message stamped on its commercial-ridden heart, meant to make you feel better and keep you dumber at the same time.
They never said anything really profound, I always thought, not like in the movies.
Then I started watching TV. Good TV.
I started watching Joss Whedon’s stuff (Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular), and BBC’s Sherlock, and How I Met Your Mother, and revisiting Arrested Development. More recently I blew through the West Wing and Parks and Recreation (here’s a laundry list of shows I like, guys!) and I realized along the way that (a) I’ve spent much of my life wearing judgmental snob pants, and (B) these shows have more to say to me now than most of the movies I’ve seen recently.
Sure, their length makes them sort of sloppy; they aren’t as easy to pick apart and dissect as films are, but in a way, that’s exactly what I want and need right now in my life. Stuff that’s messy and long and continually evolving.
Because that’s life; or, as close to life as media’s ever going to get.
When I finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer it was incredible. Seven seasons of kick-ass confusion. Just total character exploration. Are Buffy and her friends always good? Hell no: you’ve got vampires losing and regaining their souls like they’re trying on shoes, characters coming and going just as people enter and leave your real life. Sometimes characters do things for totally selfish reasons; sometimes they get tired, or annoyed, or angry, or even hateful. They fight each other. At times, they even hate each other. But they’re always trying. They’re our protagonists if for no other reason than because they struggle to do the right thing.
Achievement is great, but to struggle is Divine.
That’s what it means to be human.
And the kicker is this (and this is why I’m singling out that show from all the others): it begins in high school, and ends in that awkward post-college twenty-something area of life I was talking about earlier.
At first, I liked the high school seasons of Buffy more, because I thought they were generally more clever, and they dropped me into this warm nostalgic coma, pining for those old high school days I liked so much. Buffy nails what it’s like to be in high school, I think, better than any show or movie I’ve ever seen: what high schooler doesn’t feel like they’re fighting a losing battle against some sort of impending evil?
But then I got into the post high-school stuff. The college stuff, and beyond, and I realized I like it way more. It isn’t nostalgic for me: it’s just big and loud and messy, often times uncomfortable, mostly unpredictable, and overall enormously confusing. The villains aren’t as clear cut, (again) the heroes aren’t entirely heroic, the road ahead seems littered with the awful little inevitabilities of life’s maturation; innocence and naiveté seem doomed, staked in the heart and left for dead.
And yet, our main characters persist. They plow through. They get better. They aren’t defined by the limited timeframe of a two hour film, or the crude sketches afforded by dramatic archetypes. They aren’t limited to nostalgia. They are defined by their change.
They are dynamic, and what more could a protagonist want?
Life is change over time.
Television allows for more time and more change than any film (or film series) could possibly hope to duplicate. Good TV uses those ingredients to create magic.
And honestly, that magic is therapeutic. It says that when you screw up, as the main character of your TV show (and NOT your movie), that you’ll get over it. It won’t come without a struggle, but you’ll eventually get over it, and you will grow with it. I mean, you can’t go for very long on a TV show and NOT screw up, but we’ll always be there with you, week after week, learning and growing together. And that’s the other nice thing: you’re not doing it alone. You’ve got your Scooby Gang, or your group of friends at the bar, or your Watson (or your Winston, because New Girl is the best). Your goofy loft mates, your (dysfunctional) family. You’ve got your group, your whole ensemble. They’re going to grow too. They’re going to change with you.
Sure, some seasons will be better than others; you’ll have your favorite episodes and your least favorite episodes, the arcs that warm your heart and the ones that make you cry.
When it’s all said and done, hopefully you’ll have a long library of exciting episodes to look back upon with amazement; amazed that you’ve come this far, amazed at who’s still around, and at how they’ve all changed.
And finally, the most magical thing of all will happen: the TV show will become a movie.
And by that point, you’ll be screwed, because the show will either already be cancelled, or it’ll be close to cancellation, and the movie will inevitably pale in comparison to the original show…
But you know what?
It’s been a fun ride.
And what more could you ask for?